It’s time we include neurodiverse people when talking DEI

Everyone learns and thinks differently. In fact, one in five individuals in the U.S. has a learning or thinking difference, like ADHD or dyslexia. Yet amid the growing stimulus to discuss and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts at work, according to Coqual, learning and thinking differences often classified as disabilities are left out of the conversation—stifling business potential at the individual, team, and company level. 

In the past, suppressing differences of any kind was almost expected in the workplace, especially when it came to facilitating the ease of people working together. Those who have differences felt safer in silence, without the fear of being stigmatized. “Different” was too often considered synonymous with “difficult” and the careers of those who are perceived as either suffered. Today, it is estimated that many people remain undiagnosed or uncomfortable talking about their learning and thinking differences because of the stigma they could face from coworkers. 

It has long been proven that the acceptance and integration of differences between team members generates a better outcome. Sephora has committed that by the end of 2021, people with disabilities will account for 12 percent of its workforce in distribution centers as part of its efforts to focus on what people can do in the workplace. But work cultures in all industries, albeit some more than others, have yet to address the gap of accepting those who think outside the box for seemingly nontraditional reasons. 

With a fresh perspective about how a company can live in its DEI mission, business leaders have a responsibility to set the structural and cultural standard of acceptance that explicitly includes 20% of the working population with learning and thinking differences. For example, SAP reformed their HR processes to incorporate neurodiverse talent. As a result, managers reported productivity gains, quality improvement, and employee engagement, and it helped them leverage the talents of all employees by recognizing individual needs. 

One in five individuals living with a learning or thinking difference represents 20% of domestic buying power. Employees and consumers alike are flying under the radar that would otherwise detect an opportunity to maximize not only efficiency and communication for teams at work, but also the opportunity to create products and solutions that are inherently inclusive of more people–including people who experience learning and thinking differences. 

With a greater visibility of a neurodiverse community comes the opportunity to lead to better performance, more cohesive teams, and more gratified employees. Here are a few methods business leaders should consider:

Ask the right questions 

If your company’s acceptance of employees with thinking and learning differences is ambiguous in practice, it may be a good time to audit teams on how they are being supported and supporting others. Start these conversations at the leadership level to encourage and demonstrate what an open dialogue should look like. Normalizing a two-way street of communication erodes inhibitions that otherwise block ideas that can inform how employees approach their role, or how a product can impact consumers. 

Revisit your company roots 

If talking about having ADHD, dyslexia, or other learning and thinking differences remains a novel concept in your work environment, there could be a fear of discrimination and lack of awareness from colleagues. This mindset is likely to have come with the territory. Revisit your company mission and examine its intentions with a more open-minded eye. Do internal and external communications reach and connect with everyone? And if not, who gets targeted, who gets excluded, and why? 

Build a better organization 

Building an inclusive, neurodiverse community can start with normalizing discussions such as disclosure in the workplace. Bring inclusive language about cognitive differences into hiring and HR practices. Ask prospective and current employees if they need accommodations for their invisible disabilities. Then, it is possible to begin to further build out the culture of inclusion. 

Fred Poses is the cofounder and CEO of Understood, a social impact, nonprofit organization and the only lifelong guide for those who learn and think differently.