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Neurodiversity: A Disability or merely a Difference?

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

In a recent analysis of disability workplace demographics as part of a broader DEI Analytics scope, I asked where did neurodiversity fit? My question was framed more as a leading question because I specifically asked if it was intended to fit with a Mental disability type based on the organization having three (3) defined types of disability: Physical, Sensory and Mental. The answer I received was an assertive yes that neurodiversity was part of the organization’s mental disability type. That opened the door for me to challenge that view based on personal experience. Someone very close to me was diagnosed with moderate dyslexia about four years ago and he vehemently denies that he has a mental disability; furthermore, he denies that he has a disability at all. He’s very resistant to any accommodations including extended testing time and assistive technology. And the truth is, the worst-case scenario for this individual is that he’ll perform as an average student without the additional learning support. Yet, the diagnosis remains that he is dyslexic and accommodations might improve his academic performance. However, his perspective is that his brain thinks differently about things. And he’s right! His brain processes things different than mine and in most instances, there is nothing to judge or weigh who’s right —- it’s just different. So, when or if this individual is asked to self-identify as a person with a disability and he’s given only the three options above, my guess is that he will not choose anything. And I’m inclined to believe that opting out (or even choosing not applicable) is not uncommon based on various data sets I’ve analyzed from organizations that include a question in DEI surveys about disabilities. In fact, the response rates are hugely inconsistent with world stats that say 15% of the population is living with a disability (or that 1 in 4 people in the United States have a disability). Also, DEI surveys consistently reveal that less than 10% of survey respondents are self-identifying as a person with a disability. This of course does not necessarily mean that most people with a disability are like the individual very close to me whereby they outright deny a diagnosis. But it could potentially indicate that those individuals are simply uncomfortable making the disclosure. And somewhere in between being in denial and uncomfortable there simply might be individuals who do not internalize their situation as a disability, as is the case with my close connection with dyslexia.

I believe this middle scenario is likely and highly prevalent for the neurodiverse demographic. Therefore, the underlying DEI questions presented are two-fold: (1) are we creating a sense of lack of belonging by asking people to self-identify as having a “disability” because it may translate as being without abilities based on the prefix “dis” being attached to ability; and (2) to align with socio-cultural norms, should we expand our answer options much like the race and ethnicity question has changed since first being asked in the 1790 US Census which had three options: “free whites”, “all other free persons”, and “slaves”? Rather than choosing from a range of disabilities such as intellectual, physical, sensory and mental, define areas of "varying abilities or differences" such as physical, intellectual or neurological, sensory, mental, emotional, two or more of the above, or other differences qualifying as a disability under the American Disabilities Act (or the relevant law in a particular country). The goal is to demonstrate respect for these differences to increase response rates and then value for those differences with targeted workplace initiatives and resources that celebrate the strengths of neurodiverse persons and others with varying or different abilities.

There’s data that supports an increased sense of belonging for persons with disabilities (PWD) translates into collateral benefits in the workplace in the form of improved productivity, morale, engagement, retention and overall satisfaction. Given my work in DEI analytics, I’m a huge advocate for leading with the data and thus, I’m in favor of giving a new lens to neurodiverse people in terms of how to incorporate this demographic into a DEI strategy, analytics, programs, measurement—- all of that and more. After all, an aspect of DEI is supporting individuals being their authentic selves and this is in direct conflict with hiding behind your differences. Getting to a place where people feel valued and respected necessitates fostering inclusiveness for all abilities regardless of how those varying abilities and differences take shape --- and there's data to prove an upside with impacts to the bottom-line. It's a win-win! What are your thoughts? #neurodiversity #DEI #diversity #diversityandinclusion #equity #inclusion #disability #disabilityinclusion #learningdifferences #differences #bottomline

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