Employable Me – BBC documentary series: Review

The BBC documentary series “Employable Me” features a bunch of job seekers with neurological/developmental disorders such as autism / Asperger syndrome, Tourette syndrome and Down Syndrome, as they strive to overcome unemployment. The series aims to show the people behind the first impressions, and dispel the myth that people with neurological conditions are unemployable.

 

Photo from Employable Me: Ashley (Aspergers) handshakes potential employer in work trial in Auction hall
Ashley on work trial in auction hall
Credit: BBC

 
A total of 10 job seekers features in the 7 episodes*:

• Paul (52) has Tourette’s, and Brett (34) is autistic
• Tom (27) has Tourette’s, and Ashley (29) has Asperger syndrome
• Ellie (23) has Tourette’s, and Ben (27) has Asperger syndrome
• Thomas (25) has autism
• Louisa (40) has Asperger syndrome
• Zena (25) has Down Syndrome
• Matthew (27) has Down syndrome

The participants are all unique and different from each other, yet the conditions divide them into broad categories of shared challenges.

Each case begins with a job seeker’s home situation (most of them are still living at home as adults), and briefly presents their hobbies, motivations and job search/employment history, outlining their key employment challenges related to their condition. They are then followed as they pursue job leads, consult with specialist employment consultants, endure job interviews, undertake work trials, and explore their (limited) career options.

The job interviews seem painfully real and specific (in contrast to the many “how to ace a job interview” type videos that float around the Internet, which tend to seem less applicable due to their generalised nature). I found it useful to watch these different real life job interviews – which questions were asked, what people struggled with, and how the speaker explained their shortcomings and mistakes.

The desperation and randomness of the candidates’ job search is obvious as they apply for roles that clearly wouldn’t suit them, and are stuck in dead ends after years of unemployment and hundreds of unsuccessful job applications.

Enter Occupational Psychologist Nancy Doyle, who “specialises in finding the hidden talents in people on the extreme end of the neurological spectrum”, and “autism expert” professor Simon Baron-Cohen. They consult with the job seekers, and undertake tests to uncover their marketable strengths. Whatever one thinks of the consultants’ “expertness”, their assistance appears to help the candidates to identify their strengths and see themselves in a more positive light – as people who have valuable abilities to offer employers under the right conditions. They (or the “Employable Me” team) also seem to help with connections to opportunities such as work trials (the inner mechanics of how they got those leads is not clear).

The work trial concept turns out to be a good pathway for several of the job seekers, who didn’t do well in the job interviews – when given the chance to prove their skills directly in the workplace, they are able to show that they can do it, or in a few cases realise that the occupation is not a good match.

 

 
Like in a fairy tale, all the case stories end well. Everybody eventually find a job or some other way to jumpstart their life onto a career path (albeit Ashley not so much maybe).

I think the series does a good job of showcasing each individual’s unique cocktail of (huge) challenges and (great) strengths in a well-rounded way, revealing how companies are missing out on great talents due to relying too much on first impressions and inflexible hiring procedures. It also shows some of the consequences of long-term rejection from the job market: loss of self-esteem and financial dependency – in nearly all the cases, the candidates still live with or off their parents in adulthood, or in some other arrangement of financial dependency.

 
Different conditions, different job challenges

The pairing of Aspergers and Tourette’s in three episodes gives an interesting contrast of the two disorders, which I had thought were more alike. All 3 job seekers with Tourette syndrome look & behave very normal, except for their unpredictable tics, and they all come across as the kind of people who would probably have had solid careers, was it not for the disruptions caused by their tics. (I suspect they were casted for the entertainment value of their extreme verbal ticks)

Despite all his efforts, every job avenue Paul explored is blocked by his Tourette’s

Employable Me Episode 1:3, BBC2 – Video can be seen here

Many of the autistic/aspie employment challenges are familiar to me – such as difficulties selling oneself in interviews; difficulties blending in socially – especially during breaks; lack of relevant social network apart from close family, inflexibility, and simply being different from the expected “people standard”… Ben’s inflexibility – Louisa’s getting stuck when she can’t solve the second question on her test – Brett’s and Thomas’ awkwardness during breaks, it is all eerily familiar – as well as the consequences of the failure to earn an income: financial dependency and low “societal self-esteem”.

 

 
Many of their highlighted strengths also resonate with me – flair for systems, great focus and insight in areas of interest, good eye for visual details, trustworthiness, noticing details others overlook, and creativity. Brett’s and Thomas’ ease with systems, attention to visual details, Ashley’s self-entertaining creativity, solitaire lifestyle and writing project – that’s aspect I recognise too. I’m different, with very different interests (and they are very different from each other too), yet many of the key issues are common ground.

The two job seekers with Down syndrome have a different set of challenges; and their profiles of strengths and shortcomings seem almost contrary to those posed by Asperger syndrome/ASD. Zena and Matthew are both sociable, confident, and bubbly with great people skills, but their disability is highly visible, and they both had the mild speech impediment typical for their condition. I expected their employment barriers to be highest due to the visible nature of their condition and the stigma associated with Down syndrome, and that is probably the case.

However, they both successfully go through a work trial in customer service roles (one was for a voluntary part-time role), and secure the roles. Watching Matthew joke with his supervisor in his work trial place and Zena banter effortlessly with the people around her, highlighted how important people skills and “an engaging personality” is in the workforce.

 
What I got out of “Employable Me”

Overall I like the series a lot. I found the insights from job interviews and work trials et.c valuable and inspiring, and am pondering to try to get a work trial myself, to see if it could help me past the job interview barrier to employment, just like it did for these job seekers. I need an income badly, so working for free doesn’t intuitively seem like a great plan, but if it can get me in a good job match then it would definitely be worth it, and if it can’t then perhaps it may help kickstart things some other way. I think it may help me get more insight into how different types of workplaces operate here in Australia, thus eradicate some of the enormous insecurity which I feel is also part of my employment barrier. And after all, every week I’m not working I’m not making any money either, and I’m also not gaining experience.

I also googled “Occupational Psychologist Sydney” (an entirely different field from Occupational Therapy), but apparently here in Australia occupational psychologists work in HR departments of major corporations, rather than help disabled unemployed individuals overcome barriers to the workforce.

Part of me suspects that the happy endings in the series were helped along by the featured employers’ motivation to score some “equal opportunity” points, and get good marketing out of the positive exposure in the BBC program. They had perhaps decided in advance that if a candidate could do the job and wasn’t a complete maniac, then they *would* hire them, even if they usually *wouldn’t* have due to the job seeker’s abnormalities … because happy endings are better marketing. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but perhaps similar work trials in real life won’t lead to so positive outcomes.

 
What I would also like to see in “Employable Me”

  • Sensory issues

Sensory processing issues, and noise sensitivity in particular, are fairly common in Asperger syndrome and autism, although the combination and degree varies. For me personally, hypersensitivity to background noise (and to a lesser degree other sensory issues) limits my flexibility a lot. I may be in the more severe end sensory-wise, but none of the autistic job seekers in “Employable Me” seemed to have any sensory issues that affected their employability (or at least they didn’t mention it). That is lucky for them, but I’d like to see a job seeker featured who explicitly factor sensory issues into their job search and career path.

  • What comes after the happy endings?

I would love to see a follow-up on the candidates after a year or so. After all, starting in a job is only the first step, while the long haul of keeping it and thriving in it can be even more challenging. Will the candidates still be in their jobs (or studies) 3 months later? A year later? Do they still want to be there? If not, were they able to stay in the workforce, or did they fell back into unemployment and got stuck again? I’d like to know.

  • More, please

I hope the series continues in the future. Optimally (for me) with more autistic job seekers, but also perhaps different types of mental health conditions and disabilities. My gut feeling says that it would make good sense for BBC to create more episodes in the light of the concept’s great popularity (and its usefulness) … I’ll cross my fingers for that.

All the “Employable Me” episodes can be watched on this YouTube playlist.

 
Related stories

 
What some of the participating employers say:

 
Thanks to Stuart Neilson’s blog post “BBC Autism Season“ for bringing attention to the “Employable Me” series

 
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*The first 3 episodes are on BBC2, and the last 4 are on BBC3

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