Disability employment advocates say it's time to raise expectations

 Michael Gorey

The public sector is well suited to employing people with autism but more needs to be done to foster workplace diversity, according to disability employment advocate Bill Gamack.

Mr Gamack's firm EPIC Assist is opening a Canberra office next month in partnership with Danish company Specialisterne.

Federal public servant Jeanette Purkis says people with autism can be effective and loyal employees. Photo: Jamila Toderas

He said society had low expectations for people with disability and this needed to change.

"People with disability generally aren't expected to achieve highly, particularly in the area of employment and building a career," he said.

"This subject of low expectations is an unfortunate truth and something people struggle to discuss, but without first acknowledging this we can never expect to tackle it."

Mr Gamack said a major shift in thinking was needed.

"It's not easy challenging social norms and preconceptions that have existed for so long, but it is essential to see progress and level the playing field for people with disability," he said.

"The jobs are there, and there are people with disability who can fill these roles, it's just a matter of opening those doors and fostering an environment of diversity and acceptance.

"People with disability may need a little extra support upfront while they are getting comfortable and familiar with their role, but like anyone they grow in confidence over time."

A federal public servant with autism Jeanette Purkis echoed these views.

"Sometimes employers seem to think that they have done a staff member from a diverse background a favour simply by hiring them, which is unhelpful," she said.

"In the workplace a staff member is a staff member first and a person with disability second.

"If they can do the job, give them support and development and career advancement opportunities too."

Ms Purkis said people with autism often had issues with perfectionism and anxiety.

"Autistic people can be highly anxious and not want to make a mistake, which can make employment difficult," she said.

"Many autistic people have heightened sensory experiences which non-autistic people tend not to.

"This can mean fluorescent lights cause physical pain and background noise in an open plan office is magnified and makes it hard for them to hear their manager or colleagues.

"One of the problems with this is that non-autistic managers may not have an understanding of what it feels like and therefore not take action."

Mr Gamack said employers could help by making simple workplace adjustments.

"If the person has difficulty working in loud environments for example, noise-cancelling headphones can help," he said.

"People on the spectrum often struggle to cope with change.

"Once a work routine has been established and the person knows what to expect, they will usually be fine, but unexpected interruptions to routine can be challenging for a person on the spectrum.

"As a manager, if you need the person to stray from their routine, give the person as much notice as possible and time to adjust."

Both agreed there were many benefits.

"Many people with disability have struggled to get work for some time, so once they are given the chance to prove themselves, they will be extremely loyal to an organisation," Mr Gamack said.

"Organisations shown to be embracing diversity are also looked upon favourably by the community as socially responsible and equitable."

Ms Purkis said being offered a full-time professional job was life changing.

"I went from being on the disability pension and living in supported housing to being financially independent. My loyalty to my employer is immense," she said.

"Autistic people often have hyper focus and are great at attention to detail.

"We are frequently  divergent thinkers which can mean we are highly valued in workplaces where creativity and innovation are prized."

The Legislative Assembly's health, ageing and community services committee has made disability employment the subject of a new inquiry.