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Ben Schatzel has nearly a decade of experience working with the neurodivergent community as a teacher, therapist, and job developer. He offers expertise as a workforce strategy consultant to businesses, job seekers, and community agencies to help empower companies in
embracing the transformative power of integrating a holistic neurodiverse workforce solution to meet today’s needs.
Ben is the founder of Stannum Core Solutions, an agency dedicated to creating competitive, integrated employment outcomes for neurodivergent workers. Through his work, Ben has collaborated with such companies as Oliver Wyman, Gilster-Mary Lee, G&W Electric Co., Magnetic Inspection Laboratory Inc., and various others. He is a board member of the Illinois Chapter of The Association of People Supporting Employment First, an associate board member of the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition, and a member of the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association.
Ben’s dedication to neurodiverse inclusion was sparked by his early career working with neurodivergent youth. He personally witnessed the challenges many clients faced upon transitioning out of the public school system—a phenomenon often referred to as the ‘service cliff.’ His commitment lies in establishing pathways to competitive careers, a departure from traditional disability employment models focused on sheltered workshops and subminimum wage jobs. In parallel, he champions universal design and the values of inclusion and empathy among forward-thinking employers.
Outside of his entrepreneurial work, Ben is a screen actor who can be seen in various films and commercials. He is an avid movie junkie with a passion for all things horror, and can often be found attending comedy and improv shows in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois.
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The Integrated Workplace: On Disability Labor Reform
DANIELLE: Hello, my friends, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast. Thanks for tuning in today. My name’s Danielle Sullivan and I am your host, and today we have an interview I’m really excited about with Ben Schatzel. Ben is the founder of Stannum Core Solutions, which is an agency that’s dedicated to creating competitive, integrated employment outcomes for neurodivergent workers. Ben is intensely motivated to establish pathways to competitive careers for disabled people, which is a departure from traditional disability employment models that have been focused on sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wage jobs, so I’m really excited to welcome Ben to the podcast today.
Before we dig in more, I just want to say thank you as always to my patrons at patreon.com/neurodiverging. They make this podcast happen! If you have been enjoying the podcast maybe you want to throw a couple bucks in the pot and get ad-free episodes and other perks. If you’re interested, check out patreon.com/neurodiverging. Also, just a reminder, as always, we have a transcript, show notes, and lots of links and other resources up at neurodiverging.com, so please feel free to check out the website if the transcript would be helpful for you.
So, before we start the interview, just a little bit more about Ben: Ben has nearly a decade of experience working with the neurodivergent community as a teacher, a therapist, and job developer, and he offers expertise as a workforce strategy consultant to businesses, job seekers, and community agencies to help empower companies to embrace the transformative power of integrating a holistic, neurodiverse workforce. Ben is a board member of the Illinois chapter of the Association of People Supporting Employment First and an associate board member of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition. I think you’re going to really enjoy this interview today, so without further ado, here’s me and Ben.
So, welcome to the Neurodiverging podcast, Ben. I’m so glad you’re here today. Thanks for joining us!
BEN: Thanks, Danielle. It’s a pleasure to be here.
DANIELLE: Well, to start off with, could you just tell the audience just a little bit about kind of what you do and where your passions are right now, what you’re working on?
BEN: Absolutely, yeah. So, I am the founder of a small startup called Stannum Core Solutions, and essentially what we’re doing is we’re creating outcomes for competitive, integrated employment specifically catered to the neurodivergent workforce. And the way that we do that is by partnering with businesses, creating some accessibility around their jobs and implementing some trainings, and then we do some skill matching that actually kind of cuts out the typical interview process and allows for individuals to do more of a working interview style of identifying their skills, and then we offer some onboarding support. So, it’s all around creating employment outcomes that allow folks to really achieve a real career path outside of some of the other disability workforce initiatives that we’ve seen, including sheltered workshops or sub-minimum wage employment.
Challenges in disability employment
DANIELLE: Thanks so much. You jumped right into a couple of the kind of major problems or concerns that a lot of us have around some of these initiatives like you just mentioned the sheltered workshop minimum wage issues. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the things that you guys are trying to solve with this initiative?
BEN: Yeah, and I’ll try to find a good place to start with this, but really I think that it requires a fundamental re-understanding of how we approach disability in the workplace. The reason I say that is if you look at a lot of the current disability employment outcomes or models that are out there, I feel like a lot of them are positioning neurodivergence as an afterthought to the workforce, as opposed to building a pipeline, a talent pipeline, that really has a holistic vision and includes the full spectrum of neurodiversity from neurodivergent individuals and neurotypical individuals alike.
So, where I’m going with that is even if you look outside of a sheltered workshop setting or outside of a sub-minimum wage employment situation, you’re still going to find a lot of disability employment that really focuses on the individual candidate or the individual job seeker. And certainly, there’s a lot to be said as far as kind of the nature of American individualism at large, but I think the way that that trickles down to the neurodivergent individual is maybe for the first time in their life they’re having a conversation at the age of 18 or 19 or 20 with either a high school counselor or a representative from a local division of rehab services, and that’s the first time that they’re really scrutinizing what exactly it is that they want to do to create an income for themselves and create a livelihood, whereas, with neurotypical individuals, we’re generally integrating those conversations in very early in life.
But I find that with neurodivergent individuals, a lot of times these are kids who are being told all of the things that they can’t do and they’re being told all of the things that they’re incapable of. And then it’s not until later teenagehood or early 20s that they’re really starting to consider career paths. And at this point in time they’ve had all of these doors closed for them, so they say the same things that anybody would say the first time, that they’re being asked what they want to do for a job or what it is that they like, and they say, “I like video games,” or, “I like animals,” or, “I like ice cream,” and so now whoever it is that’s trying to help them find a job is knocking on doors and saying, “Hey, would you allow this individual to come in six hours a week and stock shelves at the video game store?” or, “Come in a few hours a week and do the inventory at the ice cream shop?” Which is great, and that’s a valuable work experience for that individual, but that’s not going to set them up for a true career path.
And we’re trying to retrofit these individuals into jobs that don’t really exist in the first place, and they’re not able to acquire hard technical skills to really provide for themselves long term, to continue to build a career for themselves and open up a spectrum of opportunities as far as education and choice in workplace. And then, of course, when it comes time for that company to make cuts or switch scheduling, then the first person who’s going to be on the chopping block is typically going to be that individual who’s working a part-time job and maybe is not able to fully integrate into the workforce, because their needs weren’t considered in the original designing of the positions.
DANIELLE: Thank you so much for that, Ben. That’s really helpful. So, I love your focus on the sort of individual need versus sort of the structural problems of how the entry into the workforce is designed for a sort of neurotypical standard that some of us can sort of fudge our way through, but it leaves a ton of folks out. So, what are some things that you think, if you could redesign (laughs softly) the whole system from the ground up, you know, wake up tomorrow and magically it’s done, what are some things that you would like to see implemented that you feel like would benefit disabled individuals and especially youth moving into the workforce more?
BEN: Certainly. Certainly. So, what I find is when you really get into this work, and it really doesn’t matter what industry we’re looking at or even really what position we’re looking at, every job is going to have a lot of gray area, if you will. And, typically speaking, the neurodivergent mind is going to operate in terms of black and white or is going to crave some of that structure that is really beneficial for employers as well.
When you look at employers they want to have a repeatable process. They want to have consistency and structure. But we’ve gotten away from that over time because that requires a level of reinvesting into their employees, reinvesting into their infrastructure, and when there’s deadlines to be met with production or there’s a level of urgency then it’s easy to shift focus away from that structure and consistency and infrastructure. So I think it’s about shifting that spotlight back and going at it from the very beginning on an even incredibly basic level of if you’re on a manufacturing floor, how does this work flow to the employee? How does the work flow away from the employee? What are the exact steps that they have to do?
And these seem like incredibly easy questions, and to a certain extent they are, but oftentimes these are things that are overlooked because we live in a current workforce situation where many people are in a job for six months or a year or a year and a half, and then they’re off to the next thing to elevate their career. And I think that something that a lot of employers can do to enhance their retention and maintain a dedicated workforce is to reinvest into kind of that ground floor if you will of creating consistency and predictability.
And I think that touches a little bit on what you spoke of earlier around some of the white-collar initiatives when it comes to neurodivergence in the workplace. And there’s certainly a number of companies that have some high-level initiatives to engage this population, but, again, I almost feel like it appears more as an afterthought than a true ground-up initiative because they’re looking at neurodivergent people as superheroes in a sense or people that are going to have an incredibly nuanced capability when it comes to very specific tasks, which can be true, but I also think that that plays into certain stereotypes around neurodivergence. It’s not ultimately going to show a reduction in that over 85% unemployment or underemployment figure that we’re seeing within the population.
DANIELLE: Yeah. I appreciate you speaking to that because I think while, like you said, neurodivergent people can have great gifts, we’re also people and I think, you know, if you look at any population, if you compare us to the neurotypical population, the range of ability of intellect, of all those things is similar, right, between disabled and abled people. That’s a very broad thing to say but a lot of the white-collar initiatives that I’ve spoken to folks from Microsoft and Google and from some of these big companies, and their initiatives may support folks who are already into the workplace, who’ve gone through the interview process and are integrated into a team in some way to keep them there, but it doesn’t speak to the folks — Those folks would probably have been able to get a job somewhere else if they’re able to, like, do the traditional interviewing and get into the space.
I think that, as you were saying, it leaves out a ton of folks who have talents they could be bringing into a workforce but for whatever reason don’t have the resources, weren’t guided when they were younger like you were talking about. You know, we’re not always prepping these individuals appropriately for a workforce, and then the interview process can be such a challenge for so many folks. I really appreciate this idea that, you know, we’re looking structurally at well, we’ve had this group of people who need an income, who do deserve to be integrated into a space, and how can we make that happen for them?
BEN: Absolutely. Yeah, I completely agree, and I think it’s worth noting that everything that I’m speaking of here and I think a lot of the topics around neurodiversity in the workplace when it comes to this competitive, integrated employment model, it’s not so much an act of charity, unless you would consider the same for any other underrepresented population. And what I mean by that, I’ve spoken at companies and in forums in the past, and typically something that I start with is saying if you have a company of over 50 employees, there is a very real chance that you already have a neurodivergent person working in your organization —
DANIELLE: Absolutely. Mhm.
BEN: …but many people don’t want to disclose because there’s a lot of hesitancy around disclosing, which we can certainly talk about as well, but there’s that fear of discrimination or job loss, and even beyond the discrimination and job loss people might feel that they’re going to be treated differently or that they’re not going to have that same opportunity for upward advancement in their career if they do disclose. And so, while we have a population that is integrated into the workplace effectively, that’s not doing much to really dissuade the stigma around diversity in the workplace, because the very talented neurodivergent professionals who are contributing every day and being a part of their communities and their workplaces and producing for their employers, a lot of times they’re not getting the credit for that.
And similar to what we see with any other underrepresented minority, I find that a lot of autistic and neurodivergent employees have to perform above and beyond the standard in order to receive the same level of recognition.
DANIELLE: Yeah. I think you’re speaking to a really important piece when we’re talking about moving from, say, the sheltered workplace model into this new integrated model, right? The sheltered workshop model really infantilizes a lot of disabled people and is complicit in this stereotype of treating disabled people like we’re not autonomous adults who can make decisions for ourselves and who have the right to access the workplace, right? Are humans, basically. Fully valuable humans the same way everybody else is. And that charity angle that you’re speaking towards for me has always felt to contribute to that infantilization of disabled folks, especially folks with intellectual disability, but including folks who are, say, autistic and integrated into a white-collar workplace.
And I think that speaking towards those stereotypes, stereotypes towards the individual but also towards the population of disabled folks is a really important piece of breaking down some of these issues and kind of starting the work of recognizing basic human rights for everybody. That everybody deserves access to a workplace that is fulfilling but also is going to meet their financial needs in a very complicated world that costs a lot of money nowadays.
BEN: It’s very true. I completely agree, and I think that that’s a major topic that deserves some scrutiny as well is that level of infantilization that you’re speaking of. I engaged with a job seeker a couple of weeks ago who had spent about 30 years or more working in a sheltered workshop setting, and you can tell the marked difference between this individual who is much later on in his career but coming in for an entry-level position in a manufacturer, has some job skills but you see that those job skills had not been enhanced at all in his career at the sheltered workshop. I mean, this is somebody with decades of experience, but in terms of capability doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot to show for that, and I think that that’s a function of the fact that a lot of these sheltered workshops do not have a vested interests in improving the skillsets of the individuals that they employ, because if they do, then all of a sudden that individual is going to have a widening of opportunity. They no longer need to work at a sub-minimum wage setting or sheltered workshop setting, they can go achieve a competitive income the same as neurotypical individuals. But then if that happens, well that workshop is now going to lose an employee.
And so, it’s counter to the way that a well-intentioned or savvy employer would operate, where if you have an employee that showcases potential, then you would invest in that employee and hope that they stick with your company and kind of move up the levels of employment and maybe take on some leadership or additional responsibilities. That structure doesn’t necessarily apply to a lot of these sheltered workshop settings, because if that individual does start to advance, then they’re out the door.
DANIELLE: Yeah. And the existence of a sub-minimum wage, you can see maybe the initial idea of a charity model. I’m not super familiar with the history of sheltered workshops, but from my perspective, it seems like you could see an employer saying, “Well, let’s create this charitable option for getting disabled people some kind of income and serving the community in some way.” But then it becomes exploitative because, as you said, these folks are now stuck in this one kind of work. They’re not getting additional skills. The company is certainly making more off of them than the employee is getting for their work and labor.
And so, yeah — I think I always (laughs) am somewhat suspicious of charitable initiatives, unfortunately, because although there are folks doing lots of good work, in many ways, the institutions of charity can become exploitative for folks that are participating, whether they are volunteering or laboring for them. And so how do you feel like, as somebody who’s much more in the field, on the ground level than I am, what is the popularity of these workshops? How often are disabled folks kind of being put to work here and not getting into the field?
BEN: Long story short, they are a waning entity. And so, the reason for that is, on the federal level, many of these sheltered workshops are collecting federal dollars. They’re kind of an extension of either a state or federal government entity and as such they receive dollars, whether that’s from a Department of Human Services or a like-minded government organization. So, all of those sheltered workshops are actually in the process of twilighting, and I believe by the end of 2024, generally, they will no longer exist.
DANIELLE: Beautiful (laughs softly).
BEN: Now, that said, there are some ways around that, but as far as we can speak broadly on any sort of federal initiative, that is the case. So, above and beyond that, I do agree with what you’re saying, too, when it comes to kind of some of that cohort or enclave style employment, where maybe there’s a charity organization that partners with an employer and says, “Hey, we’re going to provide three or four or five workers. We’re going to provide a staff counselor who’s going to accompany them, and then they’re working in your business.” They’re probably receiving a more competitive wage, but they’re kind of on a proverbial island within that employer.
And to that point, that still runs a little bit counter to what I find to be the best path forward, which is this truly integrated approach. But at the same time, I will concede that I think that a lot of the employers that are doing that have the best of intentions, but these are not necessarily people who got a degree and have a vested interest in neurodiverse accessibility and neurodiversity in the workplace. So, they’re doing what they think is the best possible option, not knowing how to create that level of integration and not wanting to subject any disabled people or autistic or neurodivergent people to any level of discrimination; Which highlights some larger cultural issues when it comes to the average American workplace, but I understand the intent there.
And so I think that kind of building out this conversation a little bit more and highlighting some awareness can show, hey, a lot of this really does come down to the stigma. In my opinion, I find that that is the single biggest driver in a lot of this. And I think sometimes maybe it sounds like a cop-out, but when you talk to neurotypical people who haven’t engaged with this conversation on a legitimate level — And I’m not finger-pointing by any means, because I understand that we all come in to this —
BEN: …at our own pace, but the average person is just inundated with all of these stereotypes of what an autistic person can and can’t do and where their capability is and that’s kind of confounded by the fact that it presents so differently across individuals. And so, I think, ultimately, that’s the next phase of all of this. I think it’s a strong step forward to say sheltered workshops are not the future, we need to leave those behind in the 1950s and 60s, but how do we take that step forward and help transition some of these individuals so that they can provide for themselves the same as anybody else would?
DANIELLE: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And I absolutely agree with you that a lot of the problem is that lack of education, that stigma that folks internalize, and we’ve talked about that a little bit before, that even I work with late-identified folks so these are people who are decades into their life and then get, say, an autism diagnosis, an ADHD diagnosis, a bipolar diagnosis, whatever it is, and are suddenly having to grapple with all these stigmas that they’ve internalized about a population that they are now a part of, right? That they’ve always been a part of but didn’t have the identification for.
And so, all that stuff is internalized. And just like when you’re dealing with any other kind of bias, whether it’s disability or race or whatever, gender, you have to do that work yourself, right? And I hear what you’re saying about a lot of these initiatives, and people kind of at the top of the chain when it comes to corporations, do have good intentions and are trying the best they can, but maybe didn’t have the education and now are not in a place where they are able to do the work to undo that themselves. And that’s part of why stuff like this podcast exists and why a lot of us are out here trying to advocate, so, I really appreciate the work you’re doing for these folks.
Solutions for integrated employment
Danielle: I want to ask you a little bit more about kind of how you got into this place. So, this is a fantastic initiative. It’s countering a lot of the current challenges that, like you said, 85% of disabled folks are unemployed. That’s a huge number and an unreasonable amount, so clearly this work needs to be done. What kind of motivated you to choose this topic to kind of make your life’s work right now?
BEN: Yeah. So, I studied behaviorism at the University of Kansas, and that was a unique program for me because, at least at the time that I graduated, KU was one of only two universities that offered a dedicated behaviorism track. So, we weren’t housed within the school of psychology, we were learning behavioral theory as our degree, and that was not directly related to ABA, which will come up in just a moment, but that was a lot of theory around behaviorism. What is kind of the concepts of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, how do we shape human behavior on a very conceptual level —
DANIELLE: That’s a really big part of psychology as an institute, too. I just want to frame for folks that I did positive psychology and behaviorism is a huge piece of that, even though they may not seem related. So, just to kind of frame that out for folks, yeah.
BEN: It’s true. It’s a large piece of that. So, that’s what I got my degree in. Ultimately, I was really interested in taking that work to the world of alcohol and substance abuse, and I wanted to kind of be able to identify a way to create accessibility in terms of positive reinforcement for overcoming some of those afflictions. That ended up not happening. I shifted gears and I actually went into ABA.
So, I worked in the ABA field for a few years and I saw a lot of different clients. I saw a lot of different situations play out, many of which are very much in line with many of the individuals who speak out against the use of ABA. I have seen some of that in real-time, and there’s a reason why I walked away from ABA, and ultimately I am very much in support of that conversation. But one thing that I very much did see at the time was I was working with individuals across a very wide age range. So, I had a client who was as young as two, and then my oldest client was 18 and I worked with a number of individuals kind of all within that age group, and the one consistent thing that I saw amongst all of them is they were looking forward to a service cliff, kind of be on that public high school track.
And so, what I wanted to do was go out and try to create a stronger pipeline to employment so that these individuals have a light at the end of the tunnel if you will. And as they continue to move through an education track, they know that there is a way to gain competitive employment on the back end of that. And so that was really my motivation for getting into this work. I’ve been doing this for just over three years now, so going on year number four, and this is where I’m at.
DANIELLE: Yeah, and you’ve grown a lot. I also just appreciate you speaking towards — Briefly, I know it wasn’t your main point at all (laughs softly), but I’m autistic, so I grabbed it. That, what did you call it? A services cliff! When kids (stammers) hit 18, excuse me, which we see in so many different social services kind of across, that whether you’re dealing with kids in foster, kids in public schools, kids in job training, that they hit 18, and there is no support getting in. And so it does seem like that pipeline, as you called it, or that bridge into, well, how do we get you into a job that feels good, that will treat you well as a human being and pay you a decent wage and build your skills for employment in the future? It does seem to be such a gap in the industry now so, it’s great that folks like you are working towards bridging that gap and helping young adults move into a space where they can start gaining autonomy and authority over their own lives because income does grant you autonomy. It’s an important piece of coming of age in America especially, so.
BEN: It sure is. And if we could, I would love to peel back some of the rugged capitalism that we’re all exposed to, but short of that I’d at least like to be able to create some of that upward financial mobility for individuals and kind of have a path for people that are on that track and might be facing that service cliff someday. And that’s not to go counter to any of the work that’s happening within the state organizations and Department of Rehab Services, but autism specifically can be fairly challenging because it’s not always possible to get a diagnosis. And so, by the time somebody might even be able to get a diagnosis, now they’re on a waitlist, now they’re assigned to a counselor, now they’re on an employment track which is typically going to look like some of what I mentioned earlier of knocking on doors and trying to find a company that’s willing to hand over five or six or 10 hours for a part-time job. That’s a lot of steps to go through before having a job that really is not even a competitive, integrated solution at the end of the day.
DANIELLE: It might not last that long and won’t teach you anything, and I think that also just that process can take — I have clients who have been trying to get work for years through Voc Rehab — And that is to say nothing against the folks at Voc Rehab, because I know most of those folks are, like, working their butts off, but just that I think there is an argument for as many different tracks as possible to be opened up for folks to work on this problem, right? That we need a lot of different solutions for a lot of different micro problems, and so I think it’s positive to have stuff like what you’re doing and also Voc Rehab and also, and also, and also, because there’s just so many — 85% of disabled people is just so many people, right? It’s clear that it’s a huge problem and therefore needs a lot of solutions.
BEN: It does, yeah. And I always say there’s not going to be a silver bullet to this solution. We need to have the same level of focus and attention and intention as we do with any other workforce solution. And maybe to take that point just a step further, is I feel like we’ve heard a lot, in the last couple of years especially, around a labor shortage or the term that nobody wants to work anymore, and that specifically gets my cortisol going up and my blood boiling because I could point you towards plenty of people who would love to be working but don’t have the opportunity to do so. And so I feel like it’s poor messaging, but it’s also just blatantly incorrect that there’s a labor shortage or that people don’t want to work, because what we do want is for there to be some minor adjustments on the front end to create more sustainability and true inclusion on the front end of your talent pipeline, if you will.
DANIELLE: Thanks so much for being here today and that was a fantastic conversation. If folks want to learn more about Stannum Core Solutions and about you where can they find information on that?
BEN: Absolutely, yeah, so probably the best way to get in touch is through our website, which is stannumcore.com. That’s S-T-A-N-N-U-M C-O-R-E dot com. You can also find us on LinkedIn. And coming up later this year and into 2024, I will be launching a podcast tour to talk about a lot more of these similar conversations, so I’ll be posting about that as well.
DANIELLE: That’s awesome. We will have Ben’s information down below, so please go check him out and you should let us know when your podcast comes out, we’ll link it in our newsletter. That would be amazing.
DANIELLE: Thank you so much for being here today, I really appreciate this conversation. This kind of work is so needed in this field, so appreciate what you’re doing.
BEN: Yes, thank you so much, Danielle. It was a pleasure to be here and I hope to talk more about this soon.
DANIELLE: Thank you so much for joining us on the Neurodiverging podcast today. I hope that it was helpful for you, that you learned something. If you have comments please email us at email@example.com or leave a voice note in the thingamajig below. Thank you as always to our patrons for supporting this podcast and making us go. You can learn more at patreon.com/neurodiverging. Please remember, we are all in this together.