Autism educator Damian Milton (South Bank University, National Autistic Society) recently spoke with author Janine Booth about some of the issues raised in her new book, Autism Equality in the Workplace: Removing Barriers and Challenging Discrimination. During the interview Janine speaks at length about the importance of unions for employees with autism and how improved communication and understanding of autism by employers can benefit all workers.
Damian Milton: What would you say are the major barriers to autistic people in the workplace?
Janine Booth: Workplaces are generally organised in very hierarchical, authoritarian ways, with the focus on maximising profitable production rather than on recognising and including the diversity of the workforce. This presents particular barriers to autistic workers throughout the employment cycle, from recruitment to redundancy. Barriers arise in key areas such as: the sensory environment; communications; training; social interaction; workplace change; how work is organised; harassment and bullying.
On top of all this, the current economic situation, and the austerity policies that have come with it, have intensified pressures on autistic and other workers, and have seen a big increase in insecure employment eg. temporary, agency, and zero-hours contracts. This is very disabling for people who prefer routine and security.
DM: What would be your main points of advice for employers in making workplaces more autism-friendly?
JB: Most importantly, listen to and act on the views of autistic workers. Don’t assume that because you read an article, or know someone who has an autistic child, you know all about autism! The most effective way to listen to workers is by recognising their trade union. Through collective bargaining, the employer and the union can agree a policy that will make the workplace more autism-friendly, based on applying the social model of disability by identifying and removing barriers. Measures would include: providing support and mentoring; improving communications; applying the principles of Universal Design; maximum control for each worker over his/her sensory environment and the pace and process of work; provision to work from home if wanted; action to prevent and deal with bullying and harassment; shorter and more tailored working hours; and employing enough staff.
DM: As an autistic person, I often feel that ‘reasonable adjustments’ can be beneficial, but we need to move beyond this to be more inclusive. What is your view regarding ‘reasonable adjustments’?
JB: The legal right to reasonable adjustments (called reasonable accommodations in many countries) is important – it was a step forward when it came into force, and it is a right that autistic workers can use to significant effect. However, it is also a sign of failure. How so? Because an accessible, autism-friendly workplace would not need adjusting. Imagine a wheelchair user having to ask for a ramp to be installed as a reasonable adjustment. Yes, it is a positive thing that the ramp is then installed; but it is surely a problem that s/he had to ask in the first place, as the workplace was not already accessible. Similarly, an autistic worker can ask for controllable lighting at his/her desk, but wouldn’t it be better if all workers could control their lighting levels through the provision of controllable lighting as standard? That’s just one smallish example. If workplaces become autism-friendly, then that will minimise the need to make reasonable adjustments for individuals. That will also take the pressure off individuals to ‘come out’ as autistic in order to obtain tolerable working conditions, and it will make the workplace better for everyone, autistic or not.
DM: One of the issues you raise I can relate to well – how would you advise autistic people when they have ‘trouble with managers’?
JB: Make sure that you are in a trade union and talk to your union rep! Every worker is entitled to join a union, whether or not there is already one in your workplace. The Trade Union Congress can put you in touch with a union that is appropriate for the sort of job you have. Some managers can make life very difficult for autistic workers, and even well-meaning ones may be doing so unintentionally. Trouble can come from direct bullying, but also from excessive scrutiny, and from treating you as a problem rather than as someone with strengths and positives. If you arm yourself with knowledge of your rights and with a union membership card, then you can do something about it. You don’t have to put up with bullying or overbearing management.
DM: I’ve a deep personal and academic interest in how autistic people can experience a lack of understanding and empathy from others. In the book, you say that autistic people often come off worse from ‘communication clashes’. What do you think can be done to help reduce this problem?
JB: Make sure that workplace communication is clear! There are so many stories of autistic workers getting into trouble because they have been given a sloppy request or instruction and have carried it out literally. Workplaces often have their own dialect or jargon, but although workers are taught the technical jargon of the work process, we are not usually taught the social jargon. Don’t have unwritten rules. If there are rules, write them. Better still, negotiate them among the workforce, so that not only does everyone know them, but they also had a role in deciding them. Facilitate each worker to use his/her preferred form of communication; some prefer to exchange information in writing rather than in meetings; some hate the telephone; some want to use diagrams; others may benefit from assistance from a support worker or intermediary. Break down the culture of management pressure, of favouritism (“blue-eyed-boy-and-girl syndrome”), and the drive to competitiveness that pits workers against one another. Practices such as performance-related pay, hand-picked promotions, judging workers based on their socialising, and ever-harsher performance management regimes make workplaces into distressing and discriminatory environments where communication clashes abound.
Oh, and drop the ‘management-speak’ – who knows what half that stuff even means?!
DM: What can be done to strengthen the solidarity between the disabled people’s movement and the trade union movement and what kinds of workplace transformations could this lead to?
JB: This solidarity can be very powerful – it has recently helped force a government retreat on cuts to disability benefits.
Solidarity between the two movements is a political issue. The disabled people’s movement and the trade union movement can make a political choice to work together. In terms of paper policy at least, they have done so – and some sections have done so actively and to great effect. It then becomes a matter of making that political choice happen in practice. This can be achieved through, for example: active support for each others’ campaigns; sharing resources; and strong disabled members’ structures in trade unions. The unions themselves will be more effective if they become less bureaucratic and more accessible and attractive to autistic and other disabled members. My book provides lots of advice on how to do this!