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Jonathan Andrews: Leading Change through example

Jonathan Andrews: Leading Change through example

An honorary degree for autism in the workplace and social mobility

Queen’s Young Leader, Jonathan Andrews advocates for employment equality for autistic people and for social mobility in the UK. In this piece he reflects on having his achievements recognised and shares his tips on how to advocate for the rights of minority groups.

Autistic people are too often pigeonholed into certain jobs when we are considered for employment. But the fact is that all autistic individuals are different, with different skills for different roles, and different interests in different sectors. What many of us have in common is a determined focus on our area or areas of interest, which is ideal for many roles.

A growing number of us are also determined to be treated fairly alongside our non-autistic peers, and to fight for the right to reach as far as our talents afford, should we wish to do so. It’s this inclusivity and my focus on autism’s advantages which were recently recognised by the Open University.

The Open University

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from the Open University informing me that they are offering me an honorary degree in recognition of “outstanding achievements” I have made in “breaking down barriers in the workplace” – particularly concerning autism acceptance and social mobility.

I respect the Open University greatly. It is an institution with an unparalleled national reach and a mission to make education, and social mobility, available to as many as possible.

Jonathan at a social mobility meeting

Jonathan at a social mobility meeting

For almost 50 years it has helped democratise higher education, assisting huge numbers of people with the aptitude for academic study, but faced with socio-economic barriers to gain opportunities. It has improved both their own lives, and those of their families and communities.

My mother was the daughter of a teenage mother and grew up in a poor area. I attended my local state school. My social background means I am all too aware of the barriers that exist.

I have achieved entry to King’s College London, studied at Cambridge through the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, and gained a training contract with city law firm Reed Smith. But that doesn’t change the fact that many others from backgrounds like mine haven’t had these opportunities – despite their very real talents.

Autism

To be recognised for work tackling autism visibility and acceptance is another reason why I am happy to accept this honorary degree.

I’m sure there are autistic students studying at the Open University, even graduating this very year because autistic people are in every section of society. We deserve to have the chance to apply ourselves in our chosen fields, and graduate into a society that both recognises our talents, and that it’s in everyone’s benefit to do so.

This is not a message which should be constrained to the UK. I have worked with advocates across the 52 other countries of the Commonwealth, ensuring such opportunities can be accessed internationally, and championed by grassroots.

Jonathan Andrews raising awareness through Ambitious about Autism

Jonathan Andrews raising awareness through Ambitious about Autism

Leading the ‘I Am Able’ campaign, I’ve authored a toolkit detailing the barriers faced across the Commonwealth and the advantages autistic people can bring. And as a Queen’s Young Leader, I’ve supported fellow disability advocates and allies to make change in their own countries.

I’d be delighted to share a few tips for other young changemakers – on how you, too, can bring about change.

Tips for change-makers

1. Focus on hearts and minds

Legislative change is important but many Commonwealth countries lack legislative frameworks allowing disabled people to reach their potential. Even in those which do, however, legal changes aren’t everything.

It’s important to show others why it is in their interests to promote opportunities for disabled people, and to help shatter stereotypes so people can recognise the genuine contributions disabled people make.

2. Lead by example

Having role models in positions helps others visualise themselves. But there also has to be a first person, willing to fight to gain access to a role, to show others it’s possible.

Whether you’re the first or not, by getting on with things – and being open about your identity while doing so – you’ll demonstrate it’s possible for change to be made by self-advocates on merit. And you will win the respect of others who recognise your personal achievements.

3. Remember your experience isn’t universal

We are all individuals. For example, I have experience of disability and social mobility. But I recognise I don’t have experience of certain disabilities or social barriers, or growing up outside the UK.

This doesn’t mean my experience is not valuable, but it cannot simply be applied to others in a cookie-cutter fashion. Others’ experiences – especially those you advocate on behalf of – must be considered.

Looking ahead

I look forward to receiving my honorary degree later this year – and hope that others across the Commonwealth are emboldened to break barriers and help others break theirs.

The ethos of equality of opportunity and social mobility, upheld by the Open University and whether via education, employment or other means, deserves to be championed – far and wide.