How Can Your Workplace be More Accessible to Neurodivergent Employees?
The contemporary workplace is an almost constantly developing landscape. New technologies and even new industries continue to develop. There are also opportunities for new ways of working—the last year or so, in particular, has seen remote working adopted by an increasing number of businesses. This state of change can make for an exciting prospect, with the potential for fulfilling careers.
However, it also has to be noted that these developments aren't always as accessible as they should be. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) certainly allows for accommodations, it can seem as though the focus of workplace accessibility is generally on workers with more visible challenges. There is still much more that needs to be done before neurodivergent workers have equal opportunities to engage in the workplace.
It's a big subject, but let's take a look at some of the key areas of focus. Where do businesses need to make changes and what can you do as a worker to encourage improvements?
There needs to be a commitment to education regarding disability, learning disorders and neurodivergent traits in business. As companies are slowly starting to understand how vital a culture of inclusion is, there is a trend for making improvements. However, it's just as important to acknowledge that taking the right steps and ensuring they are sustainable is not practical if companies don't take the time to educate staff and leadership.
Part of the problem lies in that there is a general lack of common knowledge about living with neurodivergent qualities. Indeed, even the more well-publicized such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism are plagued by a lot of misinformation. Human resources (HR) departments need to be active in gaining an understanding of a wide range of learning disabilities and how they can present workplace challenges for employees. Those experiencing dysgraphia may be discouraged from contributing handwritten notes in meetings, or those with auditory processing disorder (APD) may become overwhelmed in loud environments. This shouldn't be approached from a position of singling out workers with these challenges but rather to better inform workplace policies to make them more inclusive.
If you have neurodivergent traits, it certainly shouldn't be your place to educate your colleagues or employer. However, it is also important to note that neurotypical thinking can often be highly individual to the person experiencing it. As such, it can be important to share what you think. Talk about how this informs and enhances your skillset, but also which workplace practices can be problematic from your perspective.
While there is some focus on making day-to-day working activities more accessible, this ignores the fact that this doesn't represent what most workers are looking for from their careers. They want to be nurtured and developed by employers—a recent report found that 94% of workers would stay at a company longer if it helps them to learn. Yet, development programs are often geared toward the neurotypical employee. If you are neurodivergent, this might result in your passively being excluded from tools that can help you progress in your career. As such, businesses need to be open to more flexible forms of development.
Increasingly, there is an emphasis on providing employees with training through e-learning modules or other online courses. This is usually chosen because it is the most cost-effective approach for the business. However, if these methods don't mesh with the way you find it effective or comfortable to learn, you could raise it as an issue with your manager or HR department. While it might not fall within the limited official bounds of reasonable accommodations under the ADA, helping you find alternative resources should be part of their efforts to improve equitable access to education and development in their workforce.It's also worth noting that producing a career development program takes a lot of work, and part of the issue is that HR personnel or leadership may be approaching it from the perspective of typical communications and learning needs. It can be helpful to treat this as a problem that needs to be solved and suggest bringing a committee together to brainstorm solutions together. Where possible, it's important to encourage that this committee is built of people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who each have some connection to the issues being addressed. This approach not only shows that you are taking a solutions-oriented approach to the problem but also presents you as an active participant in the improvement of the company.
There is always a need to educate and improve workplace accessibility. However, perhaps the primary way in which businesses need to improve in a way that can make a tangible difference here is in hiring more diverse teams. A lot of businesses will have good intentions in making policy changes to improve inclusion, but these can't be sustainable if they're not informed, driven and evolved by people who have some skin in the game.
Part of the problem is that, while it is clear that neurodiverse workforces can gain businesses a serious competitive edge, their hiring processes just aren't designed to attract and identify these candidates. Many of the HR software platforms used to find the "right" candidates are more geared toward traditional qualities that are common in a neurotypical workforce, and that just perpetuates the cycle of bias. Companies must start thinking outside the box and be open to interviewing candidates that don't always quite match up to the usual "type."
This also comes down to better relationships. As a neurodivergent employee, you can be instrumental in encouraging positive discussions on diversity with your managers and colleagues. It's not always easy, but being open about your challenges, how you deal with them and how your perspective also makes you a great worker can be an influential factor in the approach your managers make toward hiring in the future. Make your company aware of programs in universities and the community that help them to connect with more diverse candidates.
There is a serious deficit in how neurodivergent workers are treated in the workplace. As this generally comes from a lack of understanding, improvements need to be made in providing education for staff and leadership. However, to ensure true accessibility, there must also be increased focus on flexible development and a more neurodiverse workforce overall.
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