Education and training – BrazilA new approach is needed to ensure equality in the work place for autistic people
Luciana Viegas is a pedagogue, Brazilian Sign Language interpreter and teacher in the state public network of São Paulo. Herself autistic, as an activist she has challenged the stigma around autism with a particular focus on the intersectional challenges for autistic people from minorities. A founder of the Black Lives with Disabilities Matters (VNDI) Movement in Brazil and member of the Associação Brasileira para Ação por Direitos das Pessoas Autistas (ABRAÇA), here she discusses the barriers that autistic people continue to face – and the need for awareness raising and communication to transform entrenched societal prejudices against them.
In Brazil, according to official data from 2018, there were 7 million people with disabilities able to enter the labour market – but only 486,000 (7 per cent) were registered in formal employment. This shortfall is nothing new: back in 1991, the Quota Law 8213/91 was specifically created to encourage people with disabilities to enter the labour market. The Quota Law stipulates that companies with more than 100 employees must have 2 to 5 per cent of their vacancies reserved for people with disabilities. Since 2012, with the passage of the Berenice Piana Law 12,764/12 recognizing autism as a disability, there has been increasing discussion of autism in the job market.
While some companies are now willing to discuss diversity and inclusion of people with disabilities, accessibility is still very much understood in relation to the idea of disability as a pathology without a ‘cure’. Because of this, there are very few complex jobs or vacancies that require training for people with disabilities, who are usually underemployed and receive lower salaries than those offered to employees without disabilities. People with disabilities are thus left without the chance to develop professionally within their place of work.
In Brazil, public policies that are in place to financially support and reduce inequalities for people with disabilities, like the Benefício de Prestação Continuada (Continuous Benefit Provision) – an economic welfare payment that guarantees a basic subsistence income – can prove counterproductive, preventing an autistic person and other persons with disabilities from securing formal employment. This is because once hired, according to its regulations, the person no longer lives in vulnerability and therefore does not qualify for benefits. While the recognition of autism as a disability has provided autistic people with better access to essential financial support, it has at times also served to perpetuate popular stereotypes of incapacity and helplessness commonly associated with people with disabilities.
As an autistic woman from a favela, my experience with the job market has always been an uphill struggle because the selection processes are designed for neurotypical people.
These misunderstandings are further complicated in the case of autism by the widespread perception that it is ‘the genius disability’, with autistic people generally regarded as extremely intelligent, white and male: there is almost no media representation of autistic people having average intelligence, being female or black. This is very problematic because it affects the way we autistic adults relate to work. Alongside public policies that fail to provide appropriate support to address the lived realities of many people with disabilities, employment hiring and selection processes also present barriers to people with psychosocial disabilities because the idea of accessibility is still focused primarily on breaking down physical barriers rather than the ‘invisible’ challenges that autistic people may face. Indeed, many autistic people, especially from black communities, end up seeking informal employment simply to avoid the stress surrounding these formal processes of recruitment. This can drive them into insecure or precarious work that can ultimately overload autistic people, leaving them more vulnerable to meltdowns and further entrenching the hyper-medicalization and pathologization of autistic people.
Employment selection processes and public policies therefore need to consider the complexity of the barriers faced by those with psychosocial and invisible disabilities. To understand the reality of the autistic population in the job market, especially the black and favela-inhabiting autistic population who face even greater levels of marginalization, it is vital that employers properly take into account intersectionality: the fact that a person with disabilities who also has a non-binary gender or belongs to an ethnic minority lives an experience which interacts with both their disability and broader societal processes such as employment. In a society ruled by systems of domination of certain groups over others, this can generate additional forms of oppression and inequality for these groups compared to people with disabilities who have other favoured characteristics (such as being white and male) when accessing the same systems and processes in society.
As an autistic woman from a favela, my experience with the job market has always been an uphill struggle because the selection processes are designed for neurotypical people, who generally are at ease with oral communication normative social skills, while the specific communication styles of autistic and neurodiverse people are not considered. My work with the Black Lives with Disabilities Matter Movement (Vidas Negras com Deficiência in Portuguese), a movement that focuses on race and disability which I founded with other black, disabled activists in Brazil in 2020, has helped me to understand that these selective processes were built to prioritize white and non-disabled bodies. In some selection processes, for example, I performed well until I had to deal with questions that required neurotypical social dynamics that as an autistic person I obviously did not fully understand, meaning in the end I was rejected. Over the years, this gradually instilled in me the belief that I would fail these tests before I even tried.
The need to fight for the rights of people with disabilities in the labour market is more urgent than ever, given that our continued position on the sidelines of these recruitment processes further entrenches our position on the margins of society. In particular, we must rethink the myth of the ‘good’ worker, who channels all their time and energy single-mindedly into their work. When applied to autistic people, this conception can prove toxic as we need adjustments, such as shorter working hours, that do not align with this ‘all or nothing’ approach.
Assisted work offers a more progressive alternative for people who require a high level of support to enter the job market. This model aims to identify the barriers faced by people in relation to the role they need to perform and provides an additional support person so that people with a disability and their work are not jeopardized. Supported work has been championed by the Down Syndrome Movement, which has realized several successful projects through inclusive technical trainings. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the most marginalized in Brazilian society, including the black and favela-dwelling disabled population, are also able to access such opportunities. Our fight for rights needs to move beyond the political arena and place access to work at the centre of the debate: only by challenging negative stereotypes and putting affirmative policies in place can we promote a fairer and more inclusive society, not only for autistic people but for all.
Photo: Members of Vidas Negras com Deficiência Importam meeting. April 2022.