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How employers are tapping talents of disabled workers

A flier announcing job openings sits on a table during a career fair at the Southeast Community Facility Commission on May 21, 2014 in San Francisco, Calif.
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A flier announcing job openings sits on a table during a career fair at the Southeast Community Facility Commission on May 21, 2014 in San Francisco, Calif.

A long-overlooked player in the American workplace is finally getting some extra attention: The disabled worker.

In March 2014, the Department of Labor updated its requirements regarding the recruitment, hiring, promotion and workplace retention of individuals with disabilities. The legislation, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, sets a utilization goal of 7 percent and aims to meaningfully change the prospects of disabled workers in the U.S.

But the increased recognition isn't all about affirmative action. Some disabled workers with specific neurological capabilities are becoming increasingly valuable to employers for a different reason: global competition. Traits like extreme mathematical, scientific and mechanical aptitude are so coveted by certain industries that accompanying conditions, such as social anxiety, have become an accepted part of the equation.

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"The number of strengths that are common to the autistic brain is something that can be leveraged toward vocational advancement," noted Ari Ne-eman,president of the Autistic Self-AdvocacyNetwork (ASAN) in Washington DC and a member of the National Council on Disability. "Our society has come to recognize different kinds of brains from a strength-based perspective, rather than a challenged-based perspective."

Ne-eman's viewpoint is shared by fellow autism advocate John Elder Robison, an adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services' Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee.

"We live in a world of increasing specialization, where employers recruit specialized people for computer programming and math and science jobs," said Robison. "A person with extremely narrow ability levels can be a star in such a world."

Nonetheless, the Department of Labor reported in June 2014 that only about 19 percent of disabled Americans were employed, compared to almost 70 percent of non-disabled workers. With disabled Americans comprising twenty percent of the overall population, that's a lot of untapped talent.

Job fairs and workforce development programs have started targeting the disabled population, with some employers actively seeking applicants on the autism spectrum. Organizations offering internship opportunities for neurologically disabled individuals include the German tech company SAP , AutismSpeaks and Ne-eman's ASAN, which partners with mortgage finance company Freddie Mac to recruit young talent.

In addition, many college campuses are actively promoting disability inclusion, a move that aims to heighten confidence among disabled students and help prepare them for the job market. One such program is the Neurodiversity Initiative at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., founded by Robison, who is autistic himself.

"We have neuro-diversity day on campus, like Gay Pride day," says Robison, a Scholar-in-Residence at the college. "Our graduates go out and become lawyers, psychologists and teachers. The world needs us."

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The company Specialisterne (The Specialists) has built an international reputation on this idea. Specialisterne provides services like software testing and data conversion for businesses, while simultaneously training individuals on the autism spectrum for high-tech careers. The groundbreaking program now has three U.S. locations (in Delaware, NorthDakota and Colorado) and branches in Ireland, Scotland, England and Switzerland.

"My ambition is to create 100,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next ten years," said Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne. "That's one tenth of our global goal of one million jobs."

Employers like Ernie Dianastasis consider Sonne a visionary. The managing director of Computer Aid, an IT services company, Dianastasis has so far hired 14 employees directly from Specialisterne's training program.

"The individuals I've hired are phenomenal," he said. "People on the autism spectrum are loyal, reliable and have a high degree of accuracy in their work. These folks are great at what they do."

Chicago-based psychologist and self-help author Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D,agreed that employees with a typical neurological wiring can be an asset to a company, but stressed that social interaction can be a challenge–not just for them, but for the other employees as well.

"There are times when severe autism can come with genius," she acknowledged. "But there are people with autism who absolutely can't relate to people. The key is not to pathologize it, not to be afraid of people who process information differently.

"Neurological differences can actually be a huge asset to an employer. People with ADHD tend to be creative, energetic and laser-focused. People with OCPD are very detail-oriented. They're the people you want on your team. When everyone else is busy looking at the big picture, they'll notice that you spelled the company's name wrong in the logo."

"I believe strongly that my ADHD is one of my greatest strengths," agreed Dr. Chester Goad, director of Disability Services at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, TN. "It brings with it a lot of creativity. If you give me a project to work on, I can't stop working till it's done. I'm like a dog with a bone."

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Conditions with milder symptoms, however, make it harder to see who is "disabled" and who is not. This is a legislative Catch-22 for employers, who are prohibited by law to ask whether a person has a disability, yet are legally obliged to include disabled employees in their rosters. In other words, as far as the law is concerned, neurological disabilities can exist only by virtue of self-disclosure.

"Employers may look for people with neurological differences because they're under pressure to meet diversity quotas in employment guidelines," said Robison, "but they'd never say outright that they're looking to hire someone who's autistic.That would be discrimination."

Still, he added: "If you're on the computer science faculty and you're hiring some geeky guy, and you find out he's on the autism spectrum, it's not going to surprise you a lot."

By Linda Federico-O'Murchu, special to CNBC.com

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