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The Neurodiverse Workforce

  • Posted on January 18, 2011 at 7:58 AM

The first proposed chapter for my book, tentatively entitled “Neurodiversity at Work: A Manager’s Guide,” is designed to introduce the concept of neurodiversity in a business-friendly context.

Most of what is written about neurodiversity is from a social justice perspective.  While there are very real reasons for this, a consequence is that information about neurodiversity is not presented in the language most business people speak.  So this first chapter will ground the relevance of the social justice issue to the business world by translating the social justice language to the business language.

What does it mean to be neurologically diverse or neurodiverse?

As used in this book, neurologically diverse and neurodiverse are two different terms.  Understanding both is important to understanding how neurodiversity impacts the workplace.

Neurologically references the structures and mechanisms of the nervous system, including the brain, and the effects the nervous system has on how people experience life.  Diversity references the fact that there is no one neurological state.  We all are neurologically diverse.

Neurodiverse, on the other hand, represents a sense of identity.  Someone is neurodiverse, in this sense, rather than being neurotypical.  Societies tend to prefer a certain set of neurological traits; this set of preferred traits is perceived as neurotypical.  In some societies, including the United States, traits that deviate from this preferred “norm” are perceived as damaged or insufficient.  This creates stigma and an environment of prejudice against anyone who demonstrates neurodiverse traits.  This prejudice can be extreme, such as the prejudice faced by people with so-called low functioning autism, which is considered an extreme deviation from the norm.  This prejudice can also be relatively mild, such as the prejudice faced by people with depression, which is considered a less extreme deviation from the norm.

So, what does it mean to be neurologically diverse?  It’s means you’re a human being.  Humanity is neurologically diverse.  What does it mean to be neurodiverse?  It means you are part of a perceived “undesirable minority” and will face stigma and prejudice as a member of the workforce.  This prejudice and stigma will continue unless managers learn to manage a neurologically diverse workforce or you learn to hide your undesirable differences.  It also means you may carry a label of mental disorder, as your neurotype may have been medicalized due to its undesirability. 

At least an estimated 26.2% of the American adult population could identify as neurodiverse, or one in four adults.  According to the 2004 census, that’s an estimated 57.7 million people in America alone.  This minority is too large and too important to ignore, but the business world often ignores the needs of this population.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is about the confluence of two distinct beliefs:

1) People are naturally and normally neurologically different.  Some of these natural, normal differences are labeled “abnormal,” “disorders,” “syndromes,” or other value-laden labels that interferes with our ability to understand the different subsets of human neurology.

2) Human beings are valuable, in all their diversity, in and of themselves.

As such, neurodiversity is a social justice movement that is affiliated with the disability rights arm of the civil rights movement.  Neurodiversity is also strongly tied to autistic advocates, who advocate for acceptance and accommodations for autism, so they can better interact with societies that devalue the autistic ways of being.  As used in this text, neurodiversity is not exclusive to autistics, but encompasses the wide set of neurodiverse individuals who participate in the workforce.  This includes individuals with autism, mood disorders, attention deficit disorders, and other neurotypes that may or may not involve a medical diagnosis.

How does this social concept apply to the business environment?

Consumers are neurologically diverse.  Workers are neurologically diverse.  Business is, by extension, an interaction of neurologically diverse individuals for profit.

Understanding, respecting, and accommodating neurological diversity is an important business survival strategy as the world changes in the face of social pressures from neurodiversity advocates.  Businesses have long struggled with issues stemming from a neurologically diverse workforce, but have yet to come to terms with these issues.

The time is now; because, as pressure mounts, if businesses cannot or will not respond, consumer and legislative pressure will force businesses to respond in ways that suit bureaucratic form rather than the flexible business environment and the needs of your workers.

Blogging Against Disablism: On Assuming Impairment

  • Posted on May 1, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Executive Summary:  Disablism happens because the majority of people (US-specific) believe physical, mental or psychological differences make a person disabled.  Yet the majority has technologies and accommodations that make them able.  The reason why the “disabled” sub-population lacks appropriate technologies and accommodations is because their needs differ from those of the majority.  It is this lack of appropriate technologies and accommodations that truly disable or impair these individuals.  As a society we can allocate our resources in order enable everyone.  Will we choose to do so?

Disablism refers to the societal tendency to single out, exclude or mistreat people with physical, mental or psychological impairments because of those impairments.  But even here, in this simple definition, disablism intrudes.  The physical, mental or psychological differences are assumed to impair (meaning to lessen the quality, strength, or effectiveness of) the person with said differences.

I wish to challenge that assumption.  In the US this assumption is the foundation of the paradigm (meaning the worldview formed on the basis of beliefs, teachings, and experiences that shapes the perceptions of an individual when processing new teachings and experiences) held by the majority.  Within this paradigm it is the disability or impairment—the mental, physical or psychological difference—that impairs or lessens a person’s ability to participate in society.

Obviously!  That which is obvious is not necessarily true.

We are all more able, more empowered, and more effective with the use of technologies and accommodations that help us go about our daily tasks.  For example, we are all impaired when it comes to talking over long distances—so we use telephones, cell phones, Web cams, chat rooms, and e-mail to communicate over these distances.  People who do not have these communication technologies are accommodated through public phones and library computers.  We are all impaired when it comes to traveling over a long distance in a timely manner—so we use cars, trucks, and bicycles to span these distances.  People who do not have these transportation technologies are accommodated with buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation.  We are all impaired when it comes to learning—so we use textbooks, schools, black boards, Web sites, Power Point presentations, and other technologies to condense and teach the things we all need to learn.  People who cannot afford access to these education technologies attend public schools, visit public libraries, and get grants and loans from the federal government to attend technical colleges and universities.

Because “we all” have these impairments, the technologies and accommodations we need to improve our effectiveness are readily available.  Individuals with disabilities, as a whole, make up a significant sub-section of our population.  However, the specific technologies and accommodations that can compensate for their individual differences are not readily available, because the technologies and accommodations that would satisfy their needs are often unique to them.  At the very least, they’re not particularly useful to the majority.

That is the difference.  The impairments “we all” have our alleviated with technologies and accommodations; the impairments “they” have are not, because the technologies and accommodations “they” need are of no use to “us.”

Thus, the pervasive American paradigm is based on the “we all” standard.  If “we all” need something, then it is normal and “we all” obtain access to the technologies and accommodations we need; even if it means burying our country under a huge burden of debt.  If “some” need something to help them do what most do “naturally,” then those who with special needs are impaired or disabled and satisfying their needs is a burden “we all” won’t accept or tolerate.

Is this the land of the free—where so many are impaired and boxed in by the barriers we create as a society?  It’s time to shift our paradigm (paradigm shift: the internalization of a new belief, teaching or experience that dramatically changes the worldview of an individual).  The individual is not impaired because of their physical, mental or psychological difference; the individual is impaired because he or she lacks the accommodations or technologies that would enable him or her to participate effectively.  A lack we the people created out of our own ignorance and small-mindedness.

The truth is this: With the technologies and accommodations that are right for them, individuals with physical, mental or psychological differences can participate in and contribute to our society.  They can live not as “disabled” or “impaired” individuals, but as able, powerful, effective people—people whose differences no longer exclude them from the world of the majority.  “We all” would be richer for it, from an economic, cultural and an individual perspective.

Yet our society is engineered with the majority in mind—the technologies and accommodations we as a people devote most of our energies to are those that the majority requires and the majority demands.  Those who engineer our society impair those who need different technologies and different accommodations, often doing so unconsciously and unintentionally.  It never occurred to the majority that it should be any other way.

Is that really what we want?  Is that the people we want to be?  I know I don’t.  Do you?