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Palo Alto companies making strides in hiring people with disabilities

Employees with disabilities are slowly gaining greater entry into Silicon Valley companies, but still have far to go

Read Companies still grappling with hiring people with disabilities

Read State moves to improve work opportunities, pay for disabled workers


Twenty-five years after the federal enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that was created to end discrimination against people with disabilities has failed to produce more employment, according to a U.S. Department of Labor Statistics report.

In 1989, the year before the ADA went into effect, a Harris poll found that only 29 percent of persons 18 to 64 years old who had disabilities worked full or part time compared with 79 percent of working-age people without disabilities.

But 25 years later, a dismal 17.1 percent of persons with a disability who want to work were employed in 2014, compared with 64.6 percent for persons without a disability, according to the June 16 Department of Labor report. The majority of jobs for persons with a disability are also still low paying, the report noted. And persons with a disability were nearly twice as liking as their non-disabled counterparts to be working only part time.

But despite the discouraging statistics, some Palo Alto companies are making strides in hiring people with disabilities, with the help of Palo Alto area nonprofits.

Software giant SAP is at the forefront. By 2020, the company plans to hire people with an autism spectrum disorder to make up one percent of its worldwide workforce, about 650 people. SAP has even changed the way it interviews and trains to accommodate people with a disability.

Both SAP and electric-vehicle maker Tesla Motors are using disability advocates to guide programs that will make the hires successful for the employee and employer. That partnership often includes recruitment, company sensitivity awareness and job coaching with follow-ups to troubleshoot issues as they arise.

Palo Alto-based Abilities United is one of the agencies working with companies to hire employees with disabilities. The nonprofit organization opened its Employment Services program in 1991, shortly after the 1990 ADA enactment. Since then, it has placed more than 400 people in Bay Area jobs. The clients' salaries range from minimum wage to more than $100,000 annually, according to Sohelia Razban, director of adult services and respite.

Abilities United now partners with about 120 employers, including Cisco, Homewood Suites, Safeway, Stanford University and Tesla Motors.


Brett Carmody, who has autism, works in Tesla Motors' auto-detailing department. Carmody, who has worked for the company for two years and 11 months, is an Abilities United client. He was detailing for other auto dealers, but he really wanted to work for Tesla, Razban said.

His supervisor, Greg MacDonald, said that Carmody is excellent at preparing the new cars for customers. He cleans the vehicles inside and out, and then adds a large bow to the roof. When the car is driven out to the customer, it's Carmody who most often finds the appropriate keys. Because he remembers numbers in series so well, he can find anything in the mound of tags and keys. It's a job nobody wants, and it's one he enjoys, MacDonald said.

"It'll take me twice as long to do it, and he's right on it," MacDonald added.

Tall and gentle, Carmody has an infectious sense of humor and greets visitors with a large grin. He loves the detailing, and he'll remove a speck of lint that no one else would notice, Services Manager Gary Nakasu said.

Sometimes his disability can be challenging, Nakasu admitted. Carmody has an aversion to white cars, and it can be difficult for him to work on them. He is also improving his focus and practicing techniques to calm himself from time to time.

To help him stay motivated and on task, the department started an incentive program. Co-workers cut a laminated photo of a metallic-blue Tesla sedan into three pieces. Each day, Carmody must perform three tasks satisfactorily to receive a part of the car: arrive at work by 8:45 a.m.; complete his daily tasks; and stay productive with a good attitude.

When he receives all three parts, he gets to put a small image of the whole vehicle on a chart. If Carmody has whole cars for the entire week, he gets 15 minutes of extra time at lunch. If he racks up two good weeks in a row, he gets to take a real Tesla car and a co-worker to lunch. So far, the rewards program is effective, MacDonald said.

Before hiring Carmody, Nakasu didn't have any idea of what it would take to accommodate a person with a disability. And he admitted, he had preconceived ideas that proved to be wrong.

"Before meeting Brett, I thought of people with disabilities only on the mental disability side. I didn't think they would be able to communicate. I always felt they can do only certain tasks, and it can't be too complex," he said.

It's important to find the employee's specialty but not pigeonhole the person, he said.

"If somebody's good with numbers, maybe you put them in the parts department," he said.

But with the proper training, someone such as Carmody could potentially become a manager, Nakasu said. Tesla has many departments in which a person with a disability can work.

Over time, Nakasu has altered how he manages Carmody, who will take what people say very literally. If Nakasu asked him not to place a bottle of water on the edge of a desk, Carmody would think Nakasu was only referring to that particular corner, and he would just move it to another corner. Nakasu learned to explain why one wouldn't put the bottle on a corner where it could be knocked over and spilled, he said.

Abilities United has supplied a job coach, Hanh Nguyen, to help train Carmody and troubleshoot any issues that arise.

Nakasu said the relationship has worked out well — so well that he did not hesitate to take part in a promotional video for the Abilities United Employment Services program.

"I plan to make Abilities United a regular hiring source," he said, adding that he has been approached by regional managers at other Tesla service centers who want to try out the program.

The biggest thing he has learned while working with Carmody is patience, he added.

To bosses who might think they don't have the time for an employee who doesn't fit the mold, Nakasu says he has a philosophy he uses when managing all employees: A manager's role is taking care of his or her employees, he said.

"Everybody has different abilities," he said "You're just a big coach on a big team trying to figure out each person."


When SAP set out to hire people with disabilities through its Autism at Work program, it also changed the way it interviews and trains candidates. For starters, the software company — whose products are currently used for sports analytics, military planning, and aerospace and defense — foregoes traditional verbal interviews.

Instead, it gives candidates one week of training in soft skills, such as communication, social etiquette and how to disclose to co-workers that they have autism.

It uses Legos and Lego Mindstorms on a computer to see how candidates follow a graphical set of instructions to build and program a robot with a set of sensors to make it run around on the floor.

The company follows the Lego session with a one-on-one "meet and greet" to discern why the candidates want a particular job.

During a subsequent five-week pre-employment training course, candidates again use Lego Mindstorms. Afterward, they make a PowerPoint presentation for the hiring managers. They also receive an assignment from a potential hiring manager in their area of expertise, said Jose Velasco, vice president of operations and strategy and head of the program in the United States.

SAP has held three hiring rounds so far using the methodology.

Joe Cintas, a quality specialist, was hired through the program. He has worked since April 2014 with SAP's Project Build, which creates prototypes for different applications, he said.

Cintas has a degree in environmental studies from San Jose State University. He previously worked as a Safeway cashier. He had no prior engineering experience, but he is very, very good with numbers, he said. It didn't take him long to catch on, and now he detects deficiencies in the company's programming. It's a highly detail-oriented process, he said, and the work has been fulfilling.

"It makes me feel like I actually have a career putting out a product that's actually going to mean something to customers and the company," he said.

Initially, SAP envisioned hiring persons with autism to do software testing, which would use some of their specialized skills, such as attention to detail. But the company found there weren't enough quality-assurance jobs, so they started looking at other openings.

The company found 14 roles in the company, including IT, technical, systems analysis, marketing, operations, media communications and data analysis, Velasco said. Compensation packages "are competitive with the industry," he added.

In the past two years, the company has implemented the pilot program in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland and the United States. Managers say the teams are more cohesive because of the program, he said, and SAP plans to implement it as a companywide standard.

Velasco said the program is supported by the company's CEO and its board of directors. "But it is also driven by a grass-roots group of employees who volunteer their time to make the program a success."

The program had its early origins in India in 2012 through a local group of volunteers who first donated their time and talents to a nonprofit organization that catered to the needs of people with autism. This evolved into hiring four people with autism in software testing. This program was then brought to the attention of SAP's global chief diversity and inclusion officer. He took the local initiative and partnered with Specialisterne (a Danish nonprofit group that has developed the disability-adaptive hiring and training methods), announcing the one percent global objective, Velasco said.

"Our program is based in our diversity and inclusion vision and our need for the best talent, which includes those in the autism spectrum. We believe that it is because of our differences and not in spite of them that we will be able to provide richer and more rewarding solutions to our customers," he added.

SAP has hired 16 people with autism spectrum disorder in the Bay Area so far, and about half work in Palo Alto.

Velasco said it has been an "extremely positive" experience.

"People are doing a fantastic job," he said.

One employee created a new software program that saved SAP $40 million, he added.

Other Fortune 500 companies are taking notice. Several have reached out to SAP to learn more about the program so they can implement it at their companies, Velasco added.

SAP partners with the California Department of Rehabilitation, Specialisterne and Expandability, a San Jose-based nonprofit that helps recruit and train employees with disabilities.

SAP is a model employer, disabilities job advocates said.

"They are the ones who have looked at disability employment and are really seeing it as a value. There are very few examples like SAP," said Martha Artiles, president of Silicon Valley Business Leadership Network, an employer-led nonprofit organization that offers education, training and resources to help businesses include people with disabilities in the workforce and marketplace.


Changing corporate culture to be inclusive is the biggest challenge to progress in hiring people with disabilities, Artiles said.

"It's not the same way as race and gender and age are within diversity conversations. It's frustrating, very frustrating. Disability needs to be seen as important as these other dimensions of diversity, but it is often missing in the vision of diversity," she said.

But change is happening: Even a prominent company that had violated the ADA in the past has quietly changed its culture to include people with disabilities, not only in its facilities, but in the workplace.

When the U.S. Department of Justice sued the 900-hotel Hilton Worldwide Inc. for failing to make its rooms and reservations systems accessible to persons with disabilities, the result was a settlement in November 2010, whereby the hotel chain agreed to upgrade all of its hotels built after Jan. 26, 1993. It surveyed and required its franchises and managed hotels to comply with the ADA, installed a disabilities-accessible reservation system, appointed a national ADA-compliance officer to oversee its operations and provided specific ADA training for staff, according to the Department of Justice.

Today, general managers such as Matt Dolan, who supervises Palo Alto's new Homewood Suites on El Camino Real, have taken the changes to heart.

"Now ADA is integrated into everything we do. It's a mindset," he said. "Hilton is dedicated to hiring the right person for the job. It's color blind and ability blind. ... Any position I have open they can be a part of: food and beverage, housekeeping, front desk. They could be a manager or supervisor. The option is available."

Hilton is also making an effort to hire veterans, some of whom are disabled, he added.

Since Homewood Suites' March opening, Dolan has hired three people through Abilities United. Two are currently on staff, and he has requested candidates for other positions.

Soft spoken and affable, Dolan, whose late brother had special needs, said he understood the challenges for the employee with disabilities and the employer.

Joel Martinez, a morning server in the dining room, was recommended by Abilities United. He has worked for Homewood Suites for seven weeks. Courteous and soft spoken, he has a welcoming manner that makes guests feel comfortable.

With coaching from Abilities United, Martinez is working toward living independently. He is moving from his parents' home into his own housing, focusing on planning his budget, working on cooking and food preparation and learning to drive.

"It's exciting," he said. And the job at Homewood, he added, "makes me feel good."

Martinez washes dishes, cleans tables and restocks the kitchen. Prior to working at Homewood, he worked in a grocery store and at a restaurant, so he fit well in a food and beverage operation, Dolan said.

"The biggest challenge with Joel is that he clocks in and he goes straight to work," Dolan said, grinning. "Even with all of the challenges — with the ebb and flow of employees and working with somebody you get to know and then they leave and everything is brand new — Joel has adapted like a champ. Joel's consistent; he's here on time; he's reliable and steady; he's honest and hard working.

"We never have to say, 'Where is Joel? Is Joel curled up sleeping in the hamper with the warm towels again?' Those things do happen (with other employees)," Dolan said.

Dolan said the jobs he has staffed with Abilities United clients were previously challenging to fill. The positions are during the hotel's busiest hours, and other employees have not stayed. But Martinez and employee Devon Walker have resolved Dolan's dilemma, he said.

Walker, the night houseman, has been on the job 10 weeks. While guests sleep, he cleans the spaces, closes and cleans the pool, and sets out the new towels so guests who want to take an early dip will find everything ready.

Walker is asking Dolan all of the time for little items he believes will make things just right.

Dolan recalled the first day of Walker's employment: "In the morning when I walked in, I could tell he had been here. The pool was organized and when the sun came up, all of the chairs were in place. It's everything that gives you that first impression in the morning, and it's just so nice."

He added that he is greatly please with the partnership.

But he acknowledged there is still much work before businesses will overcome their preconceived notions about employing people with disabilities.

"For employers, if they aren't comfortable, there is a fear of uncertainty. If someone is not familiar, hiring them can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it can have so many variables. But from an employment standpoint, everybody's got a special need. (All employees) have certain skills they can and can't do. It's just bridging that gap. But employers often don't think of it that way. It's 'Do (we) take the risk?'

"Even with managers here there was a hesitancy. It was not verbalized, but it was there. I just pushed it," he said.

U.S. Department of Labor predicts work opportunities for 2012-2022

Top occupations employing people with disabilities in California


Motor vehicle operators

Crossing guards

Ushers, lobby attendants or ticket takers

Tax examiners, collectors or revenue agents

Tax preparers

Refuse and recyclable material collectors

Top 20 occupations with greatest expected growth for the disabled

Occupation | Median wage

Personal-care aides | $19,910

Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides | $23,151

Janitors and building cleaners | $22,352

Food preparation and food service, including fast food | $18,260

Secretaries and administrative assistants | $36,162

Retail sales | $21,110

Laborers, freight, stock and material movers | $23,890

Registered nurses | $65,470

Driver/sales workers and truck drivers | $34,550

Customer-service representatives | $30,580

Maids and housekeeping cleaners | $19,570

Construction labor | $29,990

Cooks | $20,550

Childcare workers | $19,510

Carpenters | $39,940

Post-secondary teachers | $62,390

Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks | $35,170

Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses | $41,540

Security guards and gaming surveillance $24,020

Grounds maintenance | $24,161

Ten highest-paying occupations requiring college degree with greatest expected growth

Occupation | Wage | Job prevalence (estimated)

Registered nurses | $65,470 | 3.5%

Post-secondary teachers | $62,390 | 3.9%

General operations managers | $95,440 | 3.6%

Elementary and middle school teachers | $53,420 | 3.2%

Counselors | $44,040 | 5.5%

Social workers | $44,200 | 5.2%

Accountants and auditors | $63,550 | 3.2%

Management analysts | $78,600 | 3.8%

Software developers, applications and systems software | $93,617 | 2.0%

Computer systems analysts | $79,680 | 3.2%

Ten highest-paying occupations, not requiring college degree, with greatest expected growth

Occupation | Wage | Job prevalence (estimated)

Secretaries and administrative assistants | $36,162 | 4.8%

Carpenters | $39,940 | 5.5%

Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks | $35,170 | 5.7%

Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses | $41,540 | 5.9%

Maintenance and repair workers, general | $35,210 | 6.9%

First-line supervisors, office and administrative support | $49,330 | 4.4%

First-line supervisors, construction trades and extraction workers | $59,700| 5.7%

Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing | $58,486 | 3.8%

Electricians| $49,840 | 5.1%

Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters | $47,460 | 5.8%

==I * Defined as an individual who has a physical, mental or emotional condition that causes serious difficulty with one or more major life activities.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and American Community Survey 2==

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7 people like this
Posted by Hope
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2015 at 9:54 am

The challenges of different disabilities are very different from case to case. In addition to employment, there is also the hostile housing climate that destroys any universal design and inclusionary housing principles for the disabled in favor of development interests to densify.

People with "invisible" disabilities are even more hard pressed to find work because of healthcare costs coming back to employers, as well as a general misunderstanding about health-related disability. There are almost no resources to help, and government resources are Potemkin villages. New technology should be helping but biases and negative stereotyping are a huge hurdle, in addition to the utter lack if support and resources. I remember a supervisor walking by with a resume of a really strong candidate. He then teased out a gap, was silent for a moment ans said, "I'll bet this was a disability leave" and the resume went right in the circular file.

Abilities United is amazing but don't address that segment. Rehabilitation resources are not available to people who are not fully well, even though technology today could make up for a lot.

Anyway, great story. There is a lot of work to do to solve this problem of employment for people with disabilities. Glad to see some local companies making sone first efforts.

2 people like this
Posted by Marcie
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 25, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Our son is disabled so we are very aware of the lack of job opportunities. Our big disappointment has been with the City of Palo Alto. Our son has always been reliable and a perfectionist about things being put in order. When he was younger he applied to the city libraries as a volunteer shelf-er. He did this more than once and never received a reply. I believe he was not considered due to his childish handwriting. Later with the help of a job coach he applied for a paid opening at the libraries and again never heard back. I honestly believe that the city wouldn't even consider a disabled person for a job. No, Ada Cafe doesn't count because it was designed for the disabled.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 25, 2015 at 8:38 pm

Wonderful story paloaltoonline! Great work abilities United! I will always choose Hilton. Thank you SAP and Tesla and others.

1 person likes this
Posted by Hope
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2015 at 8:22 am

Thank you to Sue Dremann for such a solid article, for not making it "inspiration porn" (very good TED talk about that) but informative about the problem and who is acting

This says so much:
""It's not the same way as race and gender and age are within diversity conversations. ... Disability needs to be seen as important as these other dimensions of diversity, but it is often missing in the vision of diversity," "

I hope there will be more. Perhaps about "invisible"/health disabilities and the challenges of getting help and "passing", and how technology can help or hinder. Or about universal design in our city scape and building (currently almost nonexistent - the disabled are treated like an afterthought). Or an update on what our schools are doing to accommodate kids with health disabilities since that article about how poorly they dealt with the young man who had Crohn's or ulceritive colitis.

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