- Hans Weber
- May 25, 2022
Interview With Markéta Bočková, Spokeswoman For The Public Defender’s Office On The Rights Of People On The Autism Spectrum
The Public Defender of Rights, whose office is in Brno, has the responsibility for ensuring respect for democratic principles, human rights and the absence of discrimination. As part of this responsibility, the team of the Public Defender of Rights also monitors the situation of people on the autism spectrum, who are more vulnerable to discrimination. For our series about autism, Brno Daily interviewed a member of the team. Photo credit: Freepik
Czech Republic, May 7 (BD) -The Ombudsman, officially the Public Defender of Rights, “protects persons against the conduct by authorities and other institutions if such conduct is contrary to the law, does not correspond to the principles of democratic rule of law, or in case the authorities fail to act.” The Ombudsman is elected by the Czech Chamber of Deputies from candidates nominated by the President and the Senate. The current holder of this position, since 19 February 2020, is Stanislav Křeček. He studied Geology, Creative Arts and Law in Prague, before becoming a member of parliament for the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) in the Chamber of Deputies, and was previously the Deputy Public Defender of Rights from 2013 to 2019, which is also elected by the Chamber of Deputies. The Ombudsman may delegate some of his competences to the Deputy, currently Monika Šimůnková, a lawyer specialised in children’s rights and in civil and human rights.
“The Ombudsman has an Advisory body composed of people with disabilities and disability advocates. The role of the advisory body is to look for systemic problems, assist in setting priorities and making recommendations, and identify issues that need to be addressed in the area of the rights of people with disabilities,” explains Bočková. “The advisory body also ensures that people with disabilities are kept informed of the Ombudsman’s activities.”
Through this task, they face a wide variety of situations, from a blind woman who was turned away by the hospital when she wanted to donate blood, to a man staying in a home for people with disabilities who was denied the dignity of dressing normally and left in pyjamas all the time. They get information about the problems people with disabilities face “not only from individual complaints, but also through the Advisory body or through our research and contacts with representatives of non-profit organisations.”
“Their disability is not visible and may not be adequately understood and accepted by those around them.”
As an activist explained to us in a previous episode, people on the autism spectrum face a lot of discrimination. “People on the spectrum are not a homogeneous group, just as all people can be very different from each other – in intellect and other abilities and skills, so it is difficult to generalise,” explains Bočková. Their challenges and the obstacles they may encounter are therefore also very diverse, both qualitatively and quantitatively. In addition, in many cases “people on the spectrum of autism often deal with the fact that their disability is not visible and may not be adequately understood and accepted by those around them,” adds Bočková.
“Therefore problems arise in different areas.” These areas first include education, both schools and universities. “We consider inclusive education as one of the essential prerequisites for a successful transition to active adult and working life. Unfortunately some schools are not prepared for students on the autism spectrum. There could be inadequate consideration of special educational needs, inappropriate setting or implementation of support measures.” The insufficiency of its measures may, for example, include the absence of a school assistant, lack of training, teachers who do not take into account the specific needs of their pupils or even an individual education plan poorly established. “Other issues may include bullying at school or refusal of admission, when the school is for example concerned about the level of support the child will need.”
People on the autism spectrum cannot get a driving licence in the Czech Republic
“We are also aware of situations when people on the spectrum have had trouble getting a driver’s licence because, according to the Medical Fitness to Drive Ordinance, autism is a so-called pervasive developmental disorder and causes medical complications or deviations that are dangerous for road use,” says Bočková. The ability to drive a vehicle is therefore not assessed individually, and obtaining a driving licence is prohibited for anyone on the autism spectrum. This rule, established in 2011, is specific to the Czech Republic and is a main target of activists for the rights of people on the spectrum. In addition to posing an obvious problem of autonomy, this rule adds to an already problematic situation in the field of employment. “Requiring a driving licence in a job advertisement may put off applicants on the spectrum. This also appears for jobs where the employee does not travel regularly for work or business,” points out Bočková.
Problems for people on the autism spectrum in the job market are often simply related to ignorance and prejudice
This is in addition to other additional challenges that people on the spectrum may encounter in the job search. For example, “not all people on the spectrum may have difficulty communicating over the phone, for example, but it is likely that the requirement to contact a potential employer by phone may put some job applicants off.” But the main problem they may encounter is simply related to ignorance of autism and prejudice. “For example, employers may not be prepared for how people on the spectrum react to unfamiliar situations or answer questions, and so they may exclude a candidate who would be a good fit for the job.”
“We also found out in our research that some people with disabilities, including those on the spectrum, prefer to conceal their diagnosis in job interviews to increase their chances of being hired. They try to steer the discussion with a potential employer away from generic labels such as disability and towards specific individual needs. Rather than defining or highlighting disability, for people with disabilities it is important to try to talk to a potential employer about the specific aspects involved: how can their disability be compensated for? What are the employer’s options to help them do this?” One of their research participants on the autism spectrum said that it has been a good strategy for him to be as vague as possible and not to tell his potential employer the true diagnosis because “these people don’t know what it entails anyway.”
People on the autism spectrum in the Czech Republic are overrepresented in unemployment statistics
As a result, according to a report by the National Autism Institute (NAUTIS), “unemployment among people with autism in the Czech Republic is around 7.5 %, which is double or triple the national average. A comparison of the proportion of economically inactive people is similar. While the share of economically inactive people of working age in the Czech Republic is around 23% (Czech Statistical Office, 9/2018), the share among people with autism is 52 %.
However, “it should be said that many people with autism do not require any special treatment or access. Most people with autism do not even disclose their diagnosis during the selection process. Ideally, a candidate is accepted simply because you have made that decision based on their profile, skills and other parameters you have assessed. Candidates with less visible disabilities are more likely to hide their autism to protect themselves against possible prejudice or employer concerns,” states the NAUTIS Guide for Employers of People with Autism. But this “camouflage usually hits its limit in random or prolonged social and communication situations that cannot be prepared for in advance or cannot be focused on for as long. Some are ultimately successful in these strategies. However, many do not perform to the best of their abilities as a result of focusing too much on these skills and fail in job interviews or in the first few weeks of employment.”
“People on the spectrum may find it difficult at work to enforce necessary support measures”
Also, “in our research on the employment of people with disabilities in the public sector, we found out that people with disabilities would prefer specific information specifying the job in more detail – for example, criteria for the demands on individual senses and musculoskeletal systems – rather than a general description,” says Bočková. “Each person would then be able to make a relevant decision for themselves as to whether or not they could do the job and respond to the advert on that basis.” Unfortunately, the information provided in job advertisements is rarely accurate enough, which makes job hunting even more complicated for people with disabilities.
Discrimination reported even in the healthcare system
“Access to obstetric and postnatal care is also an issue,” adds Bočková. Indeed the specific needs of women on the spectrum are not always taken into account when they give birth. “These include being overwhelmed by stimuli such as noise, light and others – these are specific to each person – being able to be alone in the delivery room or postnatal ward, having the person she needs with her and so on.” The Ombudsman’s team is therefore interested in the staff awareness of these needs in maternity hospitals.
“The availability of services, whether social or medical, is also a major problem,” continues Bočková. Medical staff are indeed often insufficiently aware of the specificities of people on the autism spectrum. This may firstly include a lack of knowledge of the vulnerability of their health and any comorbidities, but also a lack of training about the specific needs of communication these patients can have, and a lack of training in alternative methods of communication. As a result, people on the spectrum sadly tend to die much younger.
Discrimination against people on the autism spectrum in the Czech Republic at odds with international law
And all this while yet “the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ensures that people with disabilities have the right to independent living and participation in society, education, equal treatment and opportunities, access to facilities and services, or protection from exploitation, violence and abuse. Last but not least, the Convention also guarantees the participation of people with disabilities in political and public life,” says Bočková.
“Through the lens of the social model of disability, people with disabilities are seen as part of our society just like any other person. Disability is no longer an individual problem but a societal one. The social model focuses on removing barriers that would discriminate against people with disabilities and promoting their independence. This model does not deny that people with disabilities need and will benefit more than others from the social assistance system, but it seeks to prevent society from seeing people with disabilities as mere objects of care,” says Bočková. “The obligations arising from the Convention are primarily the responsibility of the State, and the Ombudsman is mapping the extent to which the State is succeeding in this regard. Therefore, people with disabilities, but not only people with disabilities, can also turn to the Ombudsman to draw attention to systemic shortcomings.”
“It is advisable to first discuss a possible discriminatory situation directly with the person who committed the act. It can be an employer, school, or service provider. If no agreement can be reached, the person can contact an inspection body: the regional labour inspectorate, Czech School Inspectorate or Czech Trade Inspectorate. To stop the discrimination, remove its effects, apologise or seek financial compensation, a person can bring an anti-discrimination action in court.” Are their interventions usually successful? “The success of our intervention depends on the specific situation, such as the amount of evidence of the victim of discrimination and the willingness of the opposing party. Private parties are not obliged to cooperate with the ombudsman. The time taken to process a complaint is also individual, usually in the order of months.”
“The Ombudsman can investigate the actions of authorities (Czech School Inspectorate, Czech Social Security Administration, labour offices, etc…) If the Ombudsman finds that an authority has acted incorrectly, they will issue a recommendation on the matter, which does not directly oblige the authorities concerned to comply. Therefore, in these cases, we encourage clients to file a lawsuit in the administrative justice system (if they are within the deadline for filing), as the subsequent court decision is binding on the authority. Here again, the processing time for the complaint is in the order of months.”
“And with all these steps we are trying to improve systemic deficiencies”
“In the agenda of protecting the rights of people with disabilities, we are primarily concerned with long-term goals, and we draw attention to problems or shortcomings in legislation. We address our research and recommendations to the responsible state authorities and institutions. Last but not least, we inform the public and raise awareness about the rights of people with disabilities. Of course, systemic changes take much longer. If the Ombudsman finds that the Czech Republic is not fulfilling its obligations in a certain area, we inform the UN Committee (as part of our regular reports). It also issues recommendations, which it addresses in particular to the state authorities concerned, comments on legislation and discusses with ministries (officials) the needs of people with disabilities and the changes that need to be made. And with all these steps we are trying to improve systemic deficiencies,” concludes Bočková.