TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference: Frustration at London Underground autism refusal

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Union activists are planning a high-profile campaign against London Underground after it refused to introduce an employment policy on autism and neurodiversity.

Janine Booth, a member of the RMT transport union, told the TUC’s annual Disabled Workers’ Conference in London that London Underground had refused even to discuss the idea of introducing a policy.

One senior manager told the union there was no need for a policy aimed at supporting autistic and other neuro-diverse employees because if an autistic member of staff did experience problems in the workplace they could just “send them to occupational health”.

She said: “We shouldn’t need to be sent to occupational health as if we are broken or naughty people.

“We are autistic, we are not ill. We only become ill at work when our workplace makes us ill.”

Booth (pictured, reading from her own guide, Autism Equality in the Workplace, at a previous event) told the conference that introducing a policy would reduce the need for London Underground to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace for autistic staff.

She said the union wanted to address problems with the sensory environment at work, make sure promotion and recruitment policies were fair for neuro-diverse people, and ensure working practices and performance measures were fair.

She said: “A fully accessible workplace doesn’t need adjusting for an individual.”

Disability News Service (DNS) has learned of several occasions when London Underground appears to have discriminated against autistic staff and job applicants.

On one occasion, an autistic man had applied to be a train driver but failed the written exam when the test was in a different format from the practice papers he had been sent.

It took more than a year for London Underground to understand what was wrong with this process, but when it finally made an adjustment to the exam process he passed the test, and is now working successfully as a train driver.

One member of staff was sacked after he told his manager that he thought he might have Asperger’s syndrome.

When another employment case was taken to a tribunal, London Underground said that it did not accept that the staff member was a disabled person under the Equality Act, even though it agreed that he had Asperger’s syndrome.

Booth told DNS after the debate that the union had been trying since November 2015 to convince London Underground to act, while RMT’s stance had been backed by other transport unions.

But she said London Underground would not even accept their proposal as an agenda item at a regular meeting between unions and management.

She said London Underground had said it would deal with individuals “on a case-by-case basis by sending them to occupational health. They are going to wait until people get ill.”

She said: “I was frustrated because this is a company that states in its policy that it adheres to the social model, but this is a classical medical model response.”

Moody said the union now planned to write to London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, about London Underground’s failure.

She added: “Look out for protests and petitions. We are not going to drop this.”

Tricia Wright, human resources director at Transport for London, said in a statement: “We are committed to the wellbeing of our staff and have a number of policies and processes in place to support them.

“Our occupational health team supports employees with a range of conditions, including autism, and their line managers. 

“Given that autism can affect people in a number of different ways, and that we have a wide variety of staff roles, we believe that it is appropriate to support each individual staff member according to their circumstances and needs to ensure they have the support they need in their place of work.”