Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Segregated Workplaces

I've seen many blog and forum posts and articles about Specialisterne, the Danish company that recruits autistic workers for software testing positions, and similar enterprises that seek to hire autistics for jobs thought to be especially well suited to their talents. Quite often, these companies are described in glowing terms, along the lines of, "Look, wow, there's a business that actually hires autistics!"

Well, okay, it's good that these companies have hired autistic workers who had been denied jobs elsewhere. But should it be seen as a fabulous, wow-inducing event when an employer simply obeys the law by giving fair consideration to, and then hiring, a qualified applicant with a disability? The focus of this conversation, as I see it, is grossly misplaced. Rather than being all about the nice guys at Specialisterne who hire autistics, it should be on the prejudiced employers who don't, and on what can be done to meaningfully enforce the equal employment opportunity laws and drag every one of those bigots kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

Also, to the extent that companies specifically seeking to employ autistics have been described as engaging in affirmative action, that's not what the concept is supposed to be about. Affirmative action was never meant to result in segregated workplaces where increased efforts were made to hire minorities to work in separate locations. It's about changing attitudes in mainstream workplaces to make them more welcoming places for minority employees. Separate but equal just doesn't cut it.

I'm reminded of an incident that occurred in the mid-1980s, when racial integration in American society was nowhere near what it is today. At a predominantly white university, an African-American student was graduating with a degree in engineering after years of having had bricks thrown at his head from dorm windows, occasionally being flunked by bigoted professors when he had done as much work as his white classmates, and so forth.

A recruiter for a major technology company interviewed him on campus and expressed great interest in having him visit the company for a second interview. He was at first quite excited at the prospect of what looked like an excellent job opportunity. As it turned out, however, the location that he was invited to visit was not the company's main building, but was instead a segregated facility for minority engineers. In its promotional materials, the company tried to dress it up in nice pretty flowery terms as a place where tomorrow's leaders could gain experience, et cetera. That didn't do much to hide what was really going on there.

The young engineer ended up taking a job with a smaller company instead, where although the starting pay was less than he would have gotten at the larger company, he was treated the same as all the other employees. Within a few years, his skills and diligence had impressed management enough so that he was promoted to a position of greater responsibility and much better pay.

Moral of the story: Don't settle for a segregated workplace. Those who praise such facilities for autistic workers often cite statistics purporting to show that very few autistics could find jobs otherwise. I've been arguing for years that such statistics are grossly inaccurate because they do not take into account the large number of employed autistic adults who never got a diagnosis, which often happens because a worker does not know that he or she is autistic, or perhaps because the worker is afraid of discrimination and has decided to stay "in the closet."

A recent British study, discussed in detail by Joseph at the Natural Variation blog, shows that despite rampant stereotypes to the contrary, most autistic adults are in fact employed. Rather than simply interviewing people who already had an autism spectrum diagnosis, the authors of the study took their research subjects from the general population and then evaluated all of the study participants to determine how many of them met the criteria for a diagnosis. This approach resulted in much more accurate figures than previous studies because it removed all of the confounding factors having to do with how and why a diagnosis might have been made.

Although the autistic participants in the study had a lower rate of employment than their non-autistic counterparts, the disparity was nowhere near as large as the previous studies had indicated. What this means to me is that, yes, we need to do more to ensure that every autistic job-seeker has a fair opportunity to find work; but we don't need to go about it by setting up segregated workplaces that reinforce stereotypes, while letting prejudiced mainstream employers go merrily on their bigoted way.



  • So true...

    By Blogger Chromesthesia, at 12:42 AM  

  • The best work experience I ever had was working on my own with minimum disturbance from other workers, sorting out a corrupted database.

    I would not want to work in a people heavy environment like a call centre (the usual last resort for jobseeking no-hopers) whether that be with NT's or autistics,

    Not so much a segregated environment as a secluded one, except for this exception of course, I want to work as a lecturer and I need students to attend lectures in order to do that :)

    By Blogger The author, at 9:45 AM  

  • The study didn't say, but it's likely most of the autistics found were previously undiagnosed.

    An unknown is this: In the future, when most adult autistics are diagnosed, will employment of autistics be as common? It's easier to discriminate if the minority is clearly identified.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 9:53 AM  

  • True enough, Joseph, but the flip side is that it's easier for the minority to recognize and fight back against discrimination if the minority is clearly identified.

    Many autistics have been turned down for jobs, despite being well qualified, simply because an interviewer took a dislike to the applicant's voice or body language. Perhaps in the future, both the applicants and the hiring managers will realize that this is illegal disability discrimination, and we might see less of it.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:43 AM  

  • It's a good post, but regarding the first question you raise, I think it is worth bearing in mind that anything can be rephrased as a negative. A question worth asking is whether negative or positive framing will have the greatest impact in bringing about change. If you take the focus off effective change and focus it on areas where change has not yet been made, the result may be somewhat flat an undifferentiated.

    By Blogger VAB, at 3:03 PM  

  • @VAB: I agree that autistic-friendly employers deserve some recognition and that it can be helpful in bringing about change, in much the same way that annual diversity awards are given to employers that make efforts to hire and promote women, racial minorities, etc. But I also think it's quite unlikely that an employer with a segregated facility would get one of those awards...

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:25 PM  

  • That’s reminding me about my own recent (and sad) job experience. Mind you I live in a country where knowledge about autism is very low (while "coming out" I used to explain not only common myths from infamous Rainman, but that its not a "form of CP", that I don't have Down syndrome and no, I'm not dying from it). Also job discrimination of disabled workers is so common it's viewed as totally acceptable.

    At my previous jobs I've experienced prejudice towards my "weirdness", but I usually was also able to get accommodations, because I had high reputation as a professional, most employers were happy to "get me", so when I explained that I had cognitive problems with this or sensory issues with that - well, they just took notice and adapted, its not that I asked too much.

    But then, after loosing job due to financial crisis, I came to disability organization, where most employees were disabled and it was known that several employees were autistic. I was so shamefully naive that I thought its wonderful opportunity to work for the benefit of my community with no chance of prejudice and discrimination. As if.

    It turned out ALL autistic employees were segregated in administration department, where they hold low status administrative jobs. I thought they received very little pay due to it, but even this was not a case. At least one autistic employee said to me that he works as an “intern” with no payment at all (for many months) and he was promised that “maybe” he would become staff member somewhere in the future. Apparently autistics should be grateful for opportunity to do miscellaneous mundane administrative tasks as free labor, full-time, being grateful to have at least job experience, while office manager literally shrilled at them if they did anything wrong in her opinion.

    I was certainly “out of my place” in this organization, “not really autistic” in their opinion, not because I actually differed from other autistics, but because I demanded more, used to have more.

    On my first day there two staff members “confided” to me (as they perceived me as “normal”) how they are tired from those guys from administrative department “you know the ones… with learning disorders”, who are just “so dumb” (I actually found them all to be clever and persistent young people, who were clearly overworked and overloaded in that place). And when I asked my supervisor for some minor accommodations she looked at me as if I grew a second head. Apparently the thought that autistic person may need accommodations never cross her mind, and she prides herself to be expert in “developmental disabilities”. Eventually I was forced to leave that place.

    By Anonymous emoroz, at 6:42 AM  

  • "A recent British study, discussed in detail by Joseph at the Natural Variation blog, shows that despite rampant stereotypes to the contrary, most autistic adults are in fact employed. "

    The sample size was 19, smaller than the support group I belong to that you said was atypical. Don't you think this is a bit hypocritical?

    By Anonymous Kent, at 3:48 PM  

  • Kent, I've never said anything about the size of your support group. I don't even know its size.

    What I said about support groups (in general, and not specifically yours) was that one can't accurately extrapolate from a self-selected group.

    The British study had statistical validity because the autistics in the study were part of a larger sample taken from the general population.

    By Blogger abfh, at 4:37 PM  

  • Kent, the message is clear that things are changing. Stop putting the dampers on good news, huh?

    By Blogger Timelord, at 5:09 AM  

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