In an age when every other advert seems to feature some sort of new-found chemical to make you feel better than ever before, make your skin softer or make your washing whiter than white, is neurodiversity just another buzzword? The term was first coined by the American statistician and social scientist Judy Singer in the 1990s, when she wrote a thesis on her quest to discover the reason for her family’s ‘outsiderhood’. According to Wikipedia, neurodiversity is ‘an approach to learning and mental health that argues various neurological conditions are the result of normal variations in the human genome.’ But what are these neurological conditions? And what is the potential impact in education and the workplace? This blog seeks to explore and answer some of these questions.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the DSM, a manual which is used by mental health professionals, hospitals and even insurance companies to categorise and classify what are referred to as ‘mental disorders’. When Version 5 of the manual was released in 2012 many neurodiverse people were shocked that Asperger Syndrome, Autistic Disorder and PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) were replaced by the umbrella term ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’. Anyone who has lived and worked with people diagnosed with such disorders will know that the range of neurological differences they can exhibit is indeed a vast spectrum, but simply adopting a single term does not recognise individual needs and abilities. As far back as 1990, Judy Singer was trying to get the world to recognise that neurodiversity is a ‘portmanteau’ of neurological conditions which are not necessarily pathological in origin, but should be recognised in the same way as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
The main neurological conditions classed as neurodiverse include dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Tourette Syndrome. Although these conditions may co-exist alongside each other, or share some common characteristics, the whole point of neurodiversity is that everyone has their own individual traits. This includes the general ‘neurotypical’ population rather than just a small group of neurodiverse individuals. For example, we may consider that a person diagnosed as being ‘high-functioning’ autistic has exceptional mathematical skills, but this may not be true of another person with the same diagnosis.
I was surprised to note that none of these neurodiverse conditions is actually automatically classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, although it is quite obvious that those affected may be significantly impaired in their day-to-day life. Where possible, professional diagnosis by a psychologist is recommended, as this can provide the best insight into the needs of the individual across all areas, including physiological, environmental, and teaching and learning. It can also ensure that the requirements of the Equality Act are met. For example, someone who is dyslexic may struggle with text-based activities both at school and work unless measures are taken to support them. Employers may be concerned that catering for the needs of neurodiverse workers could be costly both financially and in terms of time and productivity, but some simple adjustments need not necessarily cost the earth and can be implemented without a professional diagnosis. A means to improving access for all is to provide businesses with relevant training to help them understand the diverse range of conditions and measures that can be taken to support their employees. In fact, by embracing neurodiversity, it is possible to make the workplace a better environment for everyone.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Carry out a needs assessment for all staff to identify potential barriers they may face.
- Provide materials and documents in a range of formats, such as accessible PDFs for use with screen-readers, and large print.
- Listen to your employees/students – they know themselves best and can tell you what their needs and capabilities are. An example of this is to consider the content of enrolment forms for courses or medical information forms completed by employees. An open and honest approach encourages transparency and acceptance for all parties.
- Seek advice from specialists where appropriate – although a formal diagnosis is not essential, it can help you to seek support and/or funding from external organisations. There are many organisations that have informative websites and leaflets covering a wide range of conditions and solutions.
- Where possible, avoid ‘hot-desking’ so employees have their own workstation tailored to their needs.
- Consider environmental factors such as lighting, noise levels, location of printers/photocopiers and signage.
With over 25 years’ experience in providing transcription services and improving accessibility, Connect is ideally placed to advise you on how to make your educational institution or business more accessible to a neurodiverse population. Visit our website www.connecttodesign.co.uk today to find out more about the services we provide, or contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to see how we can help you achieve accessibility for all.