Neurodiversity: Paving the Way to Universal Design Inclusivity in the Workplace
Though these last months have been fraught with global challenges, we have seen some hopeful developments when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In particular, business leaders across the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK are providing more work opportunities for the historically marginalized group of neurodivergent individuals — people whose minds operate differently than the mainstream.
The neurodivergent population includes individuals on the autism spectrum, as well as those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, gifted intellects, Tourette’s syndrome, mood conditions, and anxiety. Companies ranging from startups to large corporations are finally discovering the benefits of hiring a cognitively diverse employee base, including access to diverse perspectives, new ideas, and innovative solutions to challenges.
Neurodiversity Goes Mainstream
Over the last few years, neurodiversity has became an integral part of business initiatives and worldwide conversations. Just consider some recent developments: Stanford’s first annual Neurodiversity Summit (at which I presented) drew more than 3,000 attendees. Job boards like The Spectrum Careers and Hire Autism now connect employers with job seekers on the autism spectrum. Major organizations like Microsoft and SAP have launched hiring initiatives specifically aimed at reaching neurodivergent candidates. As autistic lawyer and keynote speaker Haley Moss said during the 2020 Southwest Washington Autism Conference, “This is a mainstream conversation, to talk about neurodiversity.”
The term “neurodiversity” was first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s, but it has only broken into the mainstream in recent years with the rise in diagnoses of autism-spectrum conditions and the arrival of bestselling books like NeuroTribes,
The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that natural variations in the human brain are valuable aspects of human diversity. The neurodiversity paradigm encompasses the idea that social constructs hinder individuals whose brains operate differently than the perceived “norm,” and that these constructs perpetuate inequality. Neurodiversity promotes the inclusion of all types of minds in order to break down the barriers erected by those harmful social constructs.
The growing recognition of the value of neurodiversity at work and in life is directly paving the way for a new, innovative approach to human resources: universal design inclusivity. As neurodiversity recognizes the importance of including all ways of thinking, perceiving, and presenting in the workplace and beyond, universal design inclusivity recognizes the value of true inclusion for all by embedding workplace inclusivity across company lines for each and every employee.
Universal Design Inclusivity
Like neurodiversity, universal design isn’t a new concept. What is new is the way in which universal design is being used to transform the workplace setting.
Ronald Mace, an architect and advocate for people with disabilities, first coined the term “universal design” in the mid-20th century, using it mainly to refer to the creation of physical environments that were both aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly for all people, regardless of age or ability. Today, business leaders are expanding the concept to include not just physical workplaces, but also the procedural and process levels of business.
Instead of focusing on only one subset of society, universal design inclusivity focuses on accessibility for every single employee. This is important, especially when considering that neurodivergent employees are sometimes elevated to better-than or superhero status, or viewed as inferior in some way (e.g., all autistic employees are tech savvy, all autistic job seekers must be put through a separate screening process, etc.)
Let’s be clear, though: Universal design inclusivity is not meant to take away from individual employee or job seeker needs, reasonable workplace accommodations, or affirmative action. The aim of universal inclusivity is to recognize the potential to meet the support needs of many employees all at once, instead of relying on separate support measures for each specific employee. As it is an expansive, overarching approach, universal design inclusivity can save time and money in the long run, and it can save companies from the headaches of having to reinvent the wheel when new employee needs arise.
With universal design inclusivity, workplace supports are embedded throughout company departments, policies, procedures, and practices. Inclusion becomes an integral part of the structure of the company culture and the company itself. Inclusion isn’t an afterthought or offered on a case-by-case basis. It is built into mission statements, company handbooks, meeting guidelines, and other business processes. In some ways, universal design inclusivity puts the inclusion before the diversity, in the sense that it focuses more on the needs of actual people, rather than raw diversity numbers.
Such holistic inclusion measures are typically low cost or no cost, especially when compared to providing distinct services to each distinct individual. Tailoring workplace procedures and processes to be universally inclusive doesn’t need to be complex. Adaptations can simply build upon internal processes and company norms that already exist, such as offering different ways for team members to participate in virtual meetings: texting instead of speaking aloud, the option of turning one’s camera on only at the start of a meeting or not at all, etc. Implementing universal design inclusivity might also mean outlining unspoken company norms in employee handbooks, creating visual representations of management structures, or letting employees know what to expect at an upcoming meeting ahead of time.
By affording job seekers and employees with hidden disabilities more privacy, the universal approach also directly reduces bias and segregation. As J. David Hall, the openly autistic founder of The Foundation for LGFA (Life Guides for Autistics) | NeuroGuides, says, “A major benefit of holistic inclusivity is it grants an individual the freedom to choose to disclose or not. A person looking for a job isn’t forced to disclose sensitive information in order to receive basic support services. An employee doesn’t have to tell their supervisor they are autistic to receive supports.”
When universal design inclusivity is absent and a neurodivergent employee has to disclose a condition in order to receive basic accommodations, the results can be damaging. As was noted to me by an autistic manager who wishes to remain anonymous: “I am a manager now, but my boss once told me that being a manager wasn’t an option for me. They cited the skill set required for navigating workplace politics.” Forced disclosure of a neurological disability is known to drive bias and stereotyping, such as pegging autistic workers in technology or data-entry roles or assigning them mandatory emotional intelligence training.
Because universal design inclusivity offers universal support to every employee and job seeker, it fosters the best chance at job success regardless of a person’s diagnosis. As Steve Silberman, the author of NeuroTribes, says, “When we aim to give everyone the best chance at success, that’s a much more inclusive premise than trying to fit into one template. Everyone has roles they can play their strengths to. Everyone has weaknesses of neurology.”
Universal Design Inclusivity in Action
Word is spreading about holistic workplace inclusivity. Leading agents in the neurodiversity movement and proponents of neurodiverse hiring are taking note of the universal design approach.
“The mission of IBM’s Global Neurodiversity Program includes neurodivergent-friendly hiring,” Diane Delaney, program manager for the Neurodiversity at IBM Program, says. “Our vision is to incorporate inclusive hiring strategies into our mainstream processes, so that it becomes the way we hire everyone, not a specific talent pool.”
At Ultranauts Inc. — the engineering firm where I serve as senior manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion — 75 percent of the employee base reports being on the autism spectrum. Ultranauts has applied a universal design inclusivity approach, under the name “Universal Workplace,” for the past six years. A professional who identifies with being neurodivergent (autistic, dyslexic, etc.), I largely architected the holistic inclusive approach at Ultranauts. Instead of catering to only autistic employees and their needs, we recognize many people struggle with challenges inside and outside of the workplace, and we have found that decisions which help the general autistic population can possibly help many others as well.
“Our culture and approach provides a great benefit,” says Carrie Blackman, Ultranauts recruitment lead. “Candidates have shared their appreciation for our clear and precise job descriptions, best practices and accommodations throughout the interview process, and transparent communication throughout recruitment. Once hired, team members enjoy company-wide employee well-being measures and internal communication best practices that include unspoken rules, such as the expected length of internal email correspondence.”
The vice president of operations at Ultranauts, Brian King, points to the company-wide bimonthly community support forums and educational workshops, which both focus on managing stress and anxiety in the workplace and beyond, as an effective holistic approach to helping employees feel included and supported. These resources and conversation are offered to every single employee, without the need for anyone to disclose a diagnosis or condition. Considering the current state of the world, it should be clear why such a universal design inclusion resource has the potential to benefit many in the workplace, driving higher retention rates, productivity, and satisfaction among workers.
As I’ve witnessed, the opposite approach to universal design inclusivity leads to the likelihood of increased segregation, such as the implementation of entirely separate hiring processes for job candidates who have a specific neurological difference. Neurodiversity isn’t meant to be a means of setting individuals apart. Siphoning a member of a marginalized community into a separate process leads to discrimination. Imagine if we encouraged all women to go through a segregated hiring program! It’s easy to see the problems with such an approach — and the benefits that universal design inclusivity can bring in its stead.
Marcelle Ciampi (a.k.a. Samantha Craft), MEd, is author ofEveryday Aspergers and senior manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ultranauts Inc. She can be reached at myspectrumsuite.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.