Our report to the Government of Canada: Part 7, Employment and Support

We are blogging our report and recommendations to the Government of Canada, by section. Below is our discussion and recommendations about employment policy.

Full report: A4A National Policy Report & Recommendations, 2019

Employment and support

Poverty and unemployment are a major crisis for autistic people in Canada. Our government should include autistic adults as a category in its next Census and study our rates of employment and income, because these have never been studied.

Flexibility is key for our employment. We recommend that our federal and provincial/territorial governments review their disability funding programs to ensure that autistic Canadians can work part-time, or move between unemployment and employment, without being penalized.

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.”

Another member wrote: “I cannot stress enough just how much of a problem the current hiring process is. 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.”

The private sector has begun to adapt the interview for autistic candidates (for example, Microsoft and other IT companies do project-based interviews) and autistics working in IT and a range of other sectors are being chosen by the private sector and non-profits to be mentors to other autistics.

These are all amazing initiatives that should serve as a model for our federal and provincial governments. However, the Government of Canada does not fund a single one of these programs, preferring to squander $600,000 on a “mentorship” program through an “autism centre” where the mentors are not themselves autistic but rather are non-autistic volunteers such as social work students. A social worker is not the same as a mentor–and autistic people in the workforce are ready, willing and able to be real mentors. It doesn’t make sense. Further, Canadian and provincial/territorial governments continue to fund big autism agencies’ “employment” projects, without independent data and reporting, rather than the local non-profits and programs that are bringing real change to hiring and employment for autistic Canadians.

Sheltered Workshops As well, the government should transition sheltered workshop workers out of that isolated, exploitative environment and into community-based supportive environments and living wages.

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.

In 2017, the Ontario government decided to close all sheltered workshops, following the lead of many communities in the United States. All of Canada should. 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

  • 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 provincial disability support programs to ensure people are not being economically penalized for going from unemployed to part-time.
  • Incentivize employers offering 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; de-silo autism policy.

Job Searching and Employee Retainment

  • With autistics in the lead, develop online how-to information for autistic job-seekers on how to navigate disclosure and requesting accommodations.
  • 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, Apple’s hiring and accommodation protocols).
  • Mentorship between working autistics and autistic job seekers. Do not fund “mentorship” programs where the so-called mentors are not autistic!!
  • Leverage the knowledge of the private sector in creating accessible workplaces.

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.

Youth transitions

  • Ensure that autistic youth are specifically included in the language/materials of all job program opportunities for IDD youth, so resources are clearly available and accessible.
  • Work in partnership with colleges and universities to develop a framework for inclusive post-secondary education that includes AAC and accommodations that promote student retention and success.
  • Commit to reforming the “school-to-guardianship pipeline”, where too many youth are placed under guardianships from their earliest years of majority.
    • Research best practices in least-restrictive decision-making supports.
    • Implement these practices to increase autonomy for autistic adults.