From our report and recommendations to the Ontario government: Fair employment and economic security

 We are blogging each section of our Report and Recommendations to the Ontario Government’s Autism Advisory Committee. Read the full report here: Ontario Recommendations- Inclusion is the New Gold Standard

A 2008 study of Toronto autistic youth by the Redpath Centre and University of Toronto showed that just 16.5 per cent of respondents were working full or part time. Without employment, it is not possible for most autistic people to live independently. With employment that has marginal pay, it is also impossible. Autistics who can’t live independently are at risk of abuse and many lack the freedom of movement to break free of abusive situations. Safety is a serious issue in some households and in group home settings.

There are some simple steps that the public and private sector can take, to make employment more accessible for autistic Ontarians. We outline them below in our recommendations.

One challenge we face is assumptions based on functioning labels: where we are either deemed too ‘low-functioning’ to live/work with the degree of autonomy we deserve or deemed so ‘high-functioning’ that we don’t need any supports. In reality, our support needs vary and can even fluctuate according to life events and other factors.

The best way to understand what we need is to ask us. One of our members put it this way:

“Many people believe that the autism spectrum has two ends with the two ends considered to represent IQ. However, this is not an accurate reflection of how autism presents in individuals; it is a generalization based on observations of outsiders. Autistic people experience varying degrees of issues with motor coordination, understanding nuances of language, ability to filter sensory information, and executive functioning skills.

“I have good language and motor coordination skills, but very low executive functioning skills. Yet, I am still considered ‘high-functioning’ despite years of continuing struggle with employment and relationships.”

Another member, Derek Burrow, wrote:
“I cannot stress enough just how much of a problem the current hiring process is for disabled people in general, but particularly for autistics. Interviews don’t make sense, and are less based on your actual ability to do the job than your ability to talk yourself up…which, again is difficult to do when speech isn’t always easy, and when it’s something you have to work at.”

Recommendations: Employment and Economic Security

Life Transitions: Employment

  • Make the successful transition from school age to adulthood a priority in autism funding.
  • Create employment-search support for those who want to work part time but can’t do full time due to disability.
  • Audit ODSP to ensure people are not being economically penalized for going from unemployed to part-time, which has happened under other governments.
  • Flexibility in service support for disabled employees who need to transition between unemployed and employed throughout their lives.
  • Include autism in all disability support and funding policy.

Job Searching and Employee Retainment

  • Online how-to information for autistic job-seekers on how to navigate disclosure and requesting accommodations.
    • Can be built from existing resources in other jurisdiction, with consultation from local autistics.
  • Education for employers on workplace accommodations, to ensure more retention of autistic employees.
    • Can be built from existing resources already in place by the private sector (for example, Microsoft’s hiring and accommodation protocols).
  • Mentorship between working autistics and job seekers.
  • More partnerships with the private sector.
    • Leverage the knowledge of the private sector in creating accessible workplaces.
    • Learn from the best practices in private sector for the job interview process.
    • Encourage private sector to hire autistic employees at competitive wages.

Sheltered Workshops
In the late 20th century, as part of de-institutionalization in both the US and Canada, many communities opened up sheltered workshops, where workers with intellectual or other disabilities were placed in factories and other workplaces to do jobs for sub-minimum wages, often just a few dollars a day. The low wages were often accompanied by the myth that it was “training” for future employment at a living wage.

But it turned out sheltered workers weren’t being trained; they were trapped. “Training opportunities” translated over the decades into dead-end jobs for low wages. IDD workers were not learning skills for the paid workforce and remained unable to earn enough to live independently.

Last year, the provincial government decided to close all sheltered workshops, following the lead of many communities in the United States.

We’ve authored a statement with Community Living about the closures, supporting the transition away from sheltered workshops towards including community participation supports and employment opportunities at and above the minimum wage. The Canadian Down Syndrome Society also supports the closure of sheltered workshops and the development of new alternatives and leveraging of existing partnerships and programs.

Employment Recommendations: Dignity and Sustainability

  • Follow through on the provincial ban on sheltered workshops.
  • Replace sheltered workshops with meaningful options that maximize opportunities for autonomy and dignity.