These are tough times for employment. Tougher yet if you're young -- and really tough if you happen to be young and disabled. So the establishment here of the Creative Spirit programme developed in Australia to provide employment opportunities in the creative and media trades for young disabled people is laudable and welcome.
Fiona and I, with two sons on the autism spectrum, have an obvious interest here, so we accepted an invitation to go along to the local launch of Creative Spirit, which is backed by the creative agency Droga5 (which founded the project in Australia), Fairfax Media, the Communications Agencies Association of New Zealand, Draft FCB, Barnes, Catmur and Friends and Y&R.
I wound up muttering under my breath for a lot of it. I was astonished that a programme fairly well established in Australia and (more to the point) led by creative, communications and media companies could labour under such clumsy and potentially offensive messaging. I don't want to embarrass individual speakers -- who are, after all, seeking to do the right thing -- but in a firm and constructive spirit, here is some advice:
• Establish what you're about. Are you looking to help people with disabilities or specifically people with intellectual disabilities? The implications of each are different.
• Disabled people are not your mascots. They're not there to make you feel good or to "raise morale in difficult times". They're there because they have a right to work.
• If your slogan is "What could be more creative than being different?" then walk the walk and think about actually involving in creative roles the people you're employing. Most especially do not present disabled people as handy for "the jobs you don't have time for -- like cleaning out the coffee machine". Obviously, the work on offer should be appropriate to the needs and capabilities of the people you hire, and the person who collects the mail makes a real and valid contribution, but they are not by default your office dogsbodies. They may know more than you think.
• In the long run, your project needs to be about more more than offering work to a handful of people and patting yourself on the back. It must be about lowering barriers to employment across your whole company -- because that's the big, long-term problem. If you're in comms and creative, think about pro bono campaigns that could help thousands of disabled people. If you're a media company, consider your editorial commitment to fostering understanding of their challenges.
• Don't think of it as an act of charity, think of it as a commitment to human rights. Don't bang on about how you fretted about the impact on your business of hiring a disabled person. They're not infectious.
• Consider hiring someone who understands these issues and could help you avoid saying and doing things that might be hurtful or unproductive.
As, I said, this programme is a good thing and I'd urge other companies in the sector to get aboard. But the people backing it really need to sort out what they're saying and how they say it -- or they may reap a harsher response than I'm presenting here.
Anyway, here's a happy story from Creative Spirit's website:
On a related note, Dan Salmon's documentary, Pictures of Susan -- the story of autistic "outsider artist" Susan King -- is playing at this year's film festivals. It plays in Auckland at 5.45pm on Sunday and 10.30am on Wednesday, both screenings at SkyCity. (You can search for the other screenings here, but you need to choose your region first.)
It's about love and mystery and reminds us all that minds unlike ours -- even those of non-verbal people like Susan -- are not inert. And that, indeed, they may claim a dynamism and productivity of which most of us could only dream. Here's a trailer: