Patrick Bardsley, Co-Founder & CEO, Spectrum Designs Foundation
It's the inherent self-worth, the being part of a team, the reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Patrick's organization employs individuals with autism once they've become adults at age 21, building an inclusive workforce and talented pool of employees.
Interview with Patrick Bardsley, Co-Founder & CEO, Spectrum Designs Foundation
Transcript for Interview with Patrick Bardsley, Co-Founder & CEO, Spectrum Designs Foundation
Webcast interview hosted by John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com, featuring Patrick Bardsley, Co-Founder & CEO, Spectrum Designs Foundation. John and Patrick are in separate locations and the interview was conducted over video conferencing. The speaker is on screen at any given time.
[Introductory chime accompanies 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly. Music accompanies 'Accessibility Matters' on screen, briefly]
John: Hi, I'm John Griffin. I'm the publisher of Accessibility.com; thank you for joining us today for this session. My guest today is Patrick Bardsley. Patrick Bardsley started an organization in 2011 that provides employment to persons with autism once they've become adults at age 21.
So you can see that the education system that provides them what their needs are up until the age 21 kind of closes down on them after that. And employment becomes how they move to potentially having an ordinary and normal life.
Patrick, it's a pleasure to meet you today. My first question, how did you get to the ground that you're standing on today? What's the genesis of how this all came about?
Patrick: Well, I think the genesis principally is a parents or a mother's love. I'm a co-founder myself with two mothers of children on the autism spectrum, who back in 2010 were teenagers, and facing this service cliff and the high unemployment rate.
And the kind of dearth in opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum after high school. And like many parents and mothers before, blaze the trail.
So I guess that's how I'm here in terms of being there and co-founding spectrum designs with them. And them creating something for their children, and those like them to have futures.
John: How did it begin? How did you get started? I mean, how did you, you know even you took it from an idea to a fulfillment, that's not easy to do.
Patrick: Yeah. Many things happened. There was actually a tragedy in my co-founder Stella's family. She'd always dreamt, her son Nicholas is on the autism spectrum. She'd always dreamt of something for him when he became older, and his father passed away suddenly in June 2010.
And so the door closed and a window opened, and she was able to help sort of start this non-profit, and realized that we would need to be creating jobs. Realized that we would need to, we couldn't be knocking on the doors of other businesses, and that you know we should create something ourselves.
And that's where the idea of spectrum designs was born. In terms of getting it from a to b to c to d and all the way, I think one thing that we understood early on, and we were lucky enough to understand, was that we had to be good at what we did, right?
It's not good enough to start a business with this great mission, and hope that the mission will propel you to you know the heights that you can get to. You know you have to be price competitive; you have to be quality-driven.
You have to have good customer service. If you can do those things, then you can add the social mission, and people can say, I want to support this, or I want to use this as an ongoing basis.
So we've stayed true to our mission, we've also stayed true to the business principles along the way, and those two go kind of tightly in parallel as we go.
John: It's an interesting way to look at it. Now you started simply, right? And it's evolved into, and it continues to evolve to an expansion of the business. Now there's a couple of points that I want to make on that.
One, the skill set is changing as you go along. And two, were as you began, and you took this out. Welcome or not welcome when the premise was that we employ only autistic young men and women.
Patrick: So yeah, I think to that point one thing that we always stress is that we're an integrated, inclusive employer. So we have people both on and not on the autism spectrum working side by side; it's truly integrated. People are paid minimum wage or above; this isn't an old-style sheltered workshop, this isn't.
We've never done that, and again I'm not commenting on those places, but we just never felt that philosophically that moved the needle if you aren't paying people a living wage. And they're not working alongside typically functioning peers.
So I think that's important and has always been an important part of our philosophy, as well as being in the community. For too long, we felt that people with disabilities were segregated, or in-kind of kept out of the way places.
We've always been in Main Street. I mean, our address is on Main Street in Port Washington, and our new location in Pleasantville is on a main street and community access, you know, a few minute’s walk to the train.
So that's always been a part of it, kind of engraining with the community and being part of that. We started in a barn, you know the American story. We started in a backyard barn with a couple of employees, and I think that our employees were, you know, my co-founder's children; they were our test subjects.
And I think as to your point about skill development, the nice thing about that is you know we had a horse in the race, we had two horses in the race, right? So we always looked at it as if they can do this, we can always build up or around; they were kind of the litmus test.
And so that we had to be doing work that they enjoyed, that they were safe doing, that they felt productive doing, and we built up from there. Our technology changed, our production capacity changed, environments changed.
But that kind of philosophy and that skill development, task analysis, breaking down tasks to bring them up or down based on the individual and their current level never left, never changed.
We have a pretty adaptive workplace, but I think the key to that and that kind of environmental design is that it benefits everyone, right? Making the workplace more visual, footmarks on the floor, signs, more visual kind of cues.
That grand design you'll talk to people who layout warehouses and stuff, there's an efficiency there that affects everyone. So while we initially did it to support our neuro-diverse employees, it's helped, everyone. And so that we carry on through every location.
John: So compare the autistic employee to others, to the you know non-or non-disabled or able-bodied employee.
Patrick: I mean, there's that old adage, right? You know one person with autism, and you know one person with autism. But, I understand the question. So I think you know, there's already data and research to say you know the retention rate is so much higher, the kind of ability to do repetitive tasks but stay focused and concentrating on the detail, which is great when you're in production as we are.
For the autistic employee. We have some of the most loyal, dedicated, hard-working group of employees that you could ask for. I feel like it's a one of the best-kept secrets as a business owner that we have access to this pool of employees.
That being said, our non-disabled employees here are fantastic and dedicated and choose to work here knowing that they could work in any teacher printing the shop. And perhaps sometimes their days would be less stressful in some ways because things you know don't always go smoothly or from a to b in a succinct, linear fashion.
But they love it, and they feel like they have the best job in the world because the environment and the culture is inclusive, it's non-judgmental, and it's a place where you feel like there's a certain tremendous sense of pride in being here.
And they can talk about their profession and explain what they do, and they're not just a printer; they're a printer of spectrum designs working alongside individuals who otherwise may not have this opportunity, and then they feel part of something bigger. So while, of course, we do look at autistic employees versus none, we really look at the team as a whole.
And that's why I like the term neurodiversity because you and I are neuro-diverse on this call. We have different brains; we have different experiences; we have different skills, right? And so neurodiversity kind of covers the gambit of the whole human race. But in our case, our team here.
John: Before we got on here, we were talking a bit about the ecosystem that lies beneath the need for accessibility to expand across the globe in terms of businesses and so forth.
And you had some pretty good insight into why that is happening, and what further you see in it, could you talk about that a little bit?
Patrick: We've been doing this for ten years, and we've seen a shift just in 10 years in how the market segment and purchases are changing, right? So millennials have now become the largest market segment and just being followed by gen z.
And this is a group that is prioritizing purpose in their purchasing and corporations of this sport. So the days of when a corporation was judged solely by its bottom line are gone, corporate social responsibility.
DEI, which was a big thing that came out in 2020, of course, is a necessity for any growing business now. So from our point of view, we feel like it's really important, you've got a billion people on the planet who are disabled or in that population, I believe.
So that's one of the, I think, the largest minority group, and yet they're not necessarily being included in these DEI initiatives. So corporations are going to have to act more quickly to incorporate and include individuals with disabilities in their workforces.
And when they do, they will see the business case for it. It's not necessarily charity, certainly not charity. It's not a handout; it's a hand-up. And what it will do is boost their corporate image, improve their culture, improve their DEI and CSR goals.
And help them from a, from the ground up. You know, and so we're seeing that in what we do, of course, we're a social enterprise, we're a mission-driven business. But more and more CEOs and corporations are pledging to dedicate even one cent to their workforce to those with disabilities.
So it's a good start, I look forward to see how it carries on. But I think it's going to become a necessity, or it is becoming a necessity because of the shift in what we would call sort of doing good while doing well, right?
So capitalism doesn't have to suffer, right? By doing this. Actually, there's a tremendous business case for it being a necessity to continue capitalism.
John: Now you've recently gone through a real kind of experience in advancing your work. You expanded to another community on the other side of the long island sound. Didn't you have other communities coming to you and sort of like, I was, I don't want to use the word?
Maybe I'm using the wrong language here. Were they bidding for you to come in? And there seems to be this growing like oh wow, this thing is happening, we've got to get into it, you know. And how did that come about?
Patrick: So it did. We were approached by a group in Westchester, who I thought we would just be able to give them a playbook and say, hey, you know, here's how we did it. You know, good luck, you know we'll be here, we'll help you, and they said no, we want you. We need you to come and do it.
So we didn't really look at it that way until they said that. Yeah, I think, unfortunately, even with what we do and we feel like we've achieved and impacted, you know, 50 plus people, and that's a great thing, but we're still a drop in the ocean.
So I do hope that we ourselves internally can continue to replicate and expand into other areas and communities. But also that we're an inspiration to other social enterprises or businesses or private visitors that wish to do this.
I would love to, you know, be out east on long island or on the south shore. What we've found is being in a community is important as I said, being near public transport is important.
So you'll see when you look at a map of social enterprises or businesses like ours in the United States, they tend to be in big hub areas where public transport is good. So you're looking at like Chicago, on the west coast, you know we're here in New York where we have long island railroad, and then in Pleasantville that has metro north, walking distance from where we are.
There's not been much data on that, yet I don't think, but it's certainly a factor for us. And I think will be for this population that may not be, may have a low amount of people who have access to a car or driver.
So yeah, we'll see what happens next. We never want people to; of course, you know there are not enough, not enough jobs. And so you know, as I said, I just hope that we can keep chipping away at it and pulling it that thread, and the other people can join and do it as well.
John: You must get a great thrill on a day-to-day basis in terms of seeing how the humanity is so rewarding in the persons that you work with, that you hire.
John: I mean on a personal level, I you know what that's like, to get back, you know the reflection of an autistic person making progress and becoming normalized in other functions that we take for granted every single day. I suppose that's a pretty deep part of your soul.
Patrick: It is. Monday, next Monday, we're hiring four new people in Westchester with disabilities on the autumn spectrum. It's our first kind of big hire because we've been open since December.
So you know we've been training and training in there, they're ready, and those are the best days. I sometimes shudder when I think of what their lives might have been like had they been born a generation earlier. You know the ADA act was 1990, you know I mean I was born in 87, that was the first act that comprehensively protected the civil rights of people with disabilities.
We're not that far away from Willow Brook. You know so for me, those are the best days, and I feel grateful, and glad that I can be part of that. But yeah, that's the best stuff.
You know when we get a big order, or when we get a new customer, sure, you get excited, and you feel good, and you get that kind of dollar signs capitalism, right? But, I then immediately shift to how many hours of productivity is that going to provide? How many hours of paid employment can that provide?
And those are the best; that's the best start. The look on someone's face receiving their first paycheck when they've been working but not really volunteering for 15 years since leaving high school; it's the best.
And it's not just about the paycheck, it's the friendships and the relationships; it's the non-tangibles. It's the inherent self-worth, the being part of a team, the reason to get out of bed in the morning.
These are all things that you take for granted when you've had a great career, or you know you've got your job, but when you haven't had access to that, and you're certainly getting that, it's incredible.
And I would love to say that that was part of the grand plan, we just thought we'll make some t-shirts and create some jobs, and that'll be great. But now we see people who are moving into apartments together, or their parents are setting them in homes in the community, and they can live and work close to where they are.
And those are things beyond our wildest dreams and friendships and relationships being formed. Those are things that are so much more than the paycheck.
John: Yeah. So much more than a paycheck. What's really so much more than a paycheck is these are people that are being themselves and using their own compass point towards productivity and intelligent activity, and a sense of self-worth and reward. Move the clock ten years forward; what do you think you see?
Patrick: I'd love to see us carrying on. You know, I think every two to three years, we seem to be expanding. So I'd love to see two or three more locations in kind of strategic parts of the local or tri-state or geographic area.
My big dream, maybe it's not in 10 years, is a UK branch, of course. Being that that's my homeland. But I think from spectrum's point of view, that's what I would like to see. From a more sort of macro-level I think the term neuro-diversity and moving perhaps even away from disability.
I don't know what that looks like; language has action and patterns of thought, and that will need to change. But focusing on the benefits because I think we're still in this, and you use the term kind of when you use employment and disability in the same sentence, you know.
This the employment becomes like a pothole, and you're 100% right; that's where we are right now. I would love for that to not be a thing. And that you know we're looking at that just as we're creating jobs for this, this group.
You know we're seeing ability, not disability, because you know that's how we see it. And when we started, ten years ago, it's different to how it is now when we first started.
So, that's my hope, that we can move towards seeing ability first and presuming competence, and the people on the autism spectrum or just those who are neuro-divergent are seen as just that. Just people who want an opportunity like everyone else.
John: Patrick, I cannot thank you enough, both for doing this, but also on a personal level. Because this work you're opening up a door to possibilities that is succeeding. This has really been a very insightful discussion, and congratulations Patrick, job well done.
Patrick: Thank you. Well, and thank you, John, for the work that you and the team are doing Accessibility as well. You know we feel like, I tell our team all the time, we do this every day, but we're not experts.
And we need resources, and we need the tools to keep doing what we're doing, to be inclusive, to continue our compliance. You know you can have the best mission in the world, but if you don't have resources to go to learn to stay you know correct in what you're doing, it can all tumble down.
So you know, I think it's so important to have accessibility and the work you guys are doing. It allows us to carry on and have that valuable resource, so thank you, really.
John: Well, we're both foot soldiers in an army of a good, very good cause. And my compliments, thank you.
Patrick: Thank you.
John: Had spectrum never happened, had Patrick Bardsley never picked up the challenge, the possibilities that we heard about today, the opportunities that opened up for all of these special people may never have happened. And that is why accessibility matters.
[On screen, scrolling: Accessibility Matters, Host: John M Griffin, Guest: Patrick Bardsley. Closing chimes accompany 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly.]