Rutgers University Has a Grand Plan to Help Adults with Autism Find Jobs

November 9, 2015, 8:50 PM UTC
Rutgers buses through the windows of the ARC building on Busch Campus
Rutgers buses through the windows of the ARC building on Busch Campus
Photograph by Nick Romanenko — Rutgers University

Americans with disabilities have a major job problem.

Unemployment among Americans with disabilities has hovered in the double digits for all but two months since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in June 2008. And that’s only a measure of disabled Americans who are part of the workforce, meaning they have a job or are looking for one. The employment-to-population ratio for all individuals with disabilities was 17.1% in 2014. For Americans without a disability, it was 64.6%.

Last week, Rutgers University announced plans that take aim at that problem, with the help of a donation from former Viacom, CBS, and Sirius XM Radio CEO Mel Karmazin,.

The university says it plans to open the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services on its New Brunswick campus, which will provide adults with autism resources to live and work independently with the support of clinical staff and Rutgers graduate students. The first of the center’s two buildings—slated to open in the fall of 2018—will offer life skills training to about 60 autistic adults. The second building will provide apartment-style residence for 20 adults with autism who will live alongside Rutgers graduate students.

The goal of the program is to capitalize on the campus setting—its public transit system, recreational facilities, and large supply of hourly jobs—to provide individuals with autism the support needed to live fulfilling lives. The center’s clientele will have access to the university’s athletic and arts facilities and will be placed in jobs around campus, from the bookstore to the library to a university-run farm nearby.

Stanley Messer, dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, which will lead the center, told Fortune that Rutgers plans to compensate the center’s participants, but hasn’t decided how much. Employers are allowed to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage, thanks to a controversial exemption instituted in 1938 that’s been the target of reform.

Mel Karmazin and his daughter Dina Karmazin, whose son Hunter has autism, brought the idea for the center to Rutgers a few years ago, Messer says. The former media executive is the lead donor on the project but isn’t disclosing the size of his gift. Rutgers aims to raise $35 million for the initiative.

In the university’s announcement of the planned Center, Karmazin touted Rutgers‘ autism expertise and services. The university is home to the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, an on-campus K-12 school for students on the autism spectrum that opened in 1972, and a behavioral consultation and training program that helps the families or caregivers of people with developmental disabilities build and maintain therapeutic living environments.

But perhaps more than anything, construction of the center is being driven by need. About one in 68 children nationwide are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In New Jersey, autism is even more common—it’s diagnosed in one in every 45 children. (There’s no rock-solid explanation for autism’s increased prevalence in New Jersey; Messer surmises that because the state has better-than-average resources for autistic children, perhaps families with a diagnosed child move there.)

Public schools in New Jersey must provide disabled students with “thorough and effective” education—either in an inclusive setting or by paying for their enrollment at a private school. That gives students with autism structured support through 12th grade, but once leave the school system, “these adults with disabilities end up at home with parents who are aging,” says Lara Delmolino, director of the Douglass Center.

Families are left to seek out a limited number of job training or job sampling programs for their autistic relatives, but admission is often based on ability to pay and the length of waiting lists. The shortage of such programs is becoming increasingly severe because the population of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder is growing—a phenomenon that’s gone unexplained but is often blamed on an increase in diagnoses rather than a rise in the disorder, Delmolino says. Experts anticipate that 500,000 children with autism will reach adulthood in the coming decade.

Disabled adults have found some success working at small family businesses where their employment experiences can be “tailored to their specific strengths,” Delmolino says. Rutgers’ program will provide jobs on a much larger scale. “It will tell us what employment at a location like this looks like,” Delmolino says.

The hope is that Rutgers’ program will be duplicated at universities nationwide; that the integration of academic research, student instruction, and inclusion of adults with autism in a large community becomes a blueprint for other educational institutions.

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