Work

Willing and able

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on December 03, 2020

A whole new world: Aditi Muranjan, a teacher at Action for Autism, helps candidates hone their skills at an employment readiness programme

On December 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — a look at how companies are hiring people with autism not just to make offices more inclusive, but to also tap the valued qualities that the employees bring into the workplace

* According to the World Health Organization, one in 160 people globally have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Though there is no official data available for India, around 3 million people are estimated to be affected by autism

* A few leaders have to demonstrate the value of participation by autistic employees for others to follow

***

Few among her colleagues knew what autism was when Asha Sreedhar joined software giant SAP Labs India in Bengaluru in 2015. She had to explain to them that she was autistic, and what it meant. “After I joined SAP Labs, I started educating them about it,” she says. “Now they have studied it and even attend autism events in the company.”

Autism is a neuro-developmental challenge that impacts a person’s social functioning and communication abilities. Autistic people are varyingly affected by the condition and have different strengths and abilities. According to the World Health Organization, one in 160 people in the world have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Though there is no official data available for India, around 3 million people are estimated to be affected by autism.

Sreedhar (33) had applied to the company’s initiative Autism At Work and was hired as a quality associate after a training period. Over the last few years, many companies — largely in the West, but elsewhere, too — have been making their workplaces inclusive and diverse. Organisations such as Microsoft, Ford and Ernst & Young have floated programmes for autistic people. When some of these companies started operations in India, they replicated these policies here.

In 2014, SAP Labs India rolled out its Autism At Work initiative. Today it is believed to have more than 10 employees with autism on its roster. Not just SAP Labs, several other companies in IT such as Cisco, Dell and Capgemini, and organisations from the hospitality and retail sector also endorse the concept of inclusion and diversity.

“A lot of organisations believe that people with autism have certain talents that have contributed to their business and economy to a certain extent. I can’t say if there is a complete shift, but yes things have moved,” says Agomoni Bose, project manager, EnAble India, a Bengaluru-based NGO that trains people with disability and helps them find employment.

EnAble India was the training partner of the SAP Autism At Work programme. Sreedhar, whose job entails ensuring that the company’s software products are stable and tested, was among those who had trained with EnAble India. While Sreedhar underwent challenges regarding communication and social interactions, she didn't face problems related to support systems. Born and brought up in the United States, she had been exposed to a work climate, Bose says.

The NGO — whose founders Shanti Raghavan and Dipesh Sutariya won a social entrepreneur award at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019 — helps a recruit adjust to a place of work. It sends a trained person to accompany the new employee through what is called the Golden Period which can last from two weeks to two months. It hires ‘job coaches’ who train candidates and also work on building inclusiveness with peer sensitisation and advocacy sessions. These sessions, where candidates talk about themselves, are undertaken to acquaint the employer with the employee, and make them comfortable with each other. EnAble India's candidates have been hired by companies such as SAP, CISCO and Hatti Kaapi. It is collaborating with a mass media company to run paid work from home internship programmes for computer-related jobs.

Retail brand Big Bazaar also plans to hire people with autism and intellectual disability across its stores in India. Last year, it ran an internship programme in collaboration with Action for Autism, an education, training and advocacy organisation for people with autism. Under this programme, individuals with autism handled warehousing processes at a Big Bazaar outlet in Kalkaji in Delhi.

Different perspective: Siddharth Kishore (wearing a badge), an intern at Big Bazaar, checking grocery stocks

 

“What we are trying to do is to build an ecosystem around people with autism which enables others to work with them and sensitise others to their requirements,” says Vineet Saraiwala, inclusion lead at Big Bazaar.

Saraiwala attributes the decision to a measure called Quiet Hour, a shopping experience with reduced light, sound and trolley movement that is practised every Tuesday in 43 stores across India. These measures are meant to put autistic people, many of whom react adversely to loud sounds and lights, at ease. The initiative began in December 2018 and till now 15,000 visitors with autism have visited Big Bazaar stores during Quiet Hour.

“The Quiet Hour sensitised our staff to people with ASD. The staff encountered real-life experiences and came to know of the triggers. They witnessed them having meltdowns and learnt from there. This activity was suspended in the pandemic but we are restarting it in a phased manner,” he adds.

Those working with autistic people point out that qualities such as attention to detail, consistency, discipline and punctuality make them great assets for a company. “In some parts of the world, there has been a realisation that autistic individuals bring valued qualities like creativity and work ethics into the workplace, leading to some companies actively seeking to recruit them. In India that is still relatively rare. Barring a handful, it still is seen as an initiative that companies feel forced to fulfil,” says Action for Autism director Merry Baruah. But that is fine, too, she adds, for “a few leaders have to demonstrate the value of participation by autistic employees for others to follow”.

At The Lemon Tree, a hotel chain, people with disabilities and ASD comprise 16-17 per cent of the workforce. According to Aradhana Lal, vice-president, brand, communications and sustainability initiatives, The Lemon Tree, workplaces that follow standard operating procedures (SOP) are conducive to people with ASD.

“Hotels are designed on detailed SOPs so it is quite suitable for people with autism to work in hotels and even banks and restaurants,” she emphasises.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 increasing .quotas for people with disability from 3 per cent to 4 per cent in government jobs also facilitates the assimilation of people with ASD into the workforce but Bose points out that while the opening up of jobs is not difficult, what is also required is how to prepare individuals for the jobs.

“What we want to do is to develop the resource pool so that we can supply a suitable resource whenever an opening comes up. There is a step before placement which we call pipeline building in our parlance,” she says.

She further stresses .the need for an education and support system which can equip individuals for such jobs. “So what we are looking at is expanding the job roles from computers to semi-skills and manual roles because we realise that level of education and support is not available to people with autism in our country. We do have high functioning mildly autistic people where the families have given them exposure but they are limited in number.” Bose also points out that people on the higher side of the ASD need another type of livelihood model and suggests a sheltered workspace with a low audio-visual stimulus.

Bose cites an example of a young boy who is so passionate about trains that he knows the entire schedule of the Indian railways by heart. The NGO guided him towards creativity. Today he earns money by making and selling paintings of trains.

“Some people have great memory, good rote memory but poor logical understanding. Some common impairment can be converted into their strengths. People like sameness, predictability and set routines which make them very good for jobs like inspection. Some .are good with gadgets,” she says.

Those working in the field point out that the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to job cuts and other work-related problems, has upset the employment of some people who had gone through internships and were waiting for a post.

“Some who had jobs were not able to join work,” says Aditi Muranjan, a teacher with Action for Autism. “Despite that, the work from home culture has opened up some limited opportunities,” she says, citing the example of candidates interning from home for companies.

People with autism, too, are beginning to adapt to the new normal, she adds.

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist

Published on December 03, 2020

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