Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Software company stereotypes those with autism and says it's okay to exploit them

As originally reported on the autism jabberwocky blog, The Los Angeles software company, Square One, is in the process of trying to help three different autistic people find employment as software testers. They have a pilot program in which these three people will be trained.

This has been reported in a business week article.

The article starts out with the annoying stereotype of all autistic people having intellectual superpowers and having savant skills and memorizing train tables and having Jerry Newport type calendar skills where they can tell you the day of the week you were born on.

Square One's efforts, however, are not unprecedented. The Danish company Specialisterne has also trained autistic people to be software testers. Another company in Chicago, Aspiritech, has employed persons with autism to test smartphone applications.

The difference lies in the fact that in socialist Denmark, which enjoys high revenue from Northern sea oil drilling, the funds were provided for this company. It is improbable that the U.S. government would fund an upstart like this. Aspiritech is currently a nonprofit company.

Square one aspires to be the first company to make a profit from the labor of exclusively ASD software testers. Is anything wrong with this? After all, it's the American way we're told. This is what happens in a capitalistic society such as the U.S.A.

However, CEO Chad Hahn states:
A lot of software testing is done overseas by workers in India. The case Hahn makes is that his software testers will work for $15 to $20 an hour—pay comparable to, or even lower than, that of software testers in India, but right here in the U.S. After all, he points out, people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.
When Hahn was asked if he sees this as exploitive the article states:
he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.
“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”

The comparison between Indian software testers and American autistics who do the same thing is moot. The standard of living in India is lower than in the U.S. The Indian making $25/hour can probably live like the $75-100/hour American.

It's these kind of bigoted stereotypes and attitudes that it's okay to exploit people that help make things worse for those of us on the spectrum.

As a person on the spectrum with no intellectual superpowers or savant skills, I find the stereotypes from the article offensive.

The article stated that Hahn's wife does some sort of work with developmentally disabled people. Are the Hahns doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, or do they see some easy way to make money off the backs of those less fortunate than themselves?

I wonder how much they understand about the problems of the developmentally disabled in the workplace. Are non-handicapped employees going to put up with bad behavior and social skills. Or maybe this is a test of Ari Ne'eman's theory that social skills in the workplace don't matter.

Time will tell if this plan pans out for Square One.


Chad Hahn said...

My name is Chad Hahn. I'm a principal at Square One Solutions, the company referenced in the BusinessWeek article. I'd like to clear up some severe misrepresentations that the author made in regard to the program we're trying to develop.

First I would like to make our goals with this burgeoning program very clear: Our primary goal is philanthropic.

Our program is a pilot that takes young adults with developmental disabilities who have no formal education or background in computer science, and we are training them on how to test software. These are people who cannot find steady or consistent employment, and we're trying to find new opportunities for them. We’re currently training our 3 software testers using our own facilities and donating our own time. We do this because we think it is important to do social good, and we see an opportunity to incorporate those on the autism spectrum, especially the high functioning population, into our industry.

There is some controversy around our interest in making this program a for-profit initiative. Our interest in the for-profit model is driven by the market. Our direct competitors will be offshore software testing companies--hence the service rate needs to stay competitive with their standard rate of around $25 / hr. Part of the income will be used to provide facilities and accommodations for the employees' special needs, as well as any support staff. We are still in the early stages of determining the wage structure, but whatever it may be, the motivation is to come up with a model that will make this a successful and viable business in the marketplace.

Whether this program ends up being for-profit or nonprofit, our intention is to make this a separate entity. If it is a for-profit initiative, Square One will not see a dime of profit. Profit can be pooled and distributed to the employees since we intend for them to be the shareholders of the company. If, however, a for-profit initiative runs into potential conflicts with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we will go with the non-profit route. We are still learning.

Regardless of the business structure or wages, we must not forget the main point of all this -- we're creating a training program that provides opportunities for those with disabilities while unlocking their under-utilized potential. There is an opportunity to a.) Create Jobs, b.) For people with disabilities, c.) In the United States. And we intend to pursue it.

As Jonathan mentioned in his blog, my wife has been working with the developmentally disabled population for about 6 years. I came up with this idea as a way to help solve one of the pain points she consistently talk about - that people with disabilities cannot find jobs. There is no money in this for us--we're just trying to do our part for society.

jonathan said...

I just got this in an email also from Mr. Hahn. I am glad to have him represent his side of the story. Perhaps I misjudged him, I don't know. But I'm still curious why Business Week quoted him as saying it was fine to pay the autistic person less even than the worker in India, at least after they are properly trained to do the job.

Chad Hahn said...

Hi Jonathan--in regard to you question about why I was quoted as saying it is fine to pay an autistic worker less than an Indian worker, I posted a long comment on the Jabberwocky blog explaining how I was misquoted by the BW author. I'll post the same explanation here.

For our endeavor to work, we feel we have to price the testing services to customers in such a way that it is attractive enough for them to switch from an offshore company to our new company. Right now offshore COMPANIES get paid roughly $25 / hr to perform software testing for businesses. The author misquoted me by saying offshore Indian EMPLOYEES make $25 / hr. In truth they make far less, since Indian companies have to account for overhead and profit. I never said our testers with developmental disabilities should make less than people in India, and even at $15 / $20 per hour in wages, they would likely make more than those in India.

Even though the average offshore testing rate is roughly $25 / hr for businesses to pay, the effective rate is usually much higher. This is because offshore testers tend to be less productive than local testers, mostly due to timezone and cultural differences. This means it might take an offshore tester longer than a local tester for the same task, making the effective hourly rate for a business somewhere around $35 / hr.

Therefore, we believe the price point of $35 / hr is what we might be able to charge businesses for our testing services. With these fees, we will pay for continuous training, specialized office space with facilities catering to special needs (my wife is thinking about putting healthy food in the kitchen, setting up social activities, quiet rooms, 20 hour work weeks, etc).

With the rest of the money, we will offer the highest wages possible. Our assumption is the wage will be $15 / $20 an hour, which is what you read in the BW article. The author made it sound as if we could pay our disabled testers more, but were choosing not to simply because the wage would be higher than what they get paid today. I explained the entire pricing and cost breakdown to him, and he completely misrepresented it.

Let me be clear—our expectation on the wage we can pay our testers is not based on how little we think we can pay them because of their condition. It is based on the highest amount we think we can pay them based on what businesses might be willing to pay for their services.

We haven’t even gotten our first client yet. Until we do, we won’t know exactly what we can pay the testers, so all of this is speculation.

When I approached people in the disabled community about this model, none of them thought it was exploitative. The parents I spoke to had autistic children who either weren’t working at all or were working for minimum wage. Their children had no good options, so our model sounded promising because it would a.) teach their children a new skill and b.) pay them a higher wage than they would otherwise expect. Here again, the BW author botched what I said, making it sound like it’s okay to pay someone a lower wage because it’s better than the alternative.

If there is any question about what we’re trying to do, I invite you or your readers to come visit our office or give us a call (our phone number is on our website). We'd be happy to show anyone what we're doing.

JediKnight2 said...

Although I'm aware many on the autism spectrum don't possess any savant or special skills, I, for one, don't have any and never will due to my MRELD.

Michelle Hammond said...

My question is how would one get there high functioning Autistic individual into this program. My Son whom is 20 does thing with a computer I can only dream of & I took programing when I was in high school for cobal & fortran also did cad so I am by no means computer stupid...

My name Is Michelle & I can be contacted @

Anonymous said...

My son is graduating with a Computer degree in May in Illinois from ISU. HE is Aspergers. He will be 24 in April. He was diagnosed in 1999. WE are hoping he finds a job. Please offer any ideas. Thanks

Yuval said...

I once told you about ULTRA testing. It is the same crap, only $15/hr, 20 hours a week MAXIMUM. Even if I get the job, I'm not sure if I really want it.