DR RADICA MAHASE
ANDRE is 20 years old and he is high functioning on the autism spectrum. He attended secondary school and he obtained five CSEC passes. Since he finished school two years ago, he has been home. He did various short courses and has been applying for jobs since then. Sadly, although he had a few interviews he was rejected.
Andre relates his predicament, “One place I went to the manager told me that he can’t employ me because he need someone who will look at the customers directly when they’re speaking to him and if I couldn’t look at him directly in the interview then how will I manage in the job.”
Andre was employed briefly, for two weeks at a warehouse but the manager kept telling him he was “dotish” and “too slow” and his parents stopped him from working there. Since then he has been home and getting more frustrated and depressed every day.
Andre’s dad noted, “My heart breaks for my son. He is so intelligent. He speaks so well. It’s just that he doesn’t always make eye contact and he might need you to show him something more than once. But he will pick it up once you explain properly to him. The thing is, most people don’t have patience with him and especially now, with all the Venezuelans coming in and so many workers available, nobody wants to hire someone like him. Bosses prefer to take their time and explain things over and over to someone who don’t even speak English but no one would like to explain to someone with special needs.”
Sadly, in TT, there are only a handful of businesses that employ individuals with special needs. Xtra Foods Supermarket for example, is one of the few establishments where individuals with special needs are employed. Often, businesses make the decision to employ individuals with special needs based on the goodwill or kind-hearted nature of the owners. There are no fixed policies in place in our country to create equal employment opportunities for those with autism or other special needs. However, as there has been an increased in autism in general; as many individuals with autism are high functioning; as many are very intelligent and have outstanding skills; it is very important that as a country, we implement policies and plans to facilitate equal employment opportunities.
A policy of inclusion within the labour force is a good place to start. If larger companies are encouraged to employ even one or two persons with special needs; if they are encouraged to have internship programmes for them then that will be a start to changing the work environment in our country. How do we do this? First we need to educate owners, managers, executives, etc, on general inclusion policies and how inclusion can be a benefit rather than a deterrent to the company’s success.
Also, we can encourage individuals with special needs to become self-employed if we provide the relevant training sessions, skills development programmes and technical assistance to them. When we do this we might very well facilitate viable economic opportunities for those with autism and special needs.
The Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts run training sessions through TT, maybe it is time to organise a few specifically for individuals with special needs? How about if the Ministry of Labour and Small Enterprise Development create a database of those with special needs who are in fact employable? Or a database of employers who are willing to employ those with special needs so that people like Andre will know where to go to get information and assistance.
Many employers believe that if they hire an individual with special needs it will be time consuming to train that person, the person will not do a good job or the individual might even be harmful to other workers. They could not be more wrong! On the contrary, individuals on the autism spectrum, and other special needs, given their unique traits and the way in which they think, they tend to find unique solutions to problems; they are highly dependable; they are very good at sticking to routines; they focus on details; and they can be very passionate about things they like and enjoy. With this in mind, they can be an asset in any work environment once they are given the opportunity. It’s time for TT to create the opportunities for them.
Dr Radica Mahase is founder/director, Support Autism T&T