Today, I was a panellist at at evidence session organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, discussing autism and employment. There were several ‘witnesses’, mostly employers and representatives of charities. Some were autistic, some not.
The APPGA will publish a full report later this year, but in the meantime, here are the questions I asked and brief notes on the replies given. These notes do not cover the full range of the discussion or the questions asked by other panellists.
I asked: Do you support the application of the social model of disability to autism? What does this mean to you?
Those who answered agreed, and emphasised that the identification and removal of barriers to autistic participation was the most effective approach to addressing employment discrimination.
I asked: We know that full-time work is difficult for many autistic people, and that long working hours are a barrier, as they lead to sensory overload and excessive and tiring social interaction. Do you think that if our society reduced and redefined ‘full-time’ to mean, say, a four-day, 32-hour week, that would make it easier for autistic people to work full-time?
The initial answer focused on the right to work part-time or to job-share. But with a reminder of the question, those who answered agreed that this would benefit autistic workers, and other workers as well.
I asked: One significant barrier to autistic people is discrimination by employers, in its various forms. Workers can challenge discrimination via application to an Employment Tribunal. But currently, the law allows employers to argue that an autistic worker is not disabled under the legal definition and therefore to have claims of discrimination dismissed. Would you support a change in the law to make ‘neurological condition’ (including autism) a distinct protected characteristic under the Equality Act with the same legal protections as disability?
Those who answered agreed, one in particular expressing how appalled she is that the law does not currently offer unqualified protection against discrimination to autistic people.
I followed up by asking: There have been cases in which Employment Tribunals have found employers to have unlawfully discriminated against autistic workers and unlawfully driven them out of their jobs, including some appalling conduct by named managers. However, Tribunals do not currently have the power to compel employers to reinstate unfairly-dismissed workers, nor to compel them to train or even remove from their posts managers who have bullied or discriminated against autistic workers. Would you support a change in the law to give Employment Tribunals the power to do this?
Those who answered agreed unequivocally with Tribunals being given the power to compel employers to train managers or remove them from their posts in these circumstances.
Some concern was expressed about compelling reinstatement, as the sacked worker might not want this or might face victimisation. However, when I clarified that Tribunals hold a ‘remedy hearing’ which discusses whether reinstatement is the appropriate remedy, and that this will not order reinstatement if the worker does not want it or if the Tribunal does not consider it appropriate, that appeared to resolve those concerns.
I asked: What role do you think that trade unions can play in supporting and winning improvements for autistic workers? Would you recommend to employers that they facilitate trade union representatives to effectively represent autistic workers, for example, by allowing them paid release from work to attend union-run training courses on autism?
Those who responded spoke positively about the role of trade unions in representation, support, and providing a forum for autistic workers, and agreed that paid release for union representatives to attend training was to be recommended.
I asked: As well as providing advice to employers on becoming more autism-friendly, would you also support measures by the government to compel employers to do so? Specifically, do you support the extension of the Public Sector Equality Duty to all employers, including in the private sector? Would you support a legal duty on employers to conduct a Workplace Accessibility Assessment and to develop an Autism and Neurodiversity policy in consultation with trade unions where they are recognised?
Those who answered gave broadly favourable responses to the principle of legal duties on employers to address autistic people’s disadvantage at work.
I asked: One issue for autistic people, particularly autistic self-advocates, in accessing employment is that we are expected to do things for free which merit being paid work. Events about autism often have ‘professional’ speakers paid a fee to speak while autistic speakers are expected to speak without being paid. Similarly, bodies such as local authority autism partnership boards comprise professionals who attend in paid work time alongside autistic people who are expected to attend in their own, unpaid time. From an employment rights point of view, do you think this is acceptable?
Those who answered stated that this was unacceptable. For clarity, I pointed out to the National Autistic Society representative that it supports events at which this takes place, and she confirmed that she disagrees with the practice of not paying autistic speakers where professional speakers are paid.
Finally, I asked: Would you recommend that every workplace has a quiet room where practicable?