Yep. It’s true. This ASD series just gets harder and harder to write.
Since blogging about our nation’s Autism Enabling Masterplan (AEM) a month ago, my overwhelming sense that this is something bigger than any one of us advocating, partnering, and supporting those in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community, has just become more and more, well, overwhelming!
Like the current global pandemic that’s still crippling many parts of the world after more than a year.
I just hope that by the end of this post, I’ll see some silver lining to this seemingly helpless situation.
[If you’re new to my blog, please find my brief introduction of the AEM here, as well as my reflections on its High Priority Areas HPA#1 here, HPA#2 here, and HPA#3 here.]
HPA #4 Employment Continuum — Wherefore the gaps?
The AEM’s fourth HPA is all about making a living, staving off unemployment, and putting food on the table daily.
[If you’re keen to read more, the full rendering for this fourth HPA can be found here.]
It states some harsh realities that are difficult to ignore for the ASD community in my country.
Firstly, according to the report (page 39), many adult members of the ASD community struggle to find and hold on to jobs. While some 3.5% of our resident population are diagnosed with ASD, only 0.1% of them have jobs in the private sector workforce.
Secondly, many are unable to join the traditional workforce due to their high support needs (page 40).
Employers are generally reluctant to bend over backward to accommodate employees with ASD or other special needs. To do so would require careful job matching, regular on-the-job training, and (in some cases) modifying the infrastructure of the workplace.
And don’t forget long-term support and career progression, and non-ASD staff in the workplace who would need autism awareness (and may I add “acceptance”) training.
Just looking at any one of these factors would make any employer run for the hills!
Thirdly, the prevalent social stigma surrounding ASD means those not obviously autistic, with relatively lower supporting needs, are still underemployed (page 42).
Which would make it tempting for them to withhold information about their disability. After all, why prejudice (already-jittery) employers against you at a job interview by telling them you have ASD, right?
From bad to worse!
Looking at current global situations where many face massive unemployment thanks to Covid and beleaguered economies, it’s never been a tougher time in history to find a decent job!
All the more so for the ASD community and Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), as this recent local news article highlighted.
Adding insult to injury, sectors that regularly hire ASD employees also bear the brunt of these turbulent times. They include food and beverage, retail, tourism, and hospitality.
As HPA#4 points out (page 41), most employers choose to focus on what autistics can’t do, not what they can. This makes it very unlikely they would even consider redesigning jobs to accommodate differences.
But there is hope.
With more working from home because of Covid, and rampant tech disruptions, new opportunities like those shared in this recent Wall Street Journal article may prove to be the very panacea the ASD community needs now.
Current solutions for the ASD community?
In recent years, the government and various stakeholders here have joined forces to redress these gaps.
They have put in place various schemes, programs, and options to boost ASD employability. Many are by an organization called SG Enable, created to support and train ASD persons, and help them find work.
According to the AEM (page 40), these schemes include Open Door Programmes, the President’s Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge, the Enabling Mark and Enabling Employment Credit.
These offer employers different “carrots” like salary offsets (eg 20% of ASD staff’s salary funded by the scheme), and industry recognition for inclusive practices.
The report also mentions other job training and placement agencies that bridge the gap between employers and the ASD community (page 40).
It all sounds well and good, and certainly a whole lot better than a decade ago where none of these existed.
But on the ground, job options remain extremely limited and typically revolve around the same few “enlightened” employers. And these are usually so because they personally know someone who has special needs! No surprise that many are themselves caregivers who start up businesses or social enterprises to ensure their ASD loved ones have jobs.
My hats off to them!
Proposed new solutions?
The AEM report went on to recommend three new solutions.
The first is to create a comprehensive toolkit of best practices that drills down to individual disabilities. Employers may use it to learn as much as they can how to go about inclusive hiring, redesigning jobs, or mastering the etiquette to create a welcoming and diverse work environment.
Next, call all employers to pledge a voluntary quota within their organization for inclusive hiring. Why voluntary rather than mandatory? According to the report, should such a quota be mandated by law, it might lead to further stigmatization and segregation of the community. If not, then at the very least, it may lead to “mere lip service” in the hiring process (page 43). Countries with mandatory hiring laws like China, Japan, France, and Germany are examples.
Finally, the last recommendation is just to have a continuum of solutions for those unable to work for pay. These could take the form of new models of work or increasing their involvement as ASD adults in voluntary or community services.
“Bottomline: who will hire my ASD son?”
And here’s where I say why this series is hard for me.
The reality is that C will very likely outlive his mom and I..
So while I most certainly wish to live a long and healthy life so I can look after him for as long as possible, it’s a big “IF”!
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. For all that we now see in our son, we believe he will at least grow up into adulthood with comparatively lower supporting needs than most.
He should eventually overcome current challenges with daily living skills and subsist on his own. After all, he’s verbal, observant, curious, relational, cheerful, and endearing once you get to know him.
But will all that matter when the time comes? Will the society he lives in then be populated by inclusive employers? And if not, will he make it on his own? Or will he have to rely heavily on his older brother or the kindness of relatives, friends, and even strangers? Will all these folks be around when he needs help?
If nothing else, Covid should have taught us that it’s pointless to speak about the uncertain future. But it’s also taught us that being prepared is a non-negotiable.
Implication? I need to pray and plan over the next decade ways to imbue C with work and survival skills. I should get more active in the advocacy space for inclusive hiring. To help forge a future for C and those like him; one kinder and more accommodating when it comes to diverse abilities.
So that when I go, I know he’ll be alright.
And may I also find kindred spirits as fellow sojourners on this long journey towards a better world!
(Please join me again next Saturday when I unpack HPA#5 – Residential Continuum)