Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jabberwocky of the Day : Businessweek on Outsourcing to the Autistic

So, if you were a writer for Businessweek and wanted to piss off as many parts of the autism community as you could in one article, how would you do it?  Apparently, one way to do it is to write an article about a new software testing company, Square One, that is creating software testing jobs for people with autism.

Yes, I know that software testing might be a good job for some people with autism and that it is good that some companies are looking to create opportunities for people with autism.

But, there is a right way to go about it and then there is the wrong way.

The right way is to present an accurate view of what autism is (and isn't) and to present the opportunity as a win-win for both the people with autism and the companies that employee them.  The right way is to treat people with autism with the dignity and respect.

The wrong way, well, the article, "Outsourcing to the Autistic Rather Than to India", should be a case study in what the wrong way looks like.  Even though the article is fairly short, there is something in there that is sure to piss off almost anyone in the autism community.

It start out with the autism as superpower myth -
Part of the reason autism has captivated Hollywood moviemakers more than other developmental disabilities is that, for all the difficulties it brings those who have it, it also gives some of them the ability to perform uncanny feats of brainpower: effortlessly memorizing train schedules or song lyrics, identifying the day of the week of any date in the past. Even among those who aren’t full-blown savants, many display an impressive ability, even a desire, to immerse themselves in what the rest of us would see as mind-numbingly boring, detail-oriented tasks.
I really do love the phrases "it also gives some of them the ability to perform uncanny feats of brainpower" and "even among those who aren't full-blown savants".  If you thought that all talk about the "benefits" of autism was harmless, well, there is your harm.

The idea that autism grants you "the ability to perform uncanny feats of brainpower" is getting embedded in the general public's view of autism and creating an expectation that most people with autism are not going to be able to live up to.

And the implication that savants are somehow common among people with autism?  Classic.

Anyway, after you establish that people as autism have super-human brains and say they like "mind-numbingly boring" things, you move right into how those brains could be exploited -
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.
Hahn, in other words, is proposing outsourcing to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world. Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says 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.
Because, you know, it is OK to pay people with autism less because they "don't have a lot of alternatives".

In a way, I can understand the point - people with autism don't really have many opinions and if we can create higher paying jobs that they can do, that is a good thing.  But if the person with autism is essentially doing the same job as another person, you can't really justify paying them less simply because they have autism.  I believe that would be called discrimination.

The autism community certainly needs help to create a better future for our loved ones who struggle with autism, but we don't need help from anyone who wants to exploit then.


  1. Plan: get jobs there. Fuck shit up. Leave.

  2. I don't know if this was mentioned in the article (though I plan to read it in a moment), but India is really a different case than the U.S.A. as they have a much lower standard of living. $25 an hour there is probably like $75-100 an hour in the U.S.A., or at least the Indian employed at 25/hour can live like the american on 75-100/hour based on their standards and what the dollar is worth there.

    The autistic still have the same prices and standard of living that the non-handicapped resident has (assuming they're both in the U.S.). I wonder how many persons on the spectrum can actually be software testers.

  3. When I first started resding this I thought you were referring to the folks that get offended easily. I do not and usually can get a chuckle out of that group. But I did find this troubling. My son is very bright, but it sorta seems like it's saying his intelligence is due to the autism so it's not as valuable as someone else's. Maybe that's not how it was intended, but the word choice makes it seem that way.

  4. 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.

    1. Mr Hahn,

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to respond. But, with all due respect, I think you are missing what the issue is.

      The issue is not whether your proposed enterprise is non-profit or for-profit - that is largely irrelevant to the problem at hand. If it were up to me, I would say that you should try and put together a business that makes money.

      Rather the issue is statements and attitudes that demean or disparage people with autism.

      In the Businessweek article, you are citing as saying that it is OK to pay someone with a disability less than someone without the disability would make because "people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives".

      While it might be true that people with autism don't currently have a lot of options, you cannot use that a justification for treating them differently.

      To put it more simply, just because a person has a disability does not mean that you can pay them less or exploit them as a cheap source of labor. The Americans with Disabilities Act is not something that you try to work around by going non-profit.

      I salute the fact that you are trying to create better paying jobs for people with autism, I really do. But, as a parent of three children with autism, I see real problems with your approach.

      I want my children, when they are older, to be able to participate fully in the work force and I would like their perspective employers to make appropriate accommodations for their disabilities.

      But I most certainly do not want an employer to look at them and think, hmm, I can pay them less than even outsourced labor in India because they have autism and don't have many other options.

    2. One correction to my comment above - the sentence "The author made it sound as if we could pay our disabled testers more than those without disabilities, but were choosing not to simply because the wage would be higher than what they get paid today."

      should have read

      "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 could not edit my comment, so I'm posting the clarification here.

  5. I received the following from Chad Hahn via e-mail and am posting it per his request. I am splitting it into 2 parts since it is too large for a single comment (thanks blogger)

    ~~~ Part 1 ~~~

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, MJ. As a parent with three autistic children, you’ll have a unique perspective on these issues that many people won’t.

    I’d like to elaborate on this misconception that we’d like to pay people with disabilities less than those without disabilities because they don’t have a lot of alternatives. The author severely misinterpreted my thoughts on several levels, and I’d like to clear things up.

    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.

  6. I received the following from Char Hahn via e-mail and am posting it per his request. I am splitting it into 2 parts since it is too large for a single comment (thanks blogger)

    ~~~ Part 2 ~~~

    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.

    I feel it is important to clear this up, MJ, because you and I are on the same team. We’re trying to raise awareness about those with developmental disabilities and do social good. Whether the model is for-profit or nonprofit is a major decision because a for-profit model might allow our testers to make even MORE money in the form of profit sharing. We’ve begun looking into the concept of a B-Corp because we believe in the idea of social enterprise to bring about social change.

    If there is any question about what we’re trying to do, I invite you to talk to our trainees, their parents, or even come and visit us to see what we’re doing. You are more than welcome any time.