Why We Need to Include Neurodiversity in the Diversity Conversation
I was recently at a workshop about the importance of diversity in the workplace. While I value and appreciate how far we’ve come in many areas of diversity, and the conversation on the work that’s still needed, there was a glaring absence in this discussion – neurodiversity. When I brought it up, a panelist admitted she hadn’t thought about this important group of current and potential employees. I’m sure she wasn’t the only one.
This is why we need to include neurodiversity in the diversity conversation. Approximately 15 to 20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. This includes individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mental health conditions, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome and more.
As a mom and sister of two autistic individuals, I know the amazing gifts they could bring to a potential employer – as well as the intense barriers they face.
My brother is in his mid-40s and has never had a paying job. He’s bright, friendly, detail oriented, loves repetition, rules and processes. He would get joy out of filling shelves, greeting customers at a large store, or packaging orders in warehouse.
Yet he remains unemployed as he doesn’t present well in an interview (avoids eye contact, tends to focus on his interests and asks way more questions than he answers). A traditional interview would in no way bring out his best. But give him a job with clear instructions and a solid routine, and he’ll show up excited every day.
The stats prove autistic adults are an untapped labour force. A 2017 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada found that only 33% of autistic adults are employed vs 79% of adults without a disability.
Diversity = safe spaces
Now what about the individuals with anxiety, ADHD, mental health conditions or dyslexia where their neurodiversity is less apparent? Due to biases, many do not disclosure their diversity in the interview process or even when they’ve been working at a job for a number of years.
When was the last time you heard of neurodiversity in the diversity training given by human resources? We have gender neutral and wheelchair accessible bathrooms, celebrate Pride Day, embrace a variety of cultures and religions, yet leave neurodiversity out of the diversity conversation.
So, how do we change this?
It starts by looking at how workplaces first started conversations about LGBTQ2+, race, religion, gender, ethnicity and other diversities. This can include biases training, rethinking the interview process and learning from organizations who’ve already walked this path. It means hiring neurodiverse employees and giving them the supports and accommodations needed to be successful vs token hires.
It’s about including neurodiversity in the diversity conversation at elementary, high school and post-secondary education institutions – at both the student and staff levels. It involves having honest conversations about how diverse your organization truly is and what needs to be done to ensure there’s a safe and supportive space for everyone.
Finally, it’s about erasing the stigma and realizing a diverse and inclusive workplace isn’t just politically correct, but will actually strengthen the organization and create positive outcomes.
New path forward
As a mom and advocate I spend a lot of time talking about the gifts my brother, son and other amazing individuals bring to table. I’ve also seen movement to fully embrace these gifts hit artificial roadblocks in the education system and in workplaces.
Here’s my hope. I want everyone to be valued and their unique strengths and gifts recognized. I want neurodiversity to have the same space, recognition and importance in the diversity conversation as we given to other marginalized groups.
I don’t want to attend a workshop on diversity and have people say they hadn’t thought about neurodiversity. Rather, I want them to share the incredible work being done by individuals who are autistic, have ADHD, dyslexia or mental health conditions. I want them to recognize and celebrate how a diverse workplace benefits everyone and improves the bottom line.
And most importantly, I want my son to be one of the 79% of Canadians who are employed, vs being held back due to old biases, false assumptions and outdated beliefs.
It’s time to include neurodiversity in the diversity conversation. Without this shift, the diversity conversation runs the risk of being a token conversation.