Life Possibilities for People with Individual Needs

This concept is the result of a six week long exploration project by Bertelsmann Stiftung and Paulinenpflege Winnenden, facilitated by Markus Kreutzer and Malin Rebke. It aims to outline how algorithmic systems could be applied to generate life possibilities for people across the autism spectrum and other individual needs.


In various formats such as vision workshops, qualitative interviews and system mappings we stumbled upon one major issue that produces most challenges people with individual needs are confronted with. We live in a world of standardized systems with services, processes and structures centered around the assumption of normality. Though, people with autism and many others have very individual needs what leads to enormous life challenges in a standardized world.


Beyond many statements, one aspect that people with autism criticized is that they often fall through the grid of hiring systems, because they do not fulfill certain communicative capabilities. And this even happens when such capabilities are completely irrelevant for the actual job tasks. The standardization of hiring systems excludes them from the beginning. Another insight was a statement by a social worker who said that if you know a person with autism, you know a person with autism. In fact, this statement represents the essence of the issue because it is simply impossible to draw conclusions from one person to another, but this is exactly what standardization does.


As everyone else, people across the autism spectrum are embedded in a wide range of standardized systems, ranging from hiring systems, transportation systems, social service systems to educational systems. An outfacing part of these systems are possibilities through which people can access them, such as job offers. These possibilities contain standardized aspects that fit to many people, but not all! People with individual needs that are located between existing possibilities experience a systemic exclusion through standardization. But to live a self-determined life people need possibilities that fit to their needs, capabilities and interests.


But what does that mean for individuals with autism? Supposing a person has certain interests and capabilities, three job possibilities are imaginable. Though, two of the three require communicative capabilities by default. This makes the job possibilities inaccessible and therefore only one possibility remains. The other possibilities would be adaptable but through the standardization in the hiring system the person with autism gets excluded directly in the application process. In fact, people with individual needs are often excluded even though many aspects could be adapted to their needs.


Such exclusion affects many. As a consequence people with individual needs struggle to live a self-determined life, because it is very difficult for them to evolve and flourish in a standardized world. That means that their life paths are often already predetermined by the structural conditions of the system they are embedded in. Therefore the space to design individual life possibilities is extremely limited.


How would a more desirable situation look like? To address this question we used co-creation formats to develop a vision that transforms the present into a more desirable future. In this vision standardized and static systems become diverse and flexible systems. In order to work towards that vision we conceptualized a strategic intervention. This intervention applies the possibilities of algorithmic systems to strategically change the existing standardization.


But how could algorithmic systems create individual life possibilities beyond standardization? When looking at the outlined example of excluding hiring systems, generative algorithms could be used to develop customized job possibilities on the basis of data such as personal interests and needs. Furthermore, algorithmic systems could generate proposals how to adapt existing jobs to the needs of the person and the organization. Like that a match between demand and offer can be individually created what leads to more diverse and flexible systems, and thereby opens up the excluding standardization.