For a world where diversity is normal

Published in Solidarity 409, 15 June 2016

Val Graham reviews Autism Equality in the Workplace by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth, poet and author of Autism Equality in the Workplace, is both a worker and trade union activist. A member of the TUC Disabled Workers Committee, her handbook Autism in the Workplace was published online by the TUC in 2014.

Her radical approach to removing barriers and challenging discrimination against autistic people is developed in this book which is both practical and visionary. It needs to be. Despite the positive changes in education, including access to work experience, only a small minority (15%) of autistic people in the UK are in full time employment.

Booth argues that autism should be seen not as a deficit but as a neurological difference. Neurodiversity is part of humanity’s make up — a different wiring of the brain which should be embraced alongside other differences. The social model of disability requires society and the workplace to change to cater for diversity rather that the individual to fit in.

In Derbyshire, ten years ago, we produced an “Autism Friendly File” for schools, guiding on changes that could be made before the first autistic child even skipped through the door. Booth‘s book identifies the barriers to an autism friendly workplace and proposes solutions. None of them is impractical but the visionary part is Booth’s recognition that achieving them for every autistic person is an integral part of the struggle to change the nature and purpose of work itself — the struggle for a socialist society.

Chapter 1 graphically illustrates the difficulties facing autistic people, even those well qualified, in getting and keeping suitable and rewarding employment, and busts some of the myths about autism. Chapter 2 identifies ten barriers in the way of autistic workers from getting work in the first place, through encountering negative attitudes, different expectations about communication and social interaction as well as a hostile physical and sensory environment , bullying and harassment. Austerity and the growth of insecure employment impacts very hard on autistic workers. They are more likely to be found among the precariat.

The impact on autistic workers’ mental health of constant job insecurity and fear of a punitive welfare regime should not be underestimated. Chapter 3 unpicks each of these barriers and proposed ways they can be removed as obstacles to autistic people’s full and equal participation in the workplace.

Although Booth and research clearly favour integration, she is not dogmatic and recognised that for some autistic people with very significant needs, sheltered employment should be an option. Booth emphasises the positive role that advocacy from a trained support worker or trade union representative can play and that autistic workers should be fully involved in decisions- nothing about us, without us. Chapter 4 surveys the legislative framework impacting on the workplace in terms of access and discrimination and its differences across the English speaking world The legal framework in terms of mandatory requirements on all employers to meet autistic workers’ needs, recognise trade unions and outlaw discrimination, bullying and harassment must be strengthened.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has written a foreword to the book, and pays tribute to Booth’s groundbreaking work, in which she was encouraged and supported by her union. His announcement that Labour will have a Shadow Cabinet member for Neurodiversity is a major development which can help to ensure that under a Corbyn led government; laws are changed to benefit autistic and other neurodiverse people alongside all disabled workers.

The impact of Booth’s activism as an autistic worker and trade unionist on trade union and Labour policy validates her emphasis on the importance of autistic people organising as disabled people and inside the trade union movement.

Our unions and organisations must include us, listen to us, support us and value our abilities. Booth makes clear that her vision of the truly autism friendly workplace is a vision of a place where work is people not profit centred, collective in spirit and purpose, and under democratic control. Autistic people have a struggle and a goal in common with others of a world where each receives according to need and everyone matters equally. Her solutions are transformative not administrative.

But the daily battle is hard and full of suffering as well as determination and optimism. Booth’s moving poem “Manifesto from Behind a Mask” juxtaposes hidden pain, fear and insecurity with fierce longing to fit in and for a world where “diversity is normal and no-one is weird.” Autism Equality in the Workplace puts us on the right path.

• Val Graham is one of the two autistic vice- chairs of the Labour Representation Committee.

• Janine Booth will be speaking on “Marxism and Autism” at Ideas for Freedom on Saturday 9 July.

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