What can be done to stop discrimination against autistic people in employment?

On 27 May, I took part in a panel discussion at Autistic UK’s ‘The Future is Gold’ event. One question panellists were asked was ‘What can be done to stop discrimination in employment? It seems the tribunal service does not understand autism and, in some cases, are outright hostile to autistic people.’ Here is the answer I gave :

The Tribunal Service can be a nightmare for autistic workers and work-seekers. Most people like to think that if something is unfair, it is unlawful, but sadly that isn’t true. Plenty of things are unfair and perfectly lawful. Of course they are – because the capitalist system we live under is based on inequality and unfairness, and it is not about to make itself unlawful.

The workers’ movement, the disabled people’s movement and others have won some changes to the law to make some of the worst aspects of employment practices unlawful. So we have health and safety law, we have the Equality Act etc. But:

Problem 1: These are not enough. The definition of disability under the Equality Act is very medical-model. The Labour Party Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto, which both Emma and I are involved in, advocates that ‘neurological condition’ becomes a tenth protected characteristic under Equality Act, with same protections as disability, so there would be no need to prove that we are disabled to get legal protection from discrimination.

Problem 2: Not everyone knows their rights under the law. We – autistic people, Autistic UK, the trade unions – need to run a massive ‘know your rights’ campaign.

Problem 3: The whole procedure of Employment Tribunals is distressing, inaccessible and discriminatory. Don’t do it alone. Be a trade union member and get your trade union’s support

Problem 4: The Employment Tribunal has limited power – ultimately, the power only to compensate you for the discrimination you have experienced. It does not have the power to compel an employer to reinstate you even if it finds that the employer dismissed you unfairly. It has no power to bar a discriminatory or bullying manager from managing people. If a criminal court finds a person guilty of abusing a dog, it can bar that person from keeping dogs. But an Employment Tribunal can not bar a manager who abuses workers from managing workers. Do we have less legal protection than dogs?

We can demand change to remove all those barriers, and we will achieve a significant improvement in workplace rights if we do.

But we have to look beyond ‘reasonable adjustments’ for individuals. Reasonable adjustments are Plan B. Plan A is accessible workplaces, which do not need adjusting. A benign sensory environment, shorter working hours, a quiet room in every workplace, control over how and at what pace we do our work – all these things would benefit everyone, especially if they are put in place for everyone, without an individual having to put themselves on the line to ask for it.

Collective change requires collective struggle. So, the most important advice I can give is to get involved in a trade union. Everyone can join a trade union, whether or not there is one in your workplace already, and even if you don’t currently have a job. Unions are getting better at representing and fighting for autistic workers’ rights and against discrimination.

The fundamental problem is the structure of work itself. In a capitalist society, the employers have all the power. Workplaces are very hierarchical and workers have very little control over how we do our jobs, our sensory environment, etc. We need a whole new system, based on collective ownership and workers’ control. Let’s call that ‘Socialism’.


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