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Partnership Focuses on Autism

Microsoft knows first-hand the excellence of the STEM disciplines at Illinois, thanks to its director of university relations, three-time alumnus Harold Javid. In hopes of gaining more outstanding employees, the company funded a year-long initiative called Accessibility Lighthouse Program that seeks to build a clear career path for students on the autism spectrum.


According to the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, young adults with autism have the lowest rate of employment compared to young adults with other disabilities. Because people on the autism spectrum typically have difficulty with communication and social interactions, they may not perform well during conventional employment interviews. Indeed, the Drexel Institute found that young adults on the autism spectrum with the highest level of conversation skills are far more likely to have worked than those with the lowest conversation skills.


Companies are beginning to recognize that their hiring practices may be shutting out a large pool of talented individuals. In 2015, Microsoft launched a hiring program designed specifically to identify and recruit individuals on the autism spectrum who have the necessary qualifications to fill open positions.


Now the company is hoping to encourage more young adults on the autism spectrum to enter science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields, with an eye toward increasing the hiring pipeline of these students to Microsoft. To accomplish these goals, Microsoft has invested $200,000 in the Accessibility Lighthouse Program, a year-long collaboration of the College of Applied Health Sciences, the Department of Computer Science, and The Autism Program, a community-focused program of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and the Department of Special Education.


Launched in June, the program developed from conversations among Illinois alumnus and current Microsoft director of university relations Harold Javid, who earned three degrees in engineering, Katheryne Rehberg, associate director of the University’s Office of Corporate Relations, and Pat Malik, director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), as well as a series of campus visits by Microsoft executives with faculty across campus.


In addition to recruiting more students on the autism spectrum to STEM fields, the program is funding the creation of a state-of-the-art digitally accessible classroom using Microsoft tools such as Office 365 and Translator. The Accessibility Lighthouse Project also provides for two graduate fellows in the College of Applied Health Sciences who are focused on increasing awareness of the importance of accessibility, and a graduate assistant in DRES who provides career support services to autistic students.


Accessibility advocates

Both Megan Bayles and Tim Yang have experience in the area of disability, which spurred their interest in applying for the Microsoft Digital Accessibility Graduate Fellowship Program. Megan, a master’s student in Dr. Wendy Rogers’ Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, worked with people with disabilities and older adults as an undergraduate student in psychology at Florida State University. Among her research interests are the use of technology to address social isolation and technology acceptance. Tim is a doctoral student in Dr. Yih-Kuen Jan’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Laboratory. He began studying the design of wheelchairs for maximum comfort, health, and usability during his undergraduate studies in computer science at the University of Central Oklahoma. His current research seeks to leverage human factors engineering to develop user-centered smart wheelchairs.


As Lighthouse Program Fellows, Megan and Tim are enrolled in the Information Accessibility Design and Policy online certificate program offered by AHS, which consists of three courses on understanding disability and assistive technology, creating and procuring accessible electronic materials, and designing accessible web resources. They are applying their learning toward developing a manual to help professors make classrooms and courses more accessible and an instructional module about accessibility for new teaching assistants. Dr. Jeff Woods, director of the Center on Health, Aging, and Disability, says the role of the Fellows is that of accessibility advocates on campus.


“Many people are not aware of the importance of digital access and of providing students with multiple ways to access course information,” he said. “Even though the Lighthouse Program is targeting students on the autism spectrum, making courses more accessible will undoubtedly help other students as well.”


In addition to increasing awareness, Tim and Megan will work with a professor to revise a course with accessibility in mind with the ultimate goal of assessing whether adjustments impact instructor and course evaluations.

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Making the transition to work

Digital accessibility is the bailiwick of Dr. Jon Gunderson, coordinator of the DRES Accessible Information Technology Group. The Lighthouse Project included funding for part-time student workers to continue development of open source web accessibility evaluation tools including the AInspector Sidebar add-on for Firefox browser and Functional Accessibility Evaluator (FAE) 2.0. Dr. Gunderson is the primary software developer of the open source OpenAjax Accessibility Evaluation library used in   AInspector Sideber and FAE 2.0 to evaluate web content for W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A and AA requirements. 


DRES also received funding for a half-time graduate assistant to provide career services to students on the spectrum. Adrienne Pickett, a PhD student in educational policy studies, will serve in that position until the Lighthouse Program ends in June 2019. She is organizing workshops on career-related topics including disability disclosure and counsels individual students on how to improve their job application materials.


Last summer, Adrienne developed a survey about summer employment for students served by DRES. Pat Malik says it’s important for people with disabilities, including autism, to experience what it’s like to be an employee.


“Some of our students haven’t had the opportunity to flip burgers at a fast-food restaurant or serve as lifeguards at the community pool,” she said, “so they haven’t had the opportunity to find out what is expected in order to get a paycheck, things such as getting to work on time, working with coworkers you don’t like, persevering when work is boring, and so on.”


Dr. Malik says about 125 students on the autism spectrum are currently registered with DRES and seek many of the same services other students with disabilities access, such as individual therapy to cope with struggles they have socially or academic coaching to help them organize course materials or prioritize work. Since not all students on the spectrum register with DRES, Dr. Malik believes it is important to educate career service providers across campus about working with autistic students. DRES is working with The Autism Program and The Career Center at Illinois to offer a campus-wide workshop on employing people with autism this spring.


She also views the Lighthouse Program as an opportunity to learn more from Microsoft about supporting people with autism. Through peer mentoring, team building exercises, organized social events, and other special programs, she says the company “walks the walk” when it comes to having a diverse workforce in which employees with autism and other disabilities are fully integrated. She is looking forward to continuing the collaboration that was initiated through the Accessibility Lighthouse Program to identify and develop new ways of helping students with disabilities make the transition to employment.


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