Social work researcher sparks national conversation on increased quality of life for adults with autism.

There is an interesting and provocative question posed by the researcher in this article; “how well equipped are employers to include people with autism (spectrum disorders)?”

It’s the kind of question that gets heard a lot in my field of work. The disability services sector, in general, believe that the business community has a responsibility to develop a depth of understanding about disability and that this would ‘fix’ the under-representation of people with disabilities in the workforce. Employment accessibility – or lack thereof is a legitimately serious issue and Canadians with disabilities have not seen much movement in their employment participation stats in about 25 years.

Do employers and workplace cultures play a role in systemic, physical and attitudinal barriers? Sure, but what about the ability of service provider organizations and disability advocates to see barriers from the opposite angle? How much do they know about the ‘science’ of creating a productive, engaged and inclusive work culture – and how prepared are they to serve employer’s needs in this regard in order to create inclusion outcomes for the people they’re paid to serve?

I’ve been designing and overseeing employment inclusion services for people with disabilities for over 20 years and it has never struck me that employers need to be equipped to include prospective employees based on the variety of specific diagnoses and labels outlined in the DSM 5 (of which autism is 1 of 297). It has, however, struck me that employers need great talent matches for the positions they have available and that they often need help to source and effectively include that talent. Employer capacity for diversity and inclusion in the workplace is based on their knowledge of, and commitment to, healthy workplace cultures and leading edge practices in employee recruitment, orientation, engagement and mentorship. Is every employer at the top of their game with respect to healthy workplace cultures? Survey your working colleagues, friends and relatives for the hard answer.

Why would we expect employers to possess expertise in intellectual disabilities and psychological disorders in order to ‘ready themselves’ for this specific type of diversity? The mere suggestion that they should is reflective of an ongoing disconnect between advocates and community. Instead, why wouldn’t we support employers to become familiar with universal design implementation that can be utilized by any employer to be more effective with all employees including those with disabilities? The ability to discern what an employee is good at and what types of tasks they struggle with is a critical supervisory skill, so is workplace accommodation, so is clear communication, cultural agility and employee engagement. These are all extremely transferable, universal skills which can be utilized to on-board, mentor and include many diverse talent groups.

Before disability advocates express concern about what employers are prepared to do to serve our agenda, we should first endeavour to understand the critical elements of workplace leadership including culture, engagement, training, inclusion and retention. It is our collective mission to build the capacity of community and business to leverage diversity and create inclusive spaces for all. There are very few publicly funded entities so well positioned to do this as disability services – but we still struggle to effectively focus our advocacy on purposefully helping others to be inclusive. As a result, disability service organizations remain one of the least-accessed groups utilized by the business community to meet their diversity needs. The inclusion of the people we serve is waiting for us to get this right.

Sean McEwen

Sean McEwen

Program Manager at Calgary Alternative Employment Services
Sean is the Program Manager of Calgary Alternative Employment Services and has also chaired provincial and national boards dedicated to the promotion of workforce inclusion for people with barriers. For the past 16 years he has occupied multiple roles while engaged in the development and management of programs and initiatives to facilitate increased workforce inclusion for people with barriers to employment. Sean is passionate about continuing to learn from other professionals, the business community and job-seekers in order to improve employment inclusion for the people we serve.
Sean McEwen