“The medical model of disability assumes that disability is an individual problem. It places disability within the disabled person, within me.
For example, I really struggle with shopping malls. They’re loud, they’re brightly lit, they’re unpredictable and they’re full of people. The medical model would say that I struggle with shopping malls because there is a problem with the way my brain processes that input, because I’m autistic.
But there’s another way to think about disability. It’s called the social model of disability. In the social model, disability happens when a person’s environment doesn’t cater to an individual’s characteristics.
In this model, we don’t refer to people as “having a disability.” Disability isn’t something I carry around like luggage. Instead, we use the word ‘disabled’ as a verb. Disability is something that is being done to me. I’m actively being “dis-abled” by the society around me.
If we started designing shopping malls that were quiet, dimly lit, predictable and sparsely populated… well I’d still be autistic, but I might not be disabled by shopping malls anymore.”
Please read the anecdote above once more, but instead of “shopping malls” substitute in the words “my workplace.” Now ask yourself, is your workplace dis-abling your neurodiverse team members?
Reimagining accommodations in the workplace
Every business wants their employees to thrive.
To do so, we invest in technology to help people engage better with their colleagues, we invest in a never-ending stream of coffee to keep us alert and productive, and (hopefully) we have dedicated time during our work day to nourish our bodies (lunch) and rest our minds (break) so that we may be our best selves at work.
Just look around. Accommodations are all around you. However, in a neurotypical world, many accommodations aren’t seen as accommodations at all. (Dr. Dave Caudel) That’s because the workplace was built for the majority of people who all rely on the same kinds of accommodations. They disappear into a neurotypical ubiquity.
So, if we aren’t up to the task of re-designing every shopping mall and every workplace for every need, the least we can do is ensure that people have the accommodations and support they need to thrive.
Nothing About Us Without Us.
In this context, the term “nothing about us without us,” expresses the conviction that neurodivergent people know what is best for themselves and no decisions should be made about this group without their direct participation.
When it comes to workplace decisions, the first and most basic step, and I’m talking to my fellow neurotypical managers here (1), is to simply listen to your neurodivergent colleagues. They know, much better than you, how they can be most successful in the workplace. And if you don’t currently have anyone on staff who identifies as neurodivergent, there are plenty of resources online that center autistic and neurodivergent voices. (See resources section at the end of this article)
For instance, a quick search for “workplace” in the Autism Inclusivity Facebook Group turned up a number of first-person accounts of people’s experiences. Take for example this person’s response to a post talking about expectation-setting in the workplace:
“AA [Actually Autistic] - I need to know what’s expected of me in a job. I don’t adapt quickly all the time, and I need a set list of tasks that are under my purview so the expectations are laid out clearly. If something comes up that they need me to handle, they should not expect me to just be flexible and do it without specific instructions.
I need structure to be successful. Jobs that say they are looking for a self-motivated worker kind of turn me off too. I have plenty of motivation, but I need to be pointed in the right direction. What they usually mean by self motivated is someone who will do things that aren’t necessarily their responsibility without being asked and without being told how to do it. I don’t know that they want me to take care of something unless they tell me!”
Neurodivergent professionals in your workplace know what’s best for themselves and studies have shown that organizations with neurodiverse teams may be as much as 30% more productive than their strictly neurotypical counterparts. Your job is to create environments and opportunities for these communities to learn, grow and belong.
Opportunity [at work] for all.
Thus far we’ve talked about strategies to accommodate neurodivergent professionals in a world not necessarily designed for them. We’ve also talked about listening to, and centering neurodiverse voices in the workplace. These first two points could be considered ‘survive’ techniques, or the bare minimum. But how can we build a workplace where neurodiverse teams, and by extension whole organizations, thrive?
According to Deloitte Insights, one of the surest ways for leaders to create better opportunities for their organizations is to create better opportunities for their people. But how are work opportunities distributed? Are they given to those with the most merit or simply those with the deepest and widest connections? This intersection of opportunity and equity is especially relevant to the neurodivergent workforce as they have historically been overlooked for opportunities to learn, grow and advance in the workplace.
How do we bring more equity to our opportunities for neurodiverse teams?
The first step, and often the place where many organizations get stuck, is to understand and organize the myriad of opportunities that already exist inside the organization. Think about opportunities widely. Yes, you should consider all of those open roles on your job board, but you should also consider mentorship opportunities, learning and development, work groups or ERGs, volunteer opportunities and more.
Technology, like an opportunity marketplace, can help neurodivergent professionals quickly find (and be found for) tailored opportunities across the organization.
The next step is to gather all of these opportunities in one place and make them available and transparent to everyone. A talent or opportunity marketplace allows people to filter opportunities based on their personal interests and professional goals. Instead of opportunities being about who you know, opportunities find people based on what they do -- their skills, expertise, and more. Suddenly, for an introverted neurodivergent professional, the way to make connections and advance their career isn’t ‘just talk to your manager,’ instead the experience is closer to a Google search for internal opportunities that include ‘machine learning’ or a digital 'tap on the shoulder' offering the opportunity to mentor a younger neurodivergent colleague just starting out on their professional journey.
Raise all boats
Creating workplace environments where accommodations are made so people can be successful, neurodivergent voices are centered, and opportunities are open and equitable – these are not acts of charity or merely check marks on your DEI to-do list. One neurodivergent leader interviewed for the Deloitte study referenced above had this to say, “We need to move away from discussing and dealing with this topic as diversity and more about strengths and unique capabilities.”
Neurodiverse teams are more innovative and more productive than neurotypical teams. In organizations that provide mentors to professionals with a disability, "profitability can go up 16%, productivity 18%, and customer loyalty 12%." Failure to provide neurodivergent professionals with the accommodations, agency and opportunities that they need to thrive isn’t just bad for people, it’s bad for business.
(1) I do not identify as neurodivergent. While I have tried to center autistic and other neurodivergent voices in this brief article, I would strongly encourage all readers, especially neurotypical readers, to seek out original sources from neurodiverse authors and researchers. Here is a great place to get started:
ASAN - Autistic Self Advocacy Network: Resource Library
And here is a resource library more specific to workplace best practices:
EARN - Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion: Resource Library