Addressing Diverse Disabilities: A Conversation with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Julia Bascom

Julia Bascom, Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)

Photo of Julia BascomJulia Bascom serves as director of programs at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Julia’s work focuses on technical assistance for self-advocates and state-level policy advocacy efforts, with an emphasis on leadership development, rights-based models of education, services, and supports, and bridging the gap between theory vs. praxis. In addition, Julia develops projects which look at standards for cognitive accessibility, the creation of independent living supports and the potential of natural supports, and ensuring meaningful, authentic, and respectful representation of the autistic and disability communities throughout our society. Julia served on the New Hampshire DD council as well on as her state’s team for revitalizing state-wide self-advocacy, and is the founder of the Loud Hands Project.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a national grassroots disability rights organization run by and for people with autism that works to improve public understanding of people with autism, including perceptions related to employment. ASAN also provides insight and expertise into the importance of accessible technology to people with autism and cognitive disabilities in general.

PEAT recently spoke with Julia Bascom, ASAN’s director of programs, about the organization's work in this area.

PEAT: Can you start by telling us a little bit about ASAN as an organization?

Bascom: Absolutely. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, or ASAN, works to advocate for systems change and ensure that the voices of autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power. We also work to educate communities and improve the public's perceptions of autism. Our members and supporters include autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators, and friends.

PEAT: In your efforts to promote the inclusion of people with autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in American society, what are you seeing as trends in the area of employment? And how does technology come into play?

Bascom: As with the broader disability community, we see high rates of unemployment and underemployment—the result of a complex combination of factors, including low expectations, misconceptions about autism, and insufficient funding for supported employment programs.. These challenges, notably, have very little to do with the actual job skills and talents of autistic people. Again, we face many of the same challenges as the rest of the disability community in that we have many people who want to work but are actually being prevented from doing so. But, we are working hard to reverse this, and technology is a powerful ally to us in this effort. We’ve seen it bring people together to challenge some of the barriers, encourage different ways of thinking, and spread the word about employers with “disability-friendly” values. Technology is also opening up new possibilities for accessibility and workplace flexibility. It makes the virtual workplace more accessible.

PEAT: What types of workplace technologies are important to your members? And do you think employers understand the importance of these technologies?

Bascom: The most important piece of workplace technology for our members is definitely text-based communication options. Many of our members find it easier to communicate via written text rather than spontaneous speech, and we find that employers are often surprised to discover that such a simple and commonplace technology can have such a profound impact on their employees. Really, e-mail, messaging, and commenting systems make this natural and seamless, for an entire workplace—not just autistic workers.

PEAT: Looking at the other side, what are the greatest challenges for people with autism with regard to accessible workplace technology? And what has changed over the years in terms of improvements and setbacks?

Bascom: That’s a difficult question, mainly because autism is a diverse disability. A common challenge tends to relate to navigating through a software program or a website. What’s intuitive for autistic people can be very different to those without! But there’s really not one common, unifying access barrier. What has been very helpful, however, is the increased focus on interfaces that are customizable by the user. This trend allows each user to configure a given program or website to their specific needs and preferences, creating their own experience. We’re very excited to see this becoming more and more common.

PEAT: What do job seekers and employees with autism need to know about accessible technology solutions? Are there resources out there that can help them find what they need?

Bascom: This is another area where we see a real lack of resources. Autistic workers need to know about browser extensions and apps they can download to customize the technology being used. We need to know where the accessibility and user settings are for a given piece of technology. And we need to know that our rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extend to these contexts, including employers’ requirements to provide reasonable accommodations.

PEAT: Can you recommend any resources to employers who are seeking to make their workplace technologies more accessible to people with autism? On that same note, are there resource gaps that need to be filled?

Bascom: We would send them to the PEAT website! It really reflects the work ASAN has done on this topic, including the results of an online dialogue we co-hosted on improving the accessibility of online tools for workers with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. We would also emphasize the need for employers to gather information directly from their employees with disabilities about the barriers they face, and recognize that this should be an ongoing process as technology changes so quickly. For instance, as an organization ourselves, we emphasize ongoing dialogue about all accessibility concerns and have clear protocols for submitting requests for accommodations. But, unfortunately, you are right that there are gaps to be filled. When people think of accessible technology, they often don’t consider it in the context of cognitive disabilities. We need operational guidelines for website and technology development and detailed guides for employers and employees alike, where cognitive disability is integrated alongside accessibility guidance for all other disabilities.

PEAT: Speaking of which, several industry efforts are underway to gather information on strategies to support individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities and to create related technology standards. What impact do you think these efforts will have on the autism community, especially related to employment?

Bascom: We’re very excited about these efforts! Examples include the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force within the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3), and the University of Colorado's Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, which offers a very helpful cognitive technology database. There is also the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for the Advancement of Cognitive Technologies and the RESNA Standards Committee on Cognitive Technologies.

We're very encouraged by this work, because in this day and age, using technology and accessing the Internet is almost universally considered an essential job function. It’s vital that we don’t leave people with disabilities behind, including those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities.

PEAT: ASAN is very active on social media, so we know you understand the role it now plays in the employment lifecycle, from applying for jobs to advancing once employed. What effect do you think social media has on the employment of people with autism and ASD? And how has your community responded to the accessibility of social media platforms?

Bascom: Yes, our community is very active on social media. In some ways, this reflects what I said earlier about text-based communication being beneficial to many of us. In many important ways, social media has done more to “level the playing field” when it comes to networking for us than anything else. That said, it’s difficult to quantify the effect on employment, especially when unemployment and underemployment among our community has so many interlocking factors.

PEAT: Finally, accessibility really is an employer responsibility, but people with disabilities also have an important role to play since they understand their own needs best. How do you think these responsibilities can be balanced?

Bascom: I think it can be useful to think of accessibility as an ongoing and evolving relationship, one through which information is shared and needs may change over time. If there is a fundamental underpinning of trust—on the part of both parties, accessibility tends to flow naturally. Employees need to be able to trust that their employers will honor their responsibilities, and employers need to trust that employees are the experts on their own needs when it comes to optimizing productivity on the job.

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