Have you seen the word “neurodiversity” recently but aren’t sure exactly what it means? Although this word has been around since the late 1990s, it hasn’t reached the lexiconical popularity of other catchy new phrases, like “Internet of Things,” “Facebook” as a verb, and “mobilegeddon.” And “lexiconical,” if I do say so myself. In our Equal Respect column definition of diversity, we include neurodiversity, along with gender, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation — all with a focus on diversity, inclusion and equality similar to that of Salesforce’s new chief equality officer, Tony Prophet.
In its simplest definition, neurodiversity comes from neuro — relating to nerves or the nervous system — and diversity — showing a great deal of variety. In other words, it’s biology, just as your height or the color of your eyes are. Used in the context here, it describes the vast scope of differences in how people’s brains work, how they learn, absorb and impart information, and their behavioral attributes. For instance, dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and autism can all be included under the umbrella of neurodiversity.
In the not-too-distant past, these neurodifferences were considered a disadvantage in the workplace. Obviously, they still are for some companies, but generally speaking people are starting to understand that dyslexia is not a synonym for stupid and autism and ADHD are not diseases, but simply a normal variation in a person’s genetic makeup. As a society, we are slowly becoming more accepting of these characteristics that have traditionally been regarded as psychologically abnormal. As Aaron Rothstein writes: why not see these differences simply as differences rather than disorders?
For people with autism — those whose nervous systems are hypersensitive — unfamiliar situations can be extremely overwhelming and socializing is often difficult, which makes job interviews hard, to say the least. In addition, the interviewer may have a misinformed attitude or belief about someone who is autistic. Microsoft has established a new hiring protocol specifically for autistic job applicants which is designed to include their needs in the same way that a business might install a wheelchair ramp for the physically disabled. Instead of a formal job interview, these candidates come to campus and work on projects to get comfortable in the new environment while meeting with managers in an informal way.
About 20% of the population is dyslexic, which means that it’s difficult to read and write. As you can imagine, in a world where reading and writing are so important (though you wouldn’t know it to look at much of the online writing out there), dyslexics face constant struggles in school and later in places of work. But imagine if you could let potential employers know about your dyslexia without any shame and then be interviewed or tested in a way that used your skills and included your needs.
There will always be naysayers who are opposed to neurodiversity in the workplace because, unlike race or gender, neurological differences can mean altering the interview process, the work environment, the way staff meetings are run, how and when people learn or work, etc. and might seem like you are extending special privileges to them. To that I say: would you oppose your employer putting in handicapped parking spaces near the front of the building, braille lettering on elevator buttons, or allowing employees who struggle with back pain to sit on an exercise ball at their desk?
Like all forms of diversity and inclusion, the goal of neurodiversity awareness is to bring in a wider, more varied range of talent. As Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, says, “The unemployment rate [in tech] is chronic, which is not a reflection of the talent pool, it’s just a reflection of these people not getting through the door." Those with neurological differences “often possess a strength associated with their condition, in the same way a blind person may enjoy a keen sense of smell, hearing, or taste. For instance, people with ADHD tend to be innovative, curious, and active.” Autistic people tend to be “highly analytical, very focused, and very task-oriented” as well as “much better at understanding systems than understanding people.” And dyslexics are often highly visual, creative, intuitive, and verbally articulate.
Thanks to such major brands as Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP, Freddie Mac, EY, and ULTRA Testing, and events like the National Symposium on Neurodiversity, having these characteristics is not only not seen as a liability, but as a tremendous asset. Diversity is essential to an organization’s growth and embracing the traits and behaviors that differentiate us can only drive innovation and success.
About Selena Templeton
Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.