Modern enterprises across the globe are investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) like never before.
In 2023, ambitious, quantifiable DEI goals play a central role in the strategic plans of a significant and growing number of companies. Many forward-thinking enterprises are pivoting from DEI to DEIA – the ‘A’ representing accessibility - in parallel to the growing Neurodiversity Movement. This article explains why these business developments are happening, considers some organizational barriers and challenges to progress, and offers some suggestions on how companies can overcome them.
Companies that hire, retain, engage, and empower more diverse populations outperform companies that do not. By and large they innovate more effectively, incorporate a wider variety of stakeholder feedback, and generate more revenue from, differentiation in their target markets. In addition, within these companies, diverse teams also outperform their less inclusive counterparts. And from an ESG lens, it’s simply the right thing to do. After being initially thrust forward by the unrelenting self-advocacy of neurodistinct groups, it is now widely acknowledged as critical, nuanced work. Research now overwhelmingly supports the idea that diversity is a basis for competitive advantage. Unfortunately, most companies pursuing DEI initiatives have omitted the largest minoritized group on the planet: Neurodistinct people.
Folding neurodiversity into DEI agendas is critical for sponsoring marginalized communities and enhancing business performance. But there are obstacles and challenges.
Invisible Identities & Barriers
Unlike many other minoritized identities, neurodivergence is comprised of many smaller sub-group identities and is largely undetectable at a glance or initial conversation. Neuro divergence’s inherent invisibility has contributed to its omission from DEI and will continue to do so because enterprises lack the necessary awareness.
Acknowledging that neurodistinct people exist within your company, make incredible contributions, and simultaneously experience unique barriers unintentionally imposed by the employer is the first step. From there, the seeds of psychological safety and authentic inclusion for neurodivergents can be sown. Employers cannot simply assume that a rising tide lifts all boats.
To their credit, and our thanks, neurodistinct self-advocates have already done the hard work addressing organizational and managerial barriers, such as.
- Continuing ableist hiring processes
- Overlooking neurodistinct employees for promotions and leadership positions
- Ignoring and not addressing communication, behavioral, and sensory support needs
- Blaming miscommunication on neurodivergents (‘The Double Empathy Problem’)
- Acting not as empathetic employers but as adversarial gatekeepers regarding accommodations
- Allowing overwhelming and disorienting sensory environments
- Being unaware of high rates of masking and neurodistinct burnout
Neurodivergents represent at least 15-20% of the population – in fact, conservative estimates suggest that more than 1 billion people are neurodivergent. It is becoming increasingly clear that within this group, we have a responsibility to also consider the intersectionality of other minoritized identities.
Neurodivergents who are also racially minoritized, women, or LGBTQIA+ face even more significant barriers to identification and employment than their counterparts. These disparities clearly and negatively impact how neurominority identities are internalized, cause unnecessary psychological distress, and limit access to vital support systems.
Aligning Neurodiversity with DEI
For generations, researchers and policymakers sought a path by which they could eradicate neurodivergence. Misguided efforts to ‘cure’ or ‘treat’ neurodivergence have been the default and have served as the basis for a multi-billion-dollar industrial complex. This status quo must change. Neurodivergents are not broken.
Many neurodivergents possess in-demand skill sets that employers crave. DEI practitioners can help neurodivergents escape the social and professional margins. Rather than continuing to measure the ‘quality’ of neurodivergent contribution by one’s ability to emulate neurotypicals, organizations must be judged by their ability to create superior outcomes by embracing and recognizing the abilities and requirements of different neurotypes.
Situating neurodiversity firmly where it belongs, within established DEI programs, is a way to both embrace and realize this vision of the future. In addition, it is a win-win for both neurodistinct communities and their employers. But how to take the first step?
Some critical considerations for aligning neurodiversity with DEI include:
DEI practitioners are constantly asked to address the needs of different minoritized groups without being provided the necessary bandwidth. Stakeholder collaboration increases potency and ability to be responsive and forward-leaning.
Intersectionality is critical. Given the prevalence of neurodivergence, even experienced DEI practitioners cannot understand the barriers experienced by minoritized employees without embracing neurodiversity.
Research related to neurodivergent intersectionality is currently in its infancy. In the absence of generalizable best practices, an employer should listen to the voices of the lived experience and perceived areas of concern of their neurodistinct employees as a way to build a new, better framework for DEI.