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Neurodiversity: Why employers need to encourage more people to “come out”.

16 Mar 2018

Posted by Neil Milliken

What is neurodiversity?

“Neurodiversity is an umbrella term referring to a group of neurological development disorders which share common features, in particular differences in how people learn and process information. Definitions vary, but here we use the term to refer to dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD/ADHD) and Autistic Spectrum (Autism / Asperger’s syndrome). Under the law these conditions are collectively known as 'hidden disabilities'.” http://www.tssa.org.uk/en/Equalities/dyslexia/

Disclosure, I am an “out” dyslexic so I have a vested interest in moving the neuro diversity agenda forward. Projections vary but anything between 1 in 20 and 1 in 5 of your members of staff may be on the neurodiverse spectra.

Why appropriate the term “coming out”?

Image courtesy of Eye to Eye National

Coming out may seem like a strange way to describe the process of telling your employer and colleagues about your hidden disability as the phrase is normally associated with people’s sexuality.

Recent years have seen a significant advancement in gay-rights and general acceptance of gender difference / LBGT issues in society and also in the workplace. There is clearly a movement towards greater equality.

It was not so long ago however that many people felt extremely uncomfortable declaring that sexuality inside work; rightly so as they faced discrimination and were often stigmatised. Since their need be no outward appearance of any difference many people chose not to declare thinking that such a declaration would hinder their careers. A progressive gay rights movement has encouraged people to be open about their sexuality and it is through this openness that such great progress has been made.

The reason I have chosen the phrase is because there are great parallels to be drawn between the personal dilemmas faced by employees when deciding whether or not to disclose information about themselves.

Why do we keep hidden disabilities in the closet?

Neuro diverse people often feel that they will be looked down upon and overlooked for jobs and promotion if they declare their hidden disabilities. There is certainly some evidence to support this. Specific learning difficulties have very considerable stigma attached to them. Just think about many of the common insults we use daily amongst ourselves - a lot of them are actually referring to specific learning difficulties.

I think we can all safely say that we do not like being called stupid or lazy.

Image Courtesy of Eye to Eye National

For example if you have dyscalculia and cannot understand the basic concept of maths, society will judge you harshly despite the fact that you may have a very high IQ because we have come to associate numeracy with intelligence.

In my own case I still struggle to dial telephone number, take notes in meetings and even spell the same word differently in the same sentence despite having strong academic qualifications and a good job.

So it should not be surprising that people often go to great lengths to disguise and cover-up for the fact that they are struggling in certain areas of their working lives.

There are many tools and strategies available to help mitigate the issues faced by many people with neuro diverse conditions. However, often they go unused as the very act of using them serves to highlight the person’s differences from the norm.

Neurodiverse workforces are more creative

Diversity drives performance and there are plenty of statistics to show this neuro diversity is part of this picture. There are plenty of studies to show what creative thinkers people with dyslexia are and how they can be very entrepreneurial. I have also seen a slew of articles recently about people on the autistic spectrum being employed by high-tech firms such as Microsoft and SAP because some of them have proved themselves to be extremely competent technicians and testers. With the right support people with hidden disabilities can make an outstanding contribution to your organisational effectiveness. But without coming out employers cannot put the right support in place.

How can we break the vicious cycle, encourage disclosure and harness these talents?

Picture courtesy of Eye to Eye National

We need to create environments that are friendly for people who are neuro diverse and this starts by declaring willingness to engage and learn about people’s diversity and acceptance that people who are a bit different can bring fresh perspectives. For example UK intelligence services employ people with dyslexia as codebreakers.

Seek out people who are confident to become champions it is only by seeing other people talk about the issues that they have faced and how they have built with them that we can create greater understanding.

Make software support packages and other coping mechanisms freely available to all staff so that everyone can benefit (many assistive technologies that were first aimed at solving issues for people with specific learning difficulties actually make fantastic productivity tools). If everyone around the organisation has access to these tools a great deal of stigma is automatically removed, and people begin to gain an understanding.

From this understanding comes acceptance, from acceptance comes support and with support comes great potential for success.

Neil Milliken
Posted by Neil Milliken

Neil is Head of Accessibility & Inclusion at Atos where his role is to help make the world a better place by delivering better technology for their customers and staff, embedding inclusive practice into the Business As Usual Processes of organisations with thousands of employees and turnovers numbering in billions. He created the Atos Centre of Competence encompassing Accessibility, Inclusive Design and Assistive Technology Services. This team services multiple accounts and delivers best practice, support and consultancy for the organisation. Neil delivers strategy and services working with a wide range of clients internally and externally helping them to develop policies, processes and technology solutions to meet the needs of their staff and customers. These clients include: BBC, Department of Health, Ministry of Justice, Insolvency Service, and NHS. He is the Atos representative on the Business Disability Forum Technology Task Force Neil is also an invited expert and contributor to theW3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce & member of the Atos Scientific Community. He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion. Neil is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Board of Directors at the World Institute on Disability. Previously he worked at Iansyst one of the largest providers of Integrated Assistive Technology Solutions in the UK.

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