The Sunflower Conversations

The Autism Employment Gap

March 31, 2021 Hidden Disabilities Sunflower
The Sunflower Conversations
The Autism Employment Gap
Chapters
The Sunflower Conversations
The Autism Employment Gap
Mar 31, 2021
Hidden Disabilities Sunflower

Not every autistic person is the same, everyone is different, as are the variety of occupations available to all of us. So, we ask “why is the employment gap for autistic people so vast?”

In this podcast we are joined by Mike Adams of Purple, Matt Putts of Employment Horizons and Paul White, Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, to discuss what barriers currently exist to employment, not just for autistic people but disabled people in general, and how easy it is to remove them.

Embracing diversity and different thinking brings huge value to an organisation and its talent pool that will only make it richer.

Hosted by Chantal Boyle, Hidden Disabilities Sunflower

Visit the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower website.

Show Notes Transcript

Not every autistic person is the same, everyone is different, as are the variety of occupations available to all of us. So, we ask “why is the employment gap for autistic people so vast?”

In this podcast we are joined by Mike Adams of Purple, Matt Putts of Employment Horizons and Paul White, Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, to discuss what barriers currently exist to employment, not just for autistic people but disabled people in general, and how easy it is to remove them.

Embracing diversity and different thinking brings huge value to an organisation and its talent pool that will only make it richer.

Hosted by Chantal Boyle, Hidden Disabilities Sunflower

Visit the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower website.

Chantal Boyle:

Thank you for joining us today, Mike Adams of Purple, Matt Putts from Employment Horizons, and Paul White from Hidden Disability Sunflower. The outcomes for disabled people in the UK report by the Office for National Statistics, suggests that while 81.3% of people are in employment, only 52.1% of disabled people are in some form of work. And if you are autistic the gap is even greater, with only 21.7% in any form of employment. That is the lowest employment rate of any disability category. Why do you think this is? Mike, could I come to you on that firstly please?

Mike Adams:

The figures are really stark and if you put this in the context of disability, what we're saying is that there is a 30% employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people. And that figure really has not moved in over 30 years. And then you dive in to the disability figure and as you rightly said, people with autism are even lower in terms of percentage of disabled people. And I think it is partly because of perception and the wrong perception. It's an absolute lack of understanding, it's a fear by employers. And I think that one of the drivers is the sense that this is going to cost. This is going to be an additional cost, an overhead, if I employ someone with autism.

Mike Adams:

I think the reality for people that do employ individuals who are disabled and with learning disabilities and autism, is very different. And that is the challenge that we have to talk about, and which is why I'm delighted I'm on the podcast today. Because my key message is, talent is talent. And people with autism are talented people, it needs to be harnessed. And if businesses do that, then it is a value, an advantage to them and the individual as well.

Chantal Boyle:

Matt, what's the situation like in the US? Is the gap as wide as it is here in the UK?

Matt Putts:

Yeah. If anything, it actually may be a little worse here in the US. So as of February of this year, the employment participation rate for people with disabilities was about a third, so about 33%. And I couldn't even find any specific data actually, that was current for individuals with autism. Which should tell you something, in and of itself unfortunately. But I do know that for folks that are 25 years old, half of them, if they have autism, have never held a job.

Chantal Boyle:

Wow.

Matt Putts:

So imagine getting to 25 developmentally and not having had the experience of working. I know for a lot of us, we start our first jobs when we're in high school, 14, 15, 16. And we start learning what it means to be in the world of work and how to work with others and respond to a supervisor. I can't imagine making it to our mid 20s and never having had that experience, and how much that sets you back then when you do try to enter the workforce. I couldn't agree more with what Mike said, and I love that, "Talent is talent."

Matt Putts:

In our field of vocational rehabilitation the entire purpose is to make a match. We're trying to make a match between a person and a position. And it really shouldn't matter what ability or disability somebody has, as long as they're a match for that particular position. I think all of us would probably agree that we have talents for jobs that we are a good match for, and there are plenty of positions that disability or not, we would not be a good match for. And so I think Mike is right, that talent is talent and it's all about putting the person and helping the person find that right match.

Chantal Boyle:

That's an even more startling statistic from the US that you've shared with us. Here, the UK government wants to reduce the disability employment gap. Their target is to get 64% of all disabled people into work by... Well, it was by the end of 2020. We're obviously now in 2021. Mike, do you think they're doing enough to achieve this target?

Mike Adams:

Yeah. I mean, before the COVID-19 pandemic they were starting to get real traction, and that 30% gap that I talked about was starting to come down. And we always talk about that figure being really stubborn, and it was starting to come down. So credit where credit is due. We all hold our breath, the world does, about what are going to be the implications for businesses, recession, and what is their decision making in terms of redundancy and shedding of people. And are disabled people and are people with autism going to disproportionally impacted? So I think there is a holding of the breath that says, can we maintain the position pre-COVID?

Mike Adams:

But I think my point would be, and it goes back to what we just talked about, around talent. Is this is not an agenda that should be owned by government. It seems an anomaly for me that businesses should be owned by businesses, who are in the business of employing talented people, who happen to be autistic. And we have to do more work to make that case with businesses, because ultimately if government end up owning those numbers and owning and driving this. Then we will see a situation where businesses feel that if they're going to take these people on, it's about subsidy. And that's starting in the wrong place, so will end up in the wrong place.

Mike Adams:

And so for me, again, I think this is about not so much target numbers by government, although they are important. And targets are important. It's what traction have we got with businesses to better understand the commercial and social arguments to employ more disabled people, more people with autism? To reflect the people using and buying the services that they deliver. And we know the best organizations are ones in which their workforce reflects their customer base. So more people with autism, more people should be in the workforces of those organizations. Full stop.

Chantal Boyle:

Yeah. And do you think that with the government putting this kind of target out there, are they giving support to businesses to enable them to be able to do that?

Mike Adams:

Yeah, I have. And there is the flagship program Access to Work, that's always been known as the governments best kept secret. But that is the program that enables the reasonable adjustments, the funding that will equalize the issues for all disabled people to be paid for. So there's really very little downside for businesses and only upsides. But not enough people know about it, not enough businesses know about it. And to my mind, the government have got to take a deep breath and go, "Right. Let's promote this, let's drive the numbers and let's support businesses access talent."

Chantal Boyle:

So is that where a business, if they were wanting to become disability confident, employ people with disabilities. Would that be a recommended port of call to find candidates for roles?

Mike Adams:

Yeah. The Access to Work doesn't find candidates, but there is all sorts of other kind of mechanisms to identify candidates. But once a candidate has been identified and offered a role, the reasonable adjustments that need to be paid for in order for that person to work in that organization are then paid for. So it takes away the cost burden, it takes away the cost dynamic of the decision making or the decision making in the organization. So they can just focus on bringing in and recruiting the talent, knowing that other support structures will then be able to be put in place and to be paid for.

Chantal Boyle:

And Matt, in the US? Your Employment Horizons places people with disabilities into employment. Do you have something similar to Access to Work in the US?

Matt Putts:

Yeah. If I'm understanding that program correctly. In New Jersey, or in The United States rather, each individual state has a vocational rehabilitation program. In New Jersey that is the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation or DVR. And they're the government agency that is tasked with insuring that there are employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. But they mostly work through the system of non-profits like Employment Horizons. And so they would refer someone to an agency like ours to assist with finding that job match and making the placement. And even providing job coaching and support to that individual as they start the job and long term.

Chantal Boyle:

And going back to Mike's feeling in that really it's businesses who need to be pushing forward with this agenda. Do you agree with that or do you think in America that it should be led by the government? What are your feelings and what are your observations around that?

Matt Putts:

So I think one of the places that we've failed, is that the government can't make employers hire anyone. And so some of this is misplaced by asking the government to do the employers job. The most successful employers, at least in our experience from a placement perspective, are the ones where the culture starts at the top. And it is a cultural value of that company to have a diverse workforce. Including individuals with disabilities. In the US, folks with disabilities are the largest minority group. And yet, they have the lowest employment rates. And we know that folks with autism tend to be even lower with employment rates than the general population of people with disabilities.

Matt Putts:

There is a program in the US that I think is interesting, and it's one of the places that I think government can actually take some responsibility and intervene. And in our case it's both a federal program and then most individual states have a state version of the program. Which is in the form of set aside contracts. And so what I mean by that is the government sets aside certain government contracts for agencies like Employment Horizons, with the understanding that we will hire people with disabilities to perform the work of that contract. So there I think the government does have a role because they're able to show that people with disabilities can be in the workforce and deserve to participate in the process that everyone else is. But largely, I agree that it has to be employers that are doing this. A placement of an individual with autism or another disability is never going to work if the employer doesn't support it. If it's not part of the culture of that organization.

Chantal Boyle:

That's interesting. And so I'm interested to know, do we think that attitudes towards employing disabled people are changing or is it still just a box ticking exercise? If I could come to you, Paul?

Paul White:

Businesses that we speak to within the Sunflower, who are there when we speak to these businesses to support their colleagues as well as their customers. They're supporting their colleagues because they are a diverse organization. So I kind of think that just because the landscape has changed so much, a lot of these barriers are naturally going to be broken down. And I think that as this new world kind of evolves, this new business landscape is going to evolve too. And with some very, very relatively small adjustments, we can become a much more diverse workplace for everyone. And then that will inevitably encourage people with disabilities to apply for the jobs, it will certainly encourage the businesses to give that job to that person.

Chantal Boyle:

Would you agree with that, Mike?

Mike Adams:

Absolutely, whole heartedly. And interestingly the sentiment from disabled people, we always talk about reasonable adjustments for businesses to employ disabled people, people with autism. The world undertook overnight the biggest reasonable adjustment they did, and moved people broadly from offices to home. And they did that overnight. And what disabled people are saying is, never ever allow yourself as a business to hide behind reasonable adjustments when you've just undertaken the biggest one that you've ever done.

Mike Adams:

And I agree with Paul, that I think working patterns are changing forever. I think taboos are being smashed to smithereens, particularly around mental health. And I think autism as well. And I think what we're realizing is that for businesses, to connect with your staff and to connect with your customers in a post COVID-19 world, will require you to think about the commercials but also your social impact. And I think that is going to be a legacy of the pandemic and an opportunity, whether you're Matthew in the States or us here in the UK. It's got to be the legacy, and I think it can be, and I think it will be.

Mike Adams:

And I think the world has changed and I think what I said at the outset is, actually if we can get businesses to think about this in terms of talent and how do you tap into that talent? Get them to see disability as an investment and not a cost. Get them to see disability as a way of delivering on diversity and delivering inclusion. I think those organizations will absolutely thrive and I think organizations who don't pick up the mantle will in post-COVID world, struggle to survive in their relationship with both their employees and their customers.

Chantal Boyle:

Matt, in America the things that we've just heard from Paul and Mike, where overnight everyone was sent home, working from home. Businesses had to quickly adapt. Have you experienced the same in America? Was that rapid working overnight, people changing their working patterns? Did that same thing occur where you are?

Matt Putts:

It did and it's ongoing. I think it's sort of fascinating and unfortunate that for years and years individuals with disabilities were shut out of a lot of positions, because they were told that the job couldn't be worked in an alternative manner or couldn't be worked from home. And the reality is, it could have been. Employers just didn't want to do that. When the hand was forced, now they've realized that many, many jobs can be worked in alternative fashions, can be done from home. The technology is there. I think we would have gotten to this point eventually, but that COVID really hastened that. That it forced everything to happen much more quickly. And I do think that that will be very beneficial for a lot of individuals. And already has been, actually for a lot of individuals with disabilities.

Chantal Boyle:

If an employer is listening and wants to build a more inclusive workforce, but perhaps doesn't feel that they could support a neurodiverse employee, what help and resources are there out there for businesses? You've touched on Access to Work, Mike. Can you give any other tips to an employer who may be listening?

Mike Adams:

Yeah. Well one, if they're thinking about it, absolutely great. Two, there is a lot of organizations that exist in the UK and I dare say in the States as well. Who do have the expertise and who are absolutely able, ready, and willing to support businesses with that knowledge and understanding and the approaches. I think Matt said, and he was so right, this starts at the top. This is about culture, this is about sending a signal to your organization that difference and diversity is a business objective. And allowing all staff to be able to be embraced.

Mike Adams:

And I think in terms of autism and the autistic spectrum, which is vast by the way and I go back to Matt's point. In the media or television, you know someone who's got autism and you think everyone is exactly the same, but they're absolutely not. And every disabled person is very different. But I think you need to have a policy that is up to date, because that drives culture. You need your staff, your hiring staff to be confident in understanding the best ways of hiring and recruiting talent. You then need the recruitment process to be inclusive. And then you need the line managers to feel confident about their ability to bring out the best in their teams and their employees. And this is about an understanding of the issues, I'm not medicalizing it, but about reasonable adjustments and about productivity. And about making sure that the teams and every member of staff is kind of on the same page as well.

Mike Adams:

So to answer your question, I think it's about a commitment, it's about doing things right but doing things at speed. Not doing things tokenistically. And not getting in the mindset, that autistic people, well, they are good at data. So we'll only employ them for data issues. And just think about the whole diversity. And for businesses if they're listening, just get started. Start somewhere, you've got to start somewhere. Just get on with it.

Chantal Boyle:

Yeah. I think probably, Paul, you might be able to contribute about this as well?

Paul White:

Yeah, absolutely. We are currently going through the process at the Sunflower of employing a new staff member. And one of our goals this year was to become a disability confident employer. But for me, we need to deliver on that fact. So within the role that we've created I have been trying to reach out to organizations to find people with disabilities to apply for this role. And I found it really difficult, Chantal. Very difficult to find that group. The government will support you in creating a disability confident workplace and how that is, but it doesn't seem to make any sort of real place for me to go and to try and find that sort of talent, or that person of a disability. Whether they're neurodiverse or they have another disability.

Paul White:

So we came across a organization called Neuropool, through some work that we'd done through the Sunflower with this organization. And they promote neurodiverse candidates to businesses. And it's through Neuropool that they are sourcing us candidates who come and [inaudible 00:21:51]. They will help us through the interview process, to make sure that our methods are inclusive. And they're also going to help with any sort of adjustments we're going to need to make within the workplace.

Paul White:

But the problem with that is I had to physically really go out and try and find that organization. So if any change that I would kind of like to see, it's how we as businesses are able to actively source that person with disabilities. Because for me, I am aware of how diversity is going to improve our organization. I'm aware of how diversity is going to evolve what we are doing within the Sunflower. It's how I find that person to enable us to bring that diversity.

Chantal Boyle:

And it sounds from what you've said, that you feel supported now through the resources that Neuropool are going to provide to you and to the business. So that your recruitment process will be one where you feel supported and so that you can support the candidates, which we all know that applying for a job and having an interview is actually a very terrifying experience.

Paul White:

And I feel supported that the correct candidate will be offered to us. It's similar to a point that Matthew made earlier, that we all have different talents. Just because we're not good at one thing we're going to be great at another. Now, within the Sunflower, we have a specific role and a specific job. So we don't want to waste that persons times, the same as they don't want to waste ours to have people applying that aren't going to be suitable for this role. So no, working with Neuropool has been very rewarding for us as an organization.

Chantal Boyle:

Matt, do you have anything to add to that, about how an employer can build a more inclusive workforce for a neurodiverse employee?

Matt Putts:

One of the things that employers really need to be mindful of is, just because you've always done your hiring a particular way, does not mean it's the best way. And does not mean it's the only way to find a good candidate. I think you have to be open to advertising and looking in different places than you have before. And I think when you're talking about the interview process, for a lot of people with autism that is not going to be a way for them to showcase what they can bring to an employer. An employer may be far better served by having them do a working interview or a job sample, where they come in and actually try out the job for a period of time. And that's something that Employment Horizons will help set up here in New Jersey for an employer. But a person may really shine given the opportunity to give something a go. And the employer may be super impressed with that, but you'd never get that from an interview.

Matt Putts:

So I think employers need to be a little bit more creative and friendly. And if an employer is truly concerned with finding the right person and making the match, then these small details of how they go about it, shouldn't be what prevents that in my opinion. If you are so concerned that the process has to follow particular steps and everyone has to have the exact same interview experience, and you're not open to looking at candidate in a different way. Then no, you're not going to find that person that you're looking for or you're not going to diversify your workforce. Because you're not giving other people an opportunity to be successful.

Matt Putts:

Autism looks very, very different. It really is a spectrum disorder, every person with autism is different. To say that if you've met a person with autism, all you've done is meet one person with autism. The next person you're going to meet could be completely different and probably will be. People get so bogged down about having all of the right policies and procedures and paperwork and making sure they don't say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing that they freeze. And they don't end up giving anyone an opportunity. If you would just have a culture of being a friendly employer that values diversity, you might not get everything right at every step of the way. But all you really need to do is be willing to learn from the people that you're hiring. You don't have to get everything perfect in order to make this work. You just have to value the diversity and finding ways to make it work, and you will get there. But if you're going to wait for everything to be perfect, then you're never going to get started.

Chantal Boyle:

And so would you say that if we were looking to give some top tips of how an employer could become autism friendly, would you start off with that?

Matt Putts:

Yeah. I mean, I think if the only way someone can get a position in your company is to interview with four different people and nail those interviews, then you're going to get the same person for each of those positions over and over and over. And I don't want to say that those folks might not be lovely and talented and good at what they do, but they're all going to be the same because they're all going to possess that same sort of characteristic and ability to navigate your very narrow process. And there are plenty of people with varying disabilities or without disabilities who would benefit from a different or more flexible hiring process.

Matt Putts:

It's sort of universal that this, I think, would improve the hiring experience for a lot of people. There are plenty of folks with no disability who just don't show well in an interview. Just like there are plenty of people with disabilities that their greatest strength is not interviewing. But for certain positions, is that really key to being able to do the job?

Chantal Boyle:

Mike, have you got any simple things that businesses can do? Apart from just getting started which is absolutely right.

Mike Adams:

I suspect there are people already within the organization who already might be on the autistic spectrum. And so to get started I would be having internal conversations, I would be kind of talking, normalizing the issue. Talking about it, because quite frankly it is the quickest way of enabling and creating people to disclose about their disability. And I always say, organizations will absolutely be employing more disabled people than they think they are. It's just those individuals who have hidden disabilities, they have to make a judgment about whether they disclose or not. And an organization normalizing issues, will help disclosure rates. So I think that's number one.

Mike Adams:

Number two is, don't feel that you have to be experts in absolutely everything. There are so many people out there in the community and already, that you can harness to accelerate your development. I always think that it's important that it's top down, so there has to be a signal from the top that this is an issue of real importance. And so that's important. And I think finally, you have to equip your staff. So training and development of your hiring managers and of your support staff and your line managers is really, incredibly important in sustaining and extending that kind of culture. Because if you don't it will become a fad, it will become tokenistic. And to be honest, that is not at the benefit of those individuals who will not thrive at all. So there's a lot that can be done, a lot that can be done quickly. It is about mindset.

Mike Adams:

And a point that Matt made I think was really important, the excuse over the years is around needed perfection before doing anything. And the reality is, that's just an excuse not to do anything. It's about context, it's about intent, it's about conversations with the individuals who best know their ability. And that is where it needs to be at, not just this having to have perfection otherwise we can't engage at all.

Chantal Boyle:

Paul, would you have any tips for businesses?

Paul White:

Yeah. I just think with very, very simple and small adjustments you can ensure that your workplace is inclusive for all. I mean, from my perspective try and put yourself in the shoes of that employee as to what challenges that they will face. And what adjustments you would think that they would need to be made and kind of make them. I mean, I spoke about it before, is the simple methods that we use here. Which is, changing our working pattern, don't fix somebody to a set nine to five. Certainly not when we're working in an agile environment. What's the point, right? We can kind of work in these different working patterns, so try and embrace that.

Paul White:

We will within the Sunflower, we will have a mentor scheme to ensure that person feels supported. That we can kind of have that person filter out any of the noise that comes from the rest of the team, if you like. Try it until that person becomes confident enough to be able to put themself out there and communicate with everybody. So just try and make some very, very small, simple adjustments.

Chantal Boyle:

We have businesses joining the Sunflower each week, how can the Sunflower help both employers and employees at work? Obviously, I'm asking you that Paul.

Paul White:

So the Sunflower is here to do that. Is to break that barrier down. And what we also find is because the Sunflower is so well known, certainly in the UK of course. That customers will recognize that person has a hidden disability if they're wearing a sunflower lanyard or a pin badge, or whatever. And then the customers will also give that person the time, care, and patience that person will need. Making that persons day much more easier. We all need a little bit of kindness and support every now and then, and that goes both ways. From businesses to customers and customers back to the businesses. So it's a great way for businesses to come onboard, is to recognize that our colleagues also have supportive needs and to support them by recognizing their hidden disability.

Chantal Boyle:

Mike, I hope you don't mind but I wanted to ask you as well, because I think you've got some interesting thoughts around the Sunflower.

Mike Adams:

Let me give you another statistic. So in the UK, 50% of people who are working will either have a disabled relative or someone in their close network. And I always say to employees if you've got a cousin, aunt, nephew, niece, grandad, grandma. Would you want that individual to be treated differently in your organization because they happen to have a disability, whether it's physical or hidden? And the 100% answer is, "No, of course I wouldn't." And I think we are absolutely, through the Sunflower, we are shining a huge, huge light on the issues around hidden disabilities. And let me just repeat again, because I think it's so important. 80% of the disabled population have hidden disabilities, that's four out of five.

Mike Adams:

And I think it's absolutely right that not only is it about customers, but it's a recognition about staff as well. There's a retailer who is close to where I work and I go in there often, and the number of their staff that wear the lanyards. And the positive impact that that has on customers as Paul has said. And we're just kind of normalizing hidden impairments. We're educating customers, we're educating employees. And it think it can only be a benefit and we just need to make this the norm. And it's a discreet way of doing it. It normalizes the issue and quite frankly in two or three years time, no one's going to blink an eye. And I think that is a barometer of success.

Chantal Boyle:

Paul, you've had an experience within the tech sector haven't you? Where they specifically employee people with autism?

Paul White:

Yeah. We work with Capgemini, which is a tech consultancy company with 270,000 employees worldwide. And Capgemini raised awareness of hidden disabilities through a campaign that they called, Now You See Me. And the point of that campaign was to share within their workforce the number of neurodiverse employees that they employ. And celebrate that aspect to a certain extent. And an interesting aspect that came back from that was the number of neurodiverse that was employed within their programming sector based on their unique skill set, within programming. And they've also found that there's a collaborative approach with neurodiversity across the programming sector, was really enabling the tech companies to become as diverse thought, to add sort of abstract thinking to solve problems. So, yeah. I mean, Capgemini did a lot of work around that. And the Sunflower was very proud to be involved in that.

Chantal Boyle:

I just wanted to ask all of you about disclosure. A lot of people hide or mask their condition at work for fear of how they will be treated. And in your experience, is it better to be honest?

Mike Adams:

You have to create the conditions under which people feel able and safe to disclose. And about seven weeks ago, a chief exec of a fairly big organization that we work with, and who have been doing disability include neurodiverse for the last six to eight months. And they did their kind of virtual, thank goodness it's Friday kind of session. And he was talking about the work that the organization was doing with us and others on disability. And at the end he said, "Look, has anyone got any questions?" And anyway, someone about 10 seconds later came off mute and went, "I cannot believe this, but I've been here 20 years and what I've heard for the first time in my life, I'm going to tell everyone at work that I've got a hidden disability." And then 10 seconds later someone else came on and went, "I can't believe it as well, I'm telling people that I'm on the autistic spectrum." And this was quite a senior manager. And then someone else came on and said, "I've got dyslexia and I feel..."

Mike Adams:

And within six minutes he had six people who had disclosed. And why? because he had created the conditions and the culture where people felt able to do so. And so I think disclosure is incumbent on the organization and not on the individual. And if the organization get it right, disclosure rates will automatically go up. And if disclosure rates go up, I will always say it's your biggest marketing tool because people will smell it. People will see it. And then other people will go, "well, I want to go and work for that organization because." And that's where I stand on disclosure.

Chantal Boyle:

Matt, what are your thoughts on disclosure?

Matt Putts:

Disclosure is tricky, it has to be what the person with the disability is comfortable with. And if a company has a culture, as Mike was describing, that's ultimately the goal. You want to create that culture from the top down, where not only is diversity and disability something that's a checkbox on a form. But it's something where the higher ups in the company are conveying that this is of value. This is something that we as a company value and it is safe to disclose here, we want to know. We value you and your contributions because we are all working with people with disabilities, whether you know it or not.

Chantal Boyle:

Paul there is a lot of unconscious bias out there isn't there?

Paul White:

Completely. I mean, coming back to your point on disclosure, as an employer the disabilities act states that you must make reasonable adjustments in your workplace to support your disabled staff. And the other statistic that always is stark, is that only 17% of people are born with disabilities. The other 83% of people will acquire their disability at some stage through their lives. So with your workforce in mind, through their career whilst working with you, there's going to be a huge amount of people that's going to acquire that disability. So I really feel that the Sunflower really helped to normalize hidden disabilities. And certainly within the workforce, if we've got the ability for someone to wear a Sunflower product, demonstrate they have a hidden disability. It's that normalization that'll give to everybody else, look as you kind of said earlier, why is that person coming in at a different time? Why do they get this that and the other? Just by breaking down that barrier by wearing a Sunflower product it can kind of help to, as I say, is to normalize that process. And then the hope is that then does allow people to be able to disclose because they feel a lot more comfortable with it. That's one of the other elements that I'm really proud of what the Sunflower has done, it's by bringing the awareness of hidden disabilities to businesses.

Chantal Boyle:

Do barriers to employment start in the classroom and the lecture theater? I think there's quite a low statistic of how many autistic people go on to get a degree. Mike, what do you think?

Mike Adams:

Again, I hope that kind of one of the legacies out of the pandemic is that we might be able to have more kind of bespoke teaching that will draw on the talents of those individuals. And the other point in all of this, of course, is the integration and the normalization of people with autism is also about the younger generation and them seeing this as normal. And I think that is incredibly important, and I would just add it's about for me, every part of society is important. But I think education is incredibly important and I think what the kids see and consume in terms of the media and TV is equally important.

Mike Adams:

And it's fascinating. I write two posts every week, and I wrote one on a major broadcasting company that will remain nameless, but who's decided to invest 100 million dollars over the next five years to better create representation of disabled people, both on screen and behind as well. And I've never had so many reactions and likes and support and comments than I did on that one. And my kids say to me, "I watch TV and I don't recognize you Dad, you're not there." And so education and exposure and normalizing in every part of society is the way that we're going to accelerate for autistic people and others on the spectrum and other disabled people and those of difference, quicker.

Chantal Boyle:

Matt, what about in America? Because we've spoken before about those who get to a certain age where there's some sectors of disabled society, maybe then they're kind of in limbo between education and employment.

Matt Putts:

Unfortunately, one of the things that happens a lot, at least here in the US. Is that the education system is an entitlement system. So if you have a disability and you're in school, and if you have a disability in the US you can stay in school until you're 21. You are entitled to all of those services. When you get into the adult working world, now it's an eligibility system where you may or may not be eligible for a variety of services. You have to apply for them, you have to know they exist. You have to advocate for yourself often to get those services. And a lot of folks fall through the cracks.

Matt Putts:

I think it also is just important to mention that, I think we get into a sort of one track, one size fits all kind of thing again. Where the expectation is that somebody goes to high school and then they should pursue college or university immediately after that. And for a lot of people, with or without disabilities, that may not be the best fit. There are varying trade opportunities and apprenticeship opportunities, and things that might actually better capture somebodies talents and skills. And I think we need to sort of get away from the idea that the only way to be successful in life is to go to high school, go to college. Then possibly go to graduate school and get a job. There are a lot of ways to be successful and be productive and earn an income. We should be more diverse, I think, in how we approach that.

Chantal Boyle:

Yeah. In the UK, in primary school the children have a lot of movement and mobility and they're not sort of sat down for long, long periods of time. And there's a lot of education through play and touch and feel and experience. And then for some reason they decide that when they get to secondary school, it's bums on seats, don't move and please don't talk either. It's actually very strict in the secondary school classroom environment in the UK.

Matt Putts:

And I'm not sure that's super conducive to learning for a lot of people.

Chantal Boyle:

So what I wanted to say, I wanted to bring us to a conclusion, Paul, Mike and Matt. I think the points that I've kind of drawn out of all of the wonderful things that you've shared with us is culture. It has to be from the top down, that's the starting point. Make a start. Internal conversations, speak to your own people. You know them, they know you, that's the best place to find out what talents, experiences, hidden disabilities they may have. Training and development, line managers, so that people coming in who you recruit are supported. And the line managers also feel equipped to be able to offer the right type of support.

Chantal Boyle:

So Mike, Matt and Paul, thank you for joining us today to talk about the employment gap. Hopefully, this will start some conversations among employers and employees to help improve the employment opportunities for neurodiverse people.