Another perspective on diversity: Josef Schovanec in conference at MBS for Handivalides day


Every year, MBS students take part in organising a “Handivalides” day on campus, dedicated to providing information about and promoting understanding of different disabilities. This year once again, six students involved with the association Starting Block organised a conference with the brilliant Josef Schovanec, who was in Europe for the week. The result? A powerful message on integrating disabled people, specifically those with autism, into the everyday reality of business and French society.

Josef Schovanec — Sciences Po graduate, doctor of philosophy, author of several books and radio commentator — is first and foremost a polyglot. But he is also a high-functioning person with autism (Asperger syndrome) and has become an unofficial spokesperson for people with the disorder. With characteristic black humour, he spoke to a full auditorium about the day-to-day reality of people with autism as it applies to the business world. “Are you aware of all the advantages there are in recruiting people with autism into a company? And yet 99.9% of my autistic friends are out of work. So I let myself imagine a new economy that would work with human diversity.”

What J. Schovanec proposes is an autism-friendly economy, a society that would adapt to the particular characteristics of autistic people. He gives the example of New Zealand, where he lives year-round. “In New Zealand, a lack of consideration for disability is unthinkable. Everything is adapted to facilitate accessibility. Certain retail chains have even begun the process of offering opening hours reserved for people with autism, with dimmer lighting and quiet music. The autistic demographic is large enough for companies to see it as a business opportunity! It stands to reason that the same thing is possible in France, where 400,000 adults are autistic.”

For J. Schovanec, autism isn’t a disability but a difference in functioning that can lead to inspiration, creativity and innovation. “Autism is about having a different way of looking at things, and people with autism are talented,” he said, citing the example of his friend, a former dressmaker for Lolita Lempicka, herself autistic, whose magnified sensory capabilities helped her in her creations. “Why are these talents so often excluded, shut out? You have to exploit this human excellence, this added value. Difference only becomes a liability when society ignores these differences and isn’t willing to adapt to them. Society, parents and the educational system must teach new generations about human realities, and especially how to live alongside a person whose functioning is different from their own. Nowadays, difference is scary. Only six percent of disabled people go on to higher education, and it is very hard for them to have their experience recognised. This is particularly relevant in the case of people with autism, who develop most of their skills through self-teaching in a society that essentially values the pursuit of higher education.”

Since 2009, Montpellier Business School has incorporated disability into its equal opportunity and SER policies. MBS and other academic institutions work every year on concrete actions such as PHARES tutoring, awareness days, the Handicafés and the Passerelle Handicap entrance exam. By bringing its students and staff face to face with difference, MBS adds its voice to the plea for a more open — and more innovative — society.