A specialist in employment law has said that legislators may need to consider positive discrimination to ensure that employers with “a narrow mindset” cannot continue to keep people with disabilities out of the workplace.
Solicitor Brian Gill, a partner in the law firm Callan Tansey, was speaking at a weekend conference on autism at Summerhill College, Sligo, where school principal Paul Keogh warned that some talented young people were “falling through the cracks” because of a lack of access to work placements before they were 18.
One internationally renowned advocate for the autism community warned parents not to be “overprotective”. Prof Temple Grandin, a writer, inventor and professor of animal science at Colorado state university said she was a strong believer in young people with autism learning life skills.
“The problem is too many 16-year-olds who are fully verbal have never gone shopping,” she told the conference, which looked at the employment and further education opportunities available for young people with autism when they finish secondary school.
Stressing the importance of changing the mindset of parents and teachers, Prof Grandin pointed out that Einstein and Elon Musk had autism and said children must have goals. “We need to go towards the kids’ strengths,” she said in a video-link interview. “Where is that kid 10 years after high school. I hope he is not sitting in a basement playing video games.”
Mr Gill, said that up to the 1980s, many people went through our education system “silently in pain” with no one to speak up for them. “Thankfully that is beginning to change but we have a lot of catching up to do,” said the lawyer. He told the conference it was “incredible” that it was just 25 years since legislation to protect the rights of people with autism had been introduced.
While a raft of legislation had been enacted since then, what was also needed was a “cultural shift” in mindset.
The solicitor said that while there had much debate recently about the concept of remote working and gathering momentum for a four-day week, there was a “deafening silence” about who should be allowed to work.
“A workplace that keeps people with disabilities out and keeps them on the margins is all the poorer. It’s like watching black-and-white TV in a coloured world,” said Mr Gill.
And while the law was “a cold blunt instrument at times”, it was there as an option for those people who felt they needed it to have their rights enforced, he said.
Exclusion from the workplace was an issue legislators would have to address, Mr Gill added. “It may well be that we have to get to grips with it in terms of positive discrimination.”
With 30 students in the autism unit at Summerhill college, Mr Keogh said, in his view, it was too late when they turned 18 to introduce them to work placements.
To reduce the risk of talented young people falling through the cracks “we need to start preparing them for life towards the end of junior cycle through supported and structured work placements”, said the school principal.
Several high-profile speakers from the autism community spoke of the contribution people with disability can make if proper supports are provided.
Senior Google executive Jim Hogan (55) said that when he was born, a doctor had told his parents, “he is going to be a burden to you for the rest of your Iives”.
This had been a very grim time to be autistic but “amazing things are happening for autistic people in the world today”, said Mr Hogan. “I wish I could look that doctor in the eye and tell him I am an executive in Google, but he is long dead.”
Conference organiser Dolores McDonagh, director of the Centre for Special Educational Needs, Inclusion and Diversity at St Angela’s College, Sligo, said barriers needed to be broken down in education and employment.
Pointing to the number of young people walking around the school wearing noise-cancelling headsets, she said it was important for potential employers to step into the shoes of an autistic person.
“I think a lot has been done at primary and post-primary level but when it comes to third level, and to the workplace, policy needs to catch up. A lot is being done but it needs to be more than tokenism. There are too many barriers in the way.”