Episode 94 VR Workforce Studio Podcast
Rothrock’s final reflections as we celebrate Autism Awareness Month
Singers: VR Workforce Studio
Rick Sizemore: I’m Rick Sizemore, host of the VR Workforce Studio Podcast. Before we begin today’s show, please join us for this special tribute. The former commissioner for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, James A. Rothrock passed away recently. And of course, if you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know Jim was a regular guest of the show. So it’s only fitting that we now bring you this tribute to Jim in his own words, as he reflects on his life, the naming of Rothrock Hall and his thoughts on disability employment. Here is Jim Rothrock.
Jim Rothrock: The naming honor that you had, all inspiring moment just to drive up towards the center and see those letters. And to hear it referred to, 365 times 69 is a whole bunch of days I’ve been on this earth. And that’s one of the top five, for sure. Excuse me. I’m even tearing up a little bit now. That’s probably one of the best days of my life.
Jim Rothrock: If we are given an opportunity to better understand what employers need, we can fill those quote, unquote job orders with qualified individuals that present some amazing challenges as it relates to their disability. And as long as we can continue that relationship with our workforce partners, I think we’re on good ground just to encourage more individuals to understand the full value of work. I know in my own experience, work has been the opportunity afforded to me to contribute, to meet others, to learn and grow. One of the things that I try to do is to just make sure that everybody is really awakened, engaged, and is allowed to do the best possible job they can do.
Announcer: Four…three..two….one…. VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.
Rose Hilderbrand: I have a position at Masco Cabinetry.
Alfred McMillan: I’m a supervisor.
Announcer: As well as the professionals who have helped them.
James Hall: A job, and a career, you got to look at how life changing this is.
Announcer: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Debby Hopkins: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Announcer: These are their stories.
Megan Healy: Because there is such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Announcer: Now here’s the host of the VR workforce studio. Rick Sizemore.
Rick Sizemore: Welcome to episode 94 of the VR Workforce Studio podcast. This episode dedicated to the powerful legacy of one of VR’s exceptional leaders and champions, Jim Rothrock, of course our former commissioner. On today’s show, we’re focusing on autism as part of Autism Awareness month. We talk with Peter Kant, who’s the CEO of Enabled Intelligence, discusses how a neuro diverse workforce is delivering excellence in the intelligence arena. And a little closer to home in our big inspiration showcase, we meet Sean Barker a young man with autism here to discuss how vocational rehabilitation is paving the way for his success in college. Welcome, Sean.
Sean Barker: Good to be here.
Rick Sizemore: Let’s get started, it’s autism awareness month. And one of the phrases that I love to reflect on with guests is, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Tell us what it’s like to be Sean Barker with autism.
Sean Barker: Different. I notice more in other people. I tend to notice more stuff and I think differently than my coworkers or my friends. So when we’re working on a project or assignment, I will go at it completely differently from different angles. While they may be stuck in one way, I can come in a different way and we’ll get to the same point.
Rick Sizemore: So, you’re a good problem solver?
Sean Barker: Yes.
Rick Sizemore: Well, do you have a favorite story about being a great problem solver as a result of having autism?
Sean Barker: My ability to notice when someone’s upset, because I’m always looking for the cues, because I didn’t know them when I was younger and I do now more than I did when I was younger. I think that those cues and the ability to see it and then problem solve and realize, “Hey, this is how you know, ‘normal’, in quotes, people react.” I can then react like that as well. So the noticing that one of the kids, when I used to volunteer at my church and the youth ministry, one of the kids broke something and the other adults were, one of the adults while they were upset because he broke something and the kid was freaking out. And I realized that the kid was upset because he didn’t mean to break it, but he broke it and he was upset.
Sean Barker: I realized that and I was like, “Oh, let me handle it.” To the others adults there. And I was like, “Let me handle it.” And I went and talked to him and I was like, “Are you like, okay.” He was fine. He didn’t get hurt. But he was very upset about breaking. And I was like, “Look, we’ll just clean it up, apologize for it. Because you didn’t mean to break it. And then we’ll go from there.” And then he didn’t get in trouble for it. He cleaned up his mess and he was able to calm down. I think, noticing that being aware of the emotions because I’ve had to learn them, because some people just take it for granted that they don’t realize that other people can be feeling something currently. And if you take the time to notice it and then go at it as like, “This is an issue, I need to talk to him first and figure out what I can do to help him deal with that.”
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. I want to get into the discussion about vocational rehabilitation. How did you get connected with voc rehab?
Sean Barker: My DARS counselor, Gary. He was talking to me when I was in high school and he was like, “I want you to go to this place. I think it’d be really good for you. It would help there’s these programs I want you to do. Just trust me and go to these programs.” I wanted to do computers. I’ve always wanted to do computer since I first touched a computer when I was like 10 and Gary Gibson is his name. He said, “I want you to go and do this program.” And I trusted him and I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And so I went and did the first like post employment readiness program. And then I went right after that, into the CSS program.
Rick Sizemore: Now what’s the CSS program?
Sean Barker: Computer Support Specialist, I believe.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah.
Sean Barker: It’s along that line. I can’t remember exactly what the last S is. My first counselor there, she was really nice. She also like got me to a T and one of the things she said to me was, “Use your powers for good, not evil.” That was the first thing she said to me when I got there. Well, one of the first things she said to me when I got there, and that still sticks with me now.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Well, tell us about the Computer Support Specialist Program. What kind of things did you learn through that program?
Sean Barker: All sorts of things. So I had already taken a computer class in high school and it was supposed to gear me up to take my A- plus certification, which is what the whole CSS is about at Wilson. But my teacher didn’t really get me and didn’t really help me. But this program at CSS, they get you and they help you along the way. And you go through the book and you work through a A-plus book by Mike Myers and you study it, you read it, you do the chapters, you take tests, quiz, and then you practice the practice quizzes and exams for this, the A-plus exam. And I’ve learned so much. I have connections there from all the students that I will keep for the rest of my life. I learned how to repair iPhones, iPads, I’ve learned tricks and tips for different devices that I would have never had known before. And I’ve used myself to fix things for other people. And it’s just, there’s a lot that you can learn there by going and taking the time to do it.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. So what else did you address at Wilson? Did you get any services to help you with autism that led you on to college?
Sean Barker: Wilson helped me mature. They prepared me for the real world and helped me go from just being like, “I’m just going to do what I can and meet the minimum and go through.” Instead of when I went there, I was like, “I really want to succeed. I really want to do well. And I want to do people proud. I want to be proud of what I’m doing myself.”
Sean Barker: So that mentality change really helped me get through. Because now I have my comp-T A-plus certification. I had my MTA Microsoft technical associate security fundamentals certification. And the mentality change led for me to be like, “Okay, I want to go to college. I want to go to my community college, Virginia Western Community College.” And I went there and now I’m, I’m a straight A student. And I work hard. I’m like, “Okay, I want to do this proud. So I’m going to work my butt off to get this because this is what I want to do.” And there’s the change. And then my certifications helped me get a part-time job at the school. And my boss actually said to me, he goes, “I think you might be a little overqualified for it.” I go, “Yes, but this job will help teach me. And it will be the experience that I want.”
Rick Sizemore: That’s awesome. So do you feel like you would have been able to go straight into college without voc rehab before college?
Sean Barker: I could have. I don’t think I would have done nearly as well as I am now. I had applied to go to college, but when I didn’t get into the C cap program, which is this like support program that you get right out of high school. I didn’t get into that. And I kind of just lost my spirit for college and I just wasn’t interested in it. My DARS counselor and my mom were like, “You should go to college. This is the time now to go to college. If you want to learn more, go now and go to college.” And I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that.”
Sean Barker: And then while I’m there, I’m actually going to go for my bachelor’s at Radford University. I got accepted there. I think I’m probably going to go there to get my bachelor’s. And from my DARS counselor, my mom, and the full-time employees at Virginia Western and the professors, they’ve led me to be like, “I should try and get my bachelor’s too.” And it’s going to be harder, but I’m going to try for it.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. What’s the one thing you would want everyone listening to this show to know about you and vocational rehabilitation?
Sean Barker: I wouldn’t be here now without it. The people I’ve met there, I still talk to, I’m still friends with, I still check in with them. We still talk about what’s going on. I loved my teachers. I still checkup on them. They post what they’re doing on Slack, which is a messaging platform that actual businesses use. Like Microsoft uses it. Google uses it, big businesses use this and being able to like, know, have the experience of real hands-on this is what people use in the field. And knowing all that is really helped me be able to expand my knowledge and grow as a person.
Rick Sizemore: One last question for you. It’s National Autism Awareness month. What would you say to another person with autism who had not gone through voc rehab yet that might encourage them to take steps forward and grow along the same pathway you have?
Sean Barker: I would say do it. It is a journey, your counselors, your teachers, the people that work there are there for you to help you get better and to help you along the way. My counselor, if I had an issue like my DARS counselor and the counselor at the school, I could go talk to them and they would help me better myself and my teacher, if I was stuck on something, or I just was like, “Ugh, I’m done.” Like, I don’t want to do certain things. It’s hard work, but working on it and getting a satisfaction of, “You’ve done this, you know this, now you can continue what you’re doing.” Is just one of the best things in the world to know that. The people who I’m learning from are now proud of me and want to show me off.
Rick Sizemore: That’s amazing. Sean Barker is a student at Western Virginia Community College and helps us celebrate Autism Awareness month. Thank you for being on our podcast today. Sean.
Sean Barker: Thank you for having me.
Richard Kriner: Hello, I’m Richard Kriner, Autism Service Manager with the Virginia Department For Aging and Rehab Services, and the parent of a child with autism. If you or someone you care about has autism and needs help figuring out the challenging pathway to a career, we are here to help. Our highly skilled staff bring our best resources to the table and join you in figuring out the best ways forward. You can learn more about us by visiting DARS at vadars.org.
Rick Sizemore: Here’s Chip Stratton on emergency preparedness for individuals with disabilities.
Chip Stratton: How would this look if I were completely alone for three days? Think about the disasters that can impact our area. Where you live, where you work, where you visit. Knowing the best response for your personal circumstance, and who better to advocate than you? Make a plan. If you use paratransit touch base with them and make sure they are going to run during an emergency, or that they know you’re on the top of a list. The local emergency management office, same thing. Let them know who you are, where you are, what your unique circumstances are. Final things, a kit, food, water, medications, supplies, again, being very specific to what you need. You know what a normal day looks like. So now think of what that would look like on an abnormal day. fema.gov is an excellent site full of resources and information. Ready Virginia, and you can get apps for all those gathering as much information as possible. For more information, visit vadars.org.
Rick Sizemore: We continue our discussion on autism with enabled intelligence. We’re joined now by their CEO, Peter Kant, here to discuss their neurodiverse workforce. Welcome, Peter.
Peter Kant: Thank you so much for having me.
Rick Sizemore: Tell us a little bit about enabled intelligence.
Peter Kant: Sure. We’re a technology startup that focuses on our customer need that I learned about over my last 15, 20 years or so working at the nexus of technology development and government missions. There’s a lot of focus, of course, importantly so on artificial intelligence as a new and emerging technology that can help in a whole lot of areas. And the government, of course, US government and others are very interested in deploying this technology to help in the provision of public services. And that’s everything from of course, defense and intelligence to law enforcement, healthcare, regulatory management, environmental protection, and the like.
Peter Kant: But where there was a huge area that was not being met. And that is a foundational element of any artificial intelligence development. And that is the creation of reliable and accurate training data. So what I mean by that is when we need to teach a computer how to do something in essence, what that is, what artificial intelligence is, a computer learning how to do something, the human or people have to teach it how to do what it is we’re asking it to do.
Peter Kant: So for example, if we wanted to create a driverless car that wanted to recognize when to stop at a stop sign, we have to teach that computer, what is a stop sign? And what does it mean when I see one and how does it look in different ways? And the way that we do that, the way artificial intelligence has developed, is you create a training data set, in essence, we go take a whole bunch of pictures and videos of stop signs, at night, in the dark, in the rain, sideways, backwards, upside down, different colors. And someone, a person, has to label all those pictures and say, “Here’s a stop sign computer. Here’s another one. Here’s another one.” And do that hundreds of thousands of times. So then the computer can learn to recognize stop signs in the future. We’ll imagine that’s just for stop signs. So picture all the different aspects of artificial intelligence, whether it’s logistics management, and trying to figure out where to put airplanes, finding military assets, identifying tax fraud, trying to see if people are breaking environmental rules, or forests are growing, or hurricanes are coming.
Peter Kant: All of that requires someone to create those training sets.
Rick Sizemore: Critical.
Peter Kant: And that need was not being met. Critical. And if you get it wrong-
Rick Sizemore: Catastrophic.
Peter Kant: It’s even worse. It’s catastrophic, right? So it’s one thing. For example, if Google maps, it gets the annotation wrong, or the training data wrong, I’ll get lost. However, if Noah gets the annotation wrong, what we thought might’ve been a harmless cloud could be a tornado.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Peter Kant: So when I was working at SRI International, which is the Stanford Research Institute, we found that we couldn’t get good training sets. We couldn’t get the data, the data needed to stay in the US or it was classified or needed to be kept securely or highly private like medical records or tax records. And we needed a subject matter expertise. And so there’s all these government programs, billions of dollars. The annual spend on AI right now by the federal government is a little over four and a half billion dollars.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Peter Kant: Being spent on developing this important technology with this foundational need, this basic capability. This is training data was not being created. And so I said, “Well, I’d like to figure out how we can solve that problem.” This type of work is technical. It requires detailed orientation and ability to focus. And I needed people here in the US. And in Israel all citizens have compulsory two years of military or public service. And the Israel Defense Forces was trying to figure out, “Well, we have this pretty solid and strong neurodiverse population.” But they’re not necessarily interested or able to do the, let’s drive a tank, or fly an airplane, or whatever it may be.
Peter Kant: So they did a demo program in data annotation and found that this group of soldiers was excellent. And I read about this years ago and I said, “Well we have a pretty available neurodiverse population here in the United States, and they’re generally underemployed.”
Rick Sizemore: What an opportunity.
Peter Kant: What an opportunity. So I created the company Enabled Intelligence and we hire a persons with disabilities. A lot of those are neurodiverse, those on the autism spectrum.
Rick Sizemore: Well, you’re bringing all these pieces together in such an effective way. That’s how we were led to this interview because of what people are saying about you and about Enabled Intelligence. There was a quote on your webpage, people with disabilities are often overlooked as a resource, but they’re invaluable to us in their commitment to service and excellent labeling skills. And it seems like you’re living proof that that’s playing itself out every day in your operation.
Peter Kant: It certainly is. I mean, I have to say when we first started the company, the small team and I, we started the company, we were worried like, okay, this is a hypothesis. I read this report about this program in Israel, but it’s not like I came from this background and I’ve been dying to do this, or want to do this. I just saw an opportunity-
Rick Sizemore: To meet a need.
Peter Kant: To meet a need. And I thrive in these, these situations where there’s an under appreciated, or overlooked population that has incredible skills. And if someone else won’t take it won’t make a company around it, why not us? And the ability of this team to really be accurate and create and learn and be focused. They find things that we just either don’t have the attention span or the ability to find.
Peter Kant: And our customers are ecstatic about the level of accuracy. We had a client come to us with a law enforcement mission, and we were looking at satellite images when they asked if what would we like? And they were a little bit struck by our pricing because we pay above minimum wage. We pay a living wage most certainly, and for the expertise, but they said, “We’d like to try you out.” And what was taking their previous vendor overseas two months to turn around, we did in three days at a much higher level of accuracy that they didn’t even have to redo any of the work. And that’s the power of this workforce that we assembled.
Rick Sizemore: It’s National Autism Awareness month. What is your experience in hiring people with autism?
Peter Kant: I would say about 45% of our employees are persons with autism. I like using the term neurodiverse. It was a new term to me over the last year. I didn’t know that I’m learning this about this community and these capabilities sort of fresh. The reason I like that term is one of the reasons why we have such good results with our data labeling capability in the accuracy is, those unique and diverse ways of approaching those problem sets and those challenges that our employees bring, actually find new insights and are able to do this work better than let’s say a neurotypical person.
Rick Sizemore: Right. Super powers.
Peter Kant: Super powers. You know, I was learning they talked about persons with disabilities, but as far as our company goes, it’s the neurotypicals, if you will, who are less able to do this work. And so the neurodiverse, they’re not overcoming a disability, they’re actually using their super powers to meet this need. And that’s been, I guess, a pleasant surprise, and it’s a wonderful part of our business model, but it’s been really nice to experience.
Rick Sizemore: People with autism or those who are neurodiverse, have these exceptional skills to attend to task, to focus on detail, to engage routine, all the things that you’ve been talking about that’s a strength. And within the VR community, we see many times that people with autism are on a track for an IT job. On the other hand, people take great care to respect client choice. We’re careful not to stereotype people with autism as headed for an IT job just based on the mere fact that they have autism. What is your experience in hiring people with disabilities? Do they love this type of work that you offer there at Enabled Intelligence? Or do they get focused on these jobs and these types of jobs because they have certain skillsets?
Peter Kant: It’s an excellent question, Richard and I don’t know if I have the experience to fully answer it. So I don’t have a lot of history in whether folks are being typecast or limited or pigeonholed, or if we just happen to be lucky and get folks who enjoy the work. I will say that when we came to this, we were really worried. We do a little intro test, if you will, like, “Come see if you’d like to be an annotator and it’s 20 images and put bounding boxes and identify certain objects in the images.” And we did that one, to just, of course, see if people could do it, but really it was, we were worried that this kind of work would become too repetitious and maybe even boring over time. And how do we keep it exciting for our employees?
Peter Kant: And what we found for at least our group is those who select in, they really see these as puzzles. There’s a tremendous amount of analysis. So it’s not like just pick out the stop signs, right? When we take a video and you’re trying to decide from a high altitude video, whether that thing across the border is a bush, an animal or a person, our teams really enjoy that puzzle element because we’re such a technically focused company. And we seem to attract those folks who are interested in that, of course. So I don’t know, but I can say that we have some… Our employees are certainly very well-rounded individuals and bring a whole lot of different capabilities and interests to the company.
Rick Sizemore: Peter is the CEO of Enabled Intelligence in Northern Virginia. Thanks for being on our show today.
Peter Kant: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Rick Sizemore: Join the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in celebrating Occupational Therapy month throughout April. Occupational therapist help people with disabilities through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. OTs at DARS help people learn to drive, use specialized equipment and find solutions to the challenges of daily life. Our OTs are essential in helping people with disabilities overcome the obstacles that are preventing them from moving into the workforce.
Greta Nelson: We also worked on driving during his program. OT had worked on that, and actually they put that left foot accelerator in my pickup.
Ron Burlson: That helped me a lot cause I couldn’t drive my pickup without it. And that allowed him to continue to do his personal and work transit.
Rick Sizemore: For more information, visit the Virginia Department or Aging and Rehabilitative Services vadars.org.
Rick Sizemore: Well it’s time for our national clearinghouse report with the always entertaining and informative Cherie Takemoto. Welcome to the podcast, Cherie.
Cherie Takemoto: Hi, Rick, and happy spring.
Rick Sizemore: Happy spring to you. What did you think of Enabled Intelligence and the report from Peter Kant?
Cherie Takemoto: I just love hearing how businesses are getting it, that people with autism have lots of abilities and focusing on that instead of their disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. The way that company is harnessing the talents of people who are neurodiverse to reach a mission critical goal is truly impressive.
Cherie Takemoto: Yes. And the people who work there are happy that they’re contributing to our national security.
Rick Sizemore: Absolutely. Well it’s National Autism Awareness month.
Cherie Takemoto: And remember last year, the blue man group?
Rick Sizemore: One of my favorite episodes with the blue men themselves.
Cherie Takemoto: Yeah. So I’ll put a link to that in here. And then I wanted to share some things from the RSA funded technical assistance centers, because these centers are identifying many of the key elements to help people with autism be successful in preparing for a life of work and meaningful employment. So I have the national technical assistance center on transition. They have the star secondary transition resources for students with ASD, which is a compilation of effective practices organized within the framework of the taxonomy for transition programming, as well as some of their predictors for students with ASD. There’s a little webinar on expanding the dialogue on autism, reflections on research, and real life employment, and how to support employment goals of youth with autism.
Cherie Takemoto: Then I have something from the workforce GPS on workplace resources for people who want to hire people with autism spectrum disorder. And for throwback, I have an Institute on Rehabilitation Issues on autism.
Rick Sizemore: Well, Cherie, we always appreciate your reports. Thank you for all of those great links and resources. You’ll want to save today’s show to your favorites for that quick access to all those great links from the clearinghouse. Again, thanks for joining us for today’s show Cherie.
Cherie Takemoto: And thank you for sharing some of the latest and greatest for employment for people with disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: All right. See you next month.
Cherie Takemoto: Okay.
Rick Sizemore: Here’s Lynn Harris, director of the Wilson workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation.
Lynn Harris: The Foundation is pleased to bring you these exciting stories of how vocational rehabilitation is changing people’s lives. Your support helps students gain the skills and credentials they need to be successful in business and industry. We thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, CVS Health, Daikin Applied, the Hershey Company, Hollister Inc., and United Bank. You can find out more about becoming a sponsor at wwrcf.org or find our contact information in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com.
Rick Sizemore: You can always find another exciting episode as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation here at the VR Workforce Studio. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore.
Announcer: The VR Workforce Studio podcast is owned and operated by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation. The Foundation publishes and distributes the VR Workforce Studio, and manages all sponsor arrangements. Audio content for the podcast is provided to the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in exchange for promotional considerations.