‘We risk a lost talent pool if we don’t engage with...
‘We risk a lost talent pool if we don’t engage with the autistic community’ – a fresh perspective on reasonable adjustments, and disability rights in the workplace.
Last Thursday (6 July 2017) saw the Legal Advice Centre host a breakfast seminar on ‘Disability, Employment Rights, and Reasonable Adjustments’, with a focus on autistic individuals and their experiences of work. Those in attendance heard from Clive Day of Gateley Plc, Darren Stapleton of Nottinghamshire County Council, and Reuben who shared his personal experiences of being autistic in the workplace.
As my colleague Malvika Jaganmohan has covered previously in her excellent blog post, autistic people often experience a barrage of stimuli from their surroundings, which can leave them anxious and overwhelmed. There is perhaps no more a challenging environment for many individuals than the workplace: the flickering strip lighting; the hum of the air conditioning unit; the aroma of a co-worker’s breakfast which rolls over one’s desk in waves. And all this to contend with before you’ve even opened your inbox.
The statistics from last year’s National Autistic Society survey on autism and employment are, quite frankly, damning. Only 32% of autistic adults are in some kind of paid work, compared with 80% of non-disabled people and perhaps tellingly, 47% of disabled people. Of course, work may not be suitable for every individual, and this is something that should not be forgotten when assessing an autistic individual’s capability for work, and their entitlement to disability benefits (ESA benefit payments: Re-tests axed for chronically ill claimants, BBC News, 1 October 2016). However, the NAS survey goes on to share another revealing statistic – over three-quarters (77%) of unemployed autistic people say they want to work. So the question for those in attendance last Thursday was this; what can be done to address the employment gap?
Despite the apparent doom and gloom conveyed by the statistics, the seminar conveyed to those in attendance that there is a legal tool at hand – to help both employer and employee- in the form of ‘reasonable adjustments’. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (since transposed into the Equality Act 2010) introduced the concept of reasonable adjustments. Put simply, it places a positive obligation upon employers to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to lower barriers experienced by disabled people. A duty will arise when a workplace provision, criterion or practice, or a physical feature of the employer’s premises, puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with persons who are not disabled. The Equality Act 2010 obliges employers to take such reasonable steps with the aim of avoiding this disadvantage. Employers are also under a duty to take reasonable steps to provide ‘auxiliary aids’ and ‘services’ to help a disabled person carry out their work. Such auxiliary aids and services could include adapted chairs or keyboards, and extra staff training, respectively.
Listening is free
The delegates at the breakfast law seminar discussed a number of simple, low-cost adjustments many of which had demonstrably improved an autistic person’s experience of work. Yet the ‘method’, which emerged most often, was the simplest and the cheapest – it is crucial that the employer and the employee (and indeed their colleagues) can have a dialogue about what can be done to assist all, involved. As Darren Stapleton succinctly put it: ‘Listening is free’. The delegates at last Thursday’s seminar also heard from Reuben, who eloquently spoke about the barriers he had faced in work, and the variety of methods he and his employer had found to help overcome the same.
Perhaps the most profound message to take away from the seminar came courtesy of Clive, who emphasised that: ‘We risk a lost talent pool if we don’t engage with the autistic community’. And with that, we were all left with a lot to ponder on both how we can improve our own practices, and how we can assist others to do the same. A ripple will, I hope, turn into a wave that will ultimately help autistic people overcome the barriers they face at work.
If you have any ideas for the development of our Autism Law Service, please email NLS.email@example.com, and if you have a chance, take a look at this powerful video from the National Autistic Society.
 Too Much Information: The Autism Employment Gap, NAS (2016)
 Office for National Statistics (2016) Dataset: A08: Labour market status of disabled people (20 July 2016)
About the author
Callum Scott is a Legal Assistant in the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre.