DR RADICA MAHASE
ON April 2, TT will join the world in celebrating Autism Awareness Day. The UN’s designation of April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day is meant to raise public awareness of autism and to “highlight the need to help improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.”
The UN’s theme for Autism Awareness Day 2021 is Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World. This theme is highly relevant for TT, a country that did not include individuals with autism in the workplace even in pre-pandemic times – not because they cannot work but because of difficulties in getting companies and businesses to hire them.
This year the UN’s focus is on the challenges of covid19 on the autism community, a community that was already vulnerable. The UN noted that, “The covid19 pandemic has exposed and heightened glaring inequalities around the world, especially when it comes to income and wealth distribution, access to healthcare, protection under the law, and political inclusion. Persons with autism have long faced many of these inequalities, which have only been further exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a problem made worse by long recognised discriminatory hiring practices and workplace environments that present major obstacles for persons with autism; all of which contribute to the unemployment or severe underemployment of a large majority of adults on the autism spectrum.”
All of these are applicable to TT, where people with autism have been denied equal access to education and training long before covid19. In the first place, if people with autism did not have equal access to educational opportunities, when they are not given any opportunities to develop their skills, when opportunities for training and development are limited, then they will not have fair access to jobs or will not be able to compete for employment opportunities. Added to this, the wider TT society still perceived people with autism and other special needs as "incapable" and "unable to succeed" and so on, it is not surprisingly that jobs are not available or accessible or those with autism.
There is that negative stigma here in our country where employers believe that if they hire an individual with special needs it will be time-consuming to train that person, and he or she will not do a good job or might even be harmful to other workers. Employers have not been educated enough about autism to understand that individuals on the autism spectrum, given their unique traits way of thinking, will find unique solutions to problems; are highly dependable; will stick to routines and schedules and focus on details. Thus, that same uniqueness that makes society frown on them might actually make them very committed and productive employees.
At another level, Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others,” and to a “work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities.”
As a country which has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, TT has to step up and make employment opportunities equally available and accessible to individuals with autism and other special needs.
In order to accomplish this a comprehensive policy is needed. At a national level, government ministries should have a fair employment policy that will provide for training and employment to every individual, special needs included. Also, inclusion should be encouraged and fostered in companies, businesses and organisations – when people with special needs are included in internship programmes and are employed then we can change the general work environment. For this to happen, employers need to be educated about autism and they need to understand how inclusion can be a benefit rather than a deterrent to their organisation’s success.
In TT we tend to make excuses for not creating opportunities for people with autism, whether it's in education or training and employment. The standard excuse is that the country does not have the money to do anything and that covid19 has led to a worsen economic situation. However, covid19 has actually presented us with the ideal opportunity to make positive changes in terms of employment.
As the UN noted, “…new ways of working, including remote working and the use of new technologies, have created opportunities for employees on the autism spectrum that previously found it difficult to thrive in traditional workplace environments.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T