We should be ashamed of the low employment levels

Friday, 23 March 2018

I thought it timely to round out Disability Action Week by sharing some insights from the 2017 Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC17), which I attended last week in Sydney. APAC17 is all about sharing knowledge and stories to enact change, and I left the three days feeling uplifted and spurred into action.

What did I learn?

  1. APAC17’s theme of ‘Growing with autism’ rang true. I couldn’t believe how far the conversation around autism has come, particularly in the area of post-school transition and employment
  2. The true value of the statement ‘nothing about us without us’. There were many people on the autism spectrum speaking about their experiences. The standouts for me were Stephen Shore, Jeanette Purkis and Zach Zaborny, all of whom spoke bravely and passionately about their own journeys as well as the latest in research and best practice.
  3. The importance of real, grassroots conversations with parents from all walks of life. Many of the parents I spoke to had made a significant investment to travel from all parts of Australia, to answer one question – how do I help create a better future for my son or daughter now that they are an adult.
  4. The injustice of society continually discounting the skills and talents of people with disability. Many speakers at APAC17, myself included, addressed the fact that people with disability aren’t expected to achieve highly, and the unfortunate truth of society’s low expectations is something we need to continually fight against.
  5. Trying to change someone’s core characteristics will never work. To help people on the autism spectrum succeed at work, we must harness and embrace characteristics of autism, not fight against them or try to change them.

Why are so many people on the autism spectrum still unemployed?

Something that hit home for a lot of people at APAC17 was when autism educator and speaker Peter Vermuelen said, ‘We should all be ashamed of the low levels of employment for people on the spectrum’.

I agree that seeing capable, skilled and enthusiastic individuals repeatedly rejected from entering the workforce, and reaching their employment goals, is appalling. The reason people on the autism spectrum are failing to secure work is not through lack of talent or lack of trying.

Instead, their efforts are thwarted by long-standing misconceptions, stigma and damaging stereotypes, which portray people with disability as simply ‘more trouble and effort than they’re worth’ in a workplace setting. It’s a narrative people have been buying into for far too long, and it needs to stop now.

What do we do now?

While it’s important to reflect on where we are currently, and how far we still have to go, it’s vital that we also acknowledge our successes. Organisations like Aspect and Specialisterne Australia, and employers like DXC.Technology, Sunpork and SAP, are already leading the way in making change.

I’m also proud that EPIC Assist is heavily involved in this space, working with businesses to adjust their hiring practices to better support people on the autism spectrum. We are providing practical tips and expertise to create real change across their business, while concurrently working to prepare candidates for the workforce. Widespread change in disability employment happens one business at a time, and we have to continue chipping away at it.

The great news is, embracing diversity and inclusion is now becoming a business imperative for many organisations. In today’s competitive world, it’s more important than ever that businesses focus on ways to cut through and separate themselves from the pack. How better to achieve competitive advantage than by hiring people that think in new and innovative ways?

Realistically, we need to sell the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor in order to gain greater traction with businesses in this area. But we also need to reframe people’s fundamental judgements about disability, which are too often founded in fear and misconceptions.

Pioneer autism advocate, author and speaker Temple Grandin said it best: “I am different, not less.”