As an Associate Fellow and Queen’s Young Leader alumnus, my advocacy in the UK focuses on tackling fair access to professions, life chances, and social mobility. Education is a key driver in providing opportunities and in increasing the life chances of a country’s citizens; good education on a national level increases the chances of social mobility. Working closely with charity Future First, I have played a founding role in my old state comprehensive school, Darrick Wood’s, alumni network, which aims to provide ambitious students with strong careers advice.
Employment is another key factor in life chances – but too often, education and employment are judged as two completely separate issues. In fact, the overlap between the two – particularly the years as people leave education and enter employment – are some of the most vital in ensuring fair access and equality of opportunity in the career opportunities on offer. This is especially true for disabled people, who often are most restricted from accessing extra-curricular activities and careers advice.
As an ambassador for Pure Potential, a UK-wide organisation offering internships and open days in competitive professions to students from state schools, I’ve written about the unique experiences disabled students often face. The solution appears to be mainstreaming disability, working with existing organisations to ensure they are as inclusive as possible and that disabled people can win positions in them, and that reasonable adjustments are in place, if needed, to facilitate their success throughout.
However, targeted interventions are also a powerful way to highlight certain groups’ unique challenges – and unique opportunities. The full-time employment rate for autistic people in the UK, for example, is shockingly low at 16%. Other Commonwealth countries have even worse statistics, with 90% of autistic people being unemployed or underemployed in Canada (while many other countries do not even keep records). It’s recognised that the gap between education and employment is an important cause – charity Ambitious About Autism notes that too few autistic students receive comprehensive careers advice, let alone career opportunities. As a result, often the first rung on the ladder of work is harder to reach – causing a domino effect later down the line.
Employ Autism, a campaign which has reached businesses with offices across the Commonwealth, was set up to tackle this – by making the business case to employers for hiring autistic people, citing the unique strengths and drive many have. It has succeeded in creating internships for autistic people, which have often resulted in full-time job offers once employers have seen how good their interns are. The Autism Exchange, an innovative program offering paid internships to young autistic people – to bridge the gap between education and employment – and autism awareness training for employers, has likewise achieved strong results. Launched as a partnership between Ambitious about Autism and the Civil Service, it now works with multi-national private sector providers with offices across the Commonwealth, creating opportunities for those who may not have otherwise been able to showcase their talents and passions. I am also a Professional Ambassador for Aspiring Solicitors, and delighted to see them partner with Barclays and leading law firms since 2017, offering autism internships.
It is this drive to provide opportunities for positive achievement, particularly around disability, which led to me becoming a coordinator and lead of the Commonwealth Youth Council’s ‘I Am Able’ campaign. Since 2016, this has raised awareness of the lives, talents and challenges of disabled people across the Commonwealth. The campaign has recognised that education is key to achieving its aims – both of disabled people, so that they are equipped with the tools to use their potential and make real change, and of wider society about the strengths disabled people can bring – and leading initiatives have worked with grassroots organisations to spread awareness.
I authored a toolkit on Autism in the Commonwealth, shining a light on the experiences of autistic people and their families across the 53 nations. The report has been seen as ground-breaking and focuses on the difficulties autistic people often face, including in accessing education and the benefits it can bring and talents it can unlock. The toolkit has educated key decision-makers globally about the barriers facing disabled people. The Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda was presented with the toolkit, and the country’s government has since announced the launch of a fully-funded Disability Commission – the country’s first ever – to work to remove barriers and allow disabled people to reach their full potential in education, employment and wider society. In partnership with the Commonwealth Young Person of the Year 2017 disability and education campaigner Krystal Reid, who runs grassroots organisation Enable Lanka, this has been translated into Sinhala and shared with schools and community groups across Sri Lanka – integrating autism awareness into the education system.
The campaign has also allowed young disabled people to have their voices heard at the very height of the City. Reed Smith, also a partner in Barclays’ Think Talent Program, have sponsored ‘Unseen and Unspoken’, a pan-Commonwealth award launched to shine a light on the experiences of disabled people internationally. This has resulted in their poems being shared among senior professionals, granting them exposure and opportunities they may never have otherwise experienced.
I will continue to spread far and wide the message that disabled people deserve equality of opportunity, and the chance to achieve their career aims and social mobility, as much as any other group. I hope that our I Am Able campaign – and future work by the Commonwealth – will go great distances to showing how everyone benefits when disabled people are given a chance.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.