How Neurodiversity at Work Fits Into “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”

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neurodiversity diversity equity inclusion

Until recently, corporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) efforts have typically ignored neurodiversity and neuroinclusion.

Such efforts have a long history. Many of the earliest initiatives here were sparked by the social justice movements – and civil rights legislation – of the 1960s. It was in the 1980s, though, that DEI truly began to take root. This was a decade of affirmative action, with diverse hiring initiatives launched to attract female employees and people of color, and growing popularity of diversity training as a safeguard against the potential legal ramifications of discrimination. Companies began to look to the future and the new millennium, conscious of not only of new technologies but of shifting demographic trends, too.

Neurodiversity Has Been Overlooked

One particularly influential report was entitled Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century (1987), sponsored by the Employment and Training Administration in Washington DC. “Our job is now to reach our destination”, stated then Assistant Secretary for Labor Roger Semerad in its forward: “an economically competitive America that fully utilizes the talents and skills of all its citizens”. Workforce 2000 particularly highlighted the need to “Reconcile the Conflicting Needs of Women, Work, and Families”, and to “Integrate Black and Hispanic Workers Fully into the Economy”.

No mention, then, of neuroinclusion – or even of disability inclusion.

The latter would soon be boosted by the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (driven by years of disability rights activism) that provided the protections for disabled Americans at work that had been conspicuous by their absence in earlier legislation (such as in the Civil Rights act of 1964). The ADA brought the obligation – for the first time – for employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to ensure fair access to all facets of employment.

However, the ADA was far from a magic wand, coming at a time where stereotypes of disabled people continued to be fuelled by flawed and limited cultural representations. This was a time, too, when the very word “neurodiversity” had yet to be coined or enter even limited circulation. It was only later that decade, when writing of the neurodivergent chat rooms and message boards of the nascent internet, that Australian sociologist Judy Singer would write in her famous thesis “For me, the key significance of the Autism Spectrum lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of neurological diversity, or ‘neurodiversity.’ The neurologically different represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.”

Singer was right that neurodiversity would in practice represent a “new” addition to those “familiar categories” in the case, for example, of organizational DEI efforts… though of course, the existence of such neurodivergent identity groups was not in itself anything new. Such groups had been marginalized by their societies, and consequently too by employers, and continued to be into the 2010s, despite DEI reports championing the value of hiring and including minority talent, and a series of key findings solidifying the overall DEI “business case”. Soon it would become the norm for organizations to trumpet their DEI initiatives as publicly as possible, and even for corporate CEOs – in the context of growing talent challenges – to highlight diversity and inclusion as genuine strategic business priorities in their corporate communications.

But still neurodiversity – and neuroinclusion – remained and often still remains absent today: a quick perusal of several Fortune 100 company diversity web pages finds evidence of gender inclusion efforts, LGBTQ+ awareness building, and Black and Latino community hiring efforts… but no mention of the power of thinking differently, the value of neurodivergent employees, or programs or success stories that could speak to a genuine commitment to corporate neuroinclusion.

This, though, is changing. Indeed, the oldest “neurodiversity at work” programs are now six or seven years old. At Uptimize we work with organizations around the world that are looking to become more neuroinclusive across the board – and while such efforts can be sparked by employees in different roles, typically central DEI teams are becoming more and more prominent as drivers of such initiatives. Indeed, many frame neuroinclusion as the “missing piece” to their (in some cases, decades-old) promise to be truly diverse and inclusive employers.

Interestingly, the earliest neurodiversity programs were local recruitment initiatives (not enterprise wide inclusion programs) focused on bringing in “new” talent to meet tech talent needs. Thus in effect they were designed to directly address the “D” part of DEI, more so than the “E” and the “I”. Though such programs had the intent, of course, to keep their new hires around, the innovation and focus was more significantly on the recruitment side, with companies such as SAP and Microsoft creating new hiring experiences for their new “autism hiring” efforts.

From “Neurodiversity” to “Neuroinclusion”

These programs, though, quickly had a consistent and not altogether foreseen effect. As organizations began to espouse their enthusiasm for neurodiverse talent, neurodivergent employees already at such firms began disclosing in greater numbers. Just as other employee groups – such as women, and people of color – had formed internal advocacy groups to continue to push organizations towards true equity and inclusion, neurodivergent employees began to do the same. This timing happened to coincide with a global focus on combatting racism sparked by the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, and a growing urgency felt on the part of employers to deliver on their DEI promises and core values.

Through the efforts of such internal advocacy groups, the word “neuroinclusion” began to gain traction. No longer were neurodivergent employees hidden, or just grouped with disabled employees – in companies with active and growing neurodiversity resource groups, the exigency of action to improve working experiences and hiring processes became increasingly clear. As a result, and for the first time, DEI teams began to frame “neurodiversity at work” as an enterprise-wide inclusion priority.

Neuroinclusion: Critical to DEI Efforts

In many ways neurodiversity (or perhaps more actively, neurodivergence) is a template DEI topic. Estimates are that as many as 1 in 5 people may be neurodivergent in some way. The achievements of neurodivergent business stars such as Barbara Corcoran and Richard Branson show the potential and value of different thinking styles, while employment and employee survey data show the continued problems facing neurodivergent professionals in uninformed work environments. The core goals of DEI, evidently, cannot be delivered unless neuroinclusion plays a significant part.

Two common fallacies are briefly worth dispelling here. One – perhaps due to societal ignorance and the often hidden nature of neurodivergence – is that this is a very “niche” aspect of potential or actual DEI efforts… one that might make sense at some point, but is far from a priority. However, for the reasons given above, it is impossible to justify such a view. The second fallacy is to assume that more general DEI efforts and education will suffice – “why”, some ask, “should we focus on neurodiversity specifically?” The answer to this lies in the cold data on low disclosure rates and the shared lived experience of neurodivergent professionals that continue to suffer from ignorant colleagues and otherwise uninclusive workplaces. Ignorance of neurodiversity remains rife, and the general principles of inclusion taught in high level diversity trainings – though often relevant – are proven to not in themselves be enough to change this.

In one (important) facet, neurodiversity at work also is a little different from, for example, DEI efforts relating to other employee demographics such as ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ+ community. Why? It is different in that unlike any other DEI areas, neurodiversity (though not neurodivergence) ultimately relates to everybody. To paraphrase senior Ubisoft executive and neurodiversity ERG lead Pierre Escaich, the one difference we all share is we all have a different brain. This is not to downplay the urgency of better including those with neurodivergent identities, those who consciously face clear barriers as a result of cultures, processes and environments that manifestly fail to accommodate them. But human brains represent a muddy picture, and remember too that many people who are neurodivergent prefer not to disclose, and/or are not even aware that they might qualify for a diagnosis. True neuroinclusion comes, then, not when inclusion efforts are focused only on those who will raise their hands – and it is a positive and striking feature of such efforts when done properly that, typically, everybody benefits.

Paying attention to neurodiversity at work should, in the future, simply be a norm of team collaboration. Everybody in every team has a different brain. That means different preferences in how people absorb and share information, organize their work, problem-solve, and so on. Every team coming together should – logically – spend time understanding and appreciating these, to optimize both the experience of team members and overall team performance. Yet, with appreciation of neurodiversity and neurodivergence typically low, such conversations are often missing – with negative results relating to efficiency, productivity, and even mental health.

Such, a future, then, remains a way off. It cannot happen until neurodiversity is far better acknowledged and appreciated in workplaces. Systemic neuroinclusion education programs are needed to make this happen – and are now underway in more and more organizations. Thus, neurodiversity is and should remain a major element of any diversity, equity and inclusion efforts – efforts that until recently have failed to put sufficient (or indeed any) focus on this important area. Fortunately, in the 2020s, enterprise neuroinclusion programs – though belated – are already creating workplaces in which neurodivergent staff finally feel appreciated and able to perform to their true potential.

To learn more about how Uptimize can help your organization with their neuroinclusion efforts, through our neurodiversity training and consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule an initial discovery call

Ed Thompson Founder CEO Uptimize

Ed Thompson is the CEO and founder of Uptimize – a unique corporate training platform that helps organizations attract, hire and retain talent that thinks differently. Uptimize works globally with organizations like Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and IBM, building robust and impactful neurodiversity at work programs. Ed has also become a frequent speaker on the topic of neurodiversity in the workplace and is launching a book on neuroinclusion Spring 2023.

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