Why is it important that we work to open doors and minds to inclusion in the workplace?
It’s the first day on the job for interns Hamdan Al Mehairabi, 19, and Mohamed Ahmed Ali, 18, but they’re showing no signs of nerves. Arriving at the Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE), they smile easily, collect their name badges and prepare for their first shift.
However, this is no ordinary job induction, and Hamdan and Mohamed are no ordinary interns. Both on the autism spectrum, they have travelled here from The Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Special Education operated by The New England Center for Children (MRC-NECC) to gain work experience in the facility’s library and copy room.
“When our school opened in 2007, we had one classroom with four-, five- and six-year-olds,” explains Mike Ballard, lead vocational therapist at MRC-NECC. “Fast-forward ten years and those children are now teenagers. We wanted to start up our vocational education department to begin getting our students more involved in the community.”
The internship programme began in 2017 with a small cohort of students working in ECAE’s library. Since then, the initiative has opened up to more students, with a goal of helping them learn working skills, such as filing and typing, alongside personal ones, including independence, confidence and social interactions.
This year, Hamdan and Mohamed have graduated from the library and moved on
to the copy room, where they process orders, copy, print and bind documents for staff
“I like talking with the other students. I like learning new skills and training for work,” explained Hamdan, whose first day has seen him learn how to process orders and get to grips with the photocopier.
For Mohamed, the job has helped him learn a whole host of new skills, and comes with certain perks: “I learned how to sort DVDs, typing and shredding. Sometimes I help check books out, and after work I like going to Costa for a milkshake.”
The goal of this initiative, says Mike, is twofold: “Inclusion in the workplace is good for everyone involved,” he notes. “It’s good for our students to get out there in the community and challenge them to do different things. When students graduate from school, they have the rest of their lives ahead of them, so we want to make sure they have something to move on to.
“That’s where inclusion in the workplace comes in,” Mike adds. “Giving our students jobs helps them to become active contributing members of society and it helps everyone involved. A big part of it is that we spend so much time teaching our students how to react in public, and sometimes it can be a lot easier to teach the general public how to react to people with disabilities. It’s a two-way street – getting our students involved in the community is the way that happens.”
It’s not just the students who are learning; for May Yassin, senior specialist of cataloguing in the ECAE library, the experience of working with the interns has helped her understand
why inclusion is so important.
“People of determination need to be given the chance to demonstrate their skills in the workplace, as we notice that they do have significant contributions to make,” she says. “Working with the interns drew my attention to the importance of embedding awareness of autism into institutions and making adjustments to the workplace to suit [them]. We have to understand that each person is different and needs to be accommodated in different ways.”
For Mike, the students’ ability to adapt and learn has a larger lesson for the rest of us – and that’s that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about someone’s abilities.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you should always just try it, no matter what it is,” smiles Mike. “If you put limits on what students can do from the start, that doesn’t give them a chance to show that they can do it. For me, the biggest thing is giving my students that opportunity to try something new and be successful.”
WORDS Camille Hogg