Reflections on Employable Me

Employable Me (BBC 2, 23rd March 2016) has all the ingredients of the type of show that makes me cringe. Inspiring stories of disabled people overcoming their difficulties and finding happiness against the odds, giving the audience that warm, fuzzy ‘oh bless’ feeling. Footage of people struggling with everyday tasks and yet succeeding against the odds, the ‘inspiration porn’[1] we non-disabled seem to enjoy so much. One of my issues with this type of narrative is that it encourages us to focus on the difficulties, to notice the impairment and the problems, rather than finding the strengths and skills individuals might have. This ableist perspective, that views the ‘problem’ with the person, rather than with a society that cannot adapt, adds to the discourse of disability which only allows us to see the difficulty, rather than celebrate difference[2].

Within the first few minutes of the programme, however, my fears were laid to rest. While introducing us to the two protagonists of this episode, the narrator explored the idea that difficulties with finding employment comes from brains that are wired differently trying to cope with work places set up for the norm. As the show progressed, we were shown the real talents of Brett, an autistic 34 year-old desperate to get a job. He showed excellent visual skills when completing a match-stick task, as well as sitting down to play one of his own compositions on the piano. Director of the Autism Research Centre, Simon Baron-Cohen, went on to explain the real strength in understanding systems that autistic people often possess, but it is social difficulties that often mask these capabilities. In underestimating workers with ASC, employers are often losing out on adding a fresh perspective to their teams.

We later saw these social difficulties play out as Brett went for an interview. He found it almost impossible to answer any questions, and was clearly extremely uncomfortable throughout. By writing his ideas down before reading them out, Brett had previously explained how it feels to speak to strangers: “When I’m talking to strangers it’s like I can’t break through … social interaction is like a puzzle that can’t be solved – these people are waiting for a response, something, anything, and everything depends on it.” For some reason, people are often surprised by the thoughts of those who struggle to speak. It’s as if the lack of verbal communication means that cognition must also be affected[3]. Thankfully, the prospective employer was able to see potential when Brett discussed his love of computer modelling and 3D animation. Brett was given a two week trial.

Throughout his trial, we saw these two sides of Brett play out. His extreme social awkwardness with his colleagues at lunch, juxtaposed with his brilliant understanding of computer software. It seems cruel that Brett, and others like him, are judged on the things that they can’t do when applying for jobs, because these are so obvious in a world that values social skills above others. This is even more cruel when the job he wants to do requires few social skills. Perhaps one lesson Employable Me is trying to teach us is that the process for applying for a job should reflect the work that will be done, rather than simply reverting to the expected interview.

Brett was able to explain the way he sees the world in the following way: “I think very differently … my autism makes me question the world based on truth and logic … systems, no matter how complex, gradually become easier to understand the more questions you ask of them, all the secrets are there just waiting to be uncovered.” For a job requiring understanding of computer systems and software, this is exactly the type of worker any employer would want. Brett’s difficulty in understanding the intricacies of social interactions should not impact on his ability to do his work, and his employer was smart enough to see this.

At the end of this programme, what I was left with was a feeling of hope. Not that people with ASC can overcome their problems to find work, but that employers can get over their problems to see the true worth of employing people with diverse ways of thinking. Autistics are often described as inflexible, in fact the word is used as part of the diagnostic criteria (APA, 2013). What this programme made me think about is that it is the non-autistic world that is inflexible. It is employers who demand that people can negotiate the social conventions of an interview who are insisting on sameness. Hopefully Employable Me represents a shift in the way we value people, and Brett’s success can be replicated be others. With episode two due to air next week, I feel very optimistic.

Nicole Whitelaw

[1] This phrase was coined by the inimitable and spectacular Stella Young. See her TED talk here

[2] See my previous blog-post for further discussion of constructing stereotypes of autism

[3] The internet is full of examples of non-verbal autistics communicating by typing. Here is just one example. See also The Reason I Jump

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