What do you see?

Not all disabilities are visible. There’s been several awareness weeks recently, looking at, for instance, invisible disabilities, which covers conditions like dyslexia, ADHD and Asperger syndrome (high functioning autism), through to Irlen Syndrome (a problem with the brain's ability to process visual information). It all brought to my mind the increasing awareness in the UK of things like neuro-diversity.

IT is an enabler for those with a wide variety of, not only invisible, but visible disabilities. And that is great as far it goes - it can provide solutions. But what about being a source of employment?

In IT, it is becoming more widely known that some neurological differences lend themselves not just to competency, but to enhanced IT abilities.

One illustration of this came from the launch of BCS’s Diversity research last year. One speaker talked about the oft-hidden role of conditions like Asperger’s in relation to disability, the difficulties it creates during job applications and the limitations it can place on allowing talented people to display this during job interviews. This was Gabriel Herman of Aspierations, an organisation that works to get people with Asperger syndrome into the workplace. In their words, “the Asperger community boasts a wealth of talent that UK business is currently missing out on.”

In the case of those with Asperger’s and related issues employers get employees who are built to focus on the task in hand, eschewing “seemingly meaningless social interaction with colleagues” to quote Aspierations again. If they are given a highly structured environment in which to work with they can be a huge boon to an organisation.

According to the National Autistic Society - the latest prevalence studies of autism indicate that 1.1 per cent of the population in the UK may be on the autism spectrum - which translates as over 695,000 people in the UK who may be autistic.

Taking a wider view about 15 percent of the population is thought to be neurodiverse, with dyslexia affecting about ten per cent.

In his article, the Rise of the Chief Neurodiversity Officer, John Levell FBCS CITP, joint chair of the British Dyslexia Association, says neurodivergent individuals are often very successful - and he lists a long line of high-flying entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, Jo Malone, Bill Gates, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, James Dyson, Bill Hewlett and Stephen Spielberg.

John also points to research carried out by Professor Julie Logan of CASS Business School in 2011 that indicates that entrepreneurs in the UK are twice as likely to be dyslexic as the average, or three times more likely in the US. He argues, therefore - wouldn’t it be good if we built our organisations to fully exploit this latent pool of talent? But he says there is also the problem of perception - of these differences being seen in the context of educational difficulties and he adds: ‘The Equality Act has brought these protected characteristics to the attention of our HR teams, in a disability context and the medical model - seeing neurodiversity as a problem to fix - has set in.’

This can make people, especially those who are older and already have successful careers behind them, less likely to disclose they are dyslexic or have ADHD and so on.

Neurodivergent people simply see things differently - and John says that’s an asset: ‘That difference can bring the leap of thinking that is needed to drive innovation, the spark of creativity or vision needed to transform a product a service or a whole market.’ He believes instead of concentrating on weaknesses - it’s time to concentrate on the strengths that can come from looking at the world in a different way.

But there are barriers. To recruit people, not just on the dyslexic or autistic spectrum but from all areas of disability, proactive diversity measures need to be taken to make things fairer. For instance - there is a relationship between autism and creating interview structures that allow autistic people to shine. And, indeed, to ensure that organisations can truly draw from the whole talent pool. Simple things like where an interview is held and how that is described and advertised, the structure of the interview, and the language used in asking questions can vary for different the ability of some segments of society to even apply for jobs.

And, to be clear, the motivation for broadening inclusivity should not be about the fact that some individuals may outperform neurotypical people. This is a question of fairness in society, doing the right thing and dignifying people with the flat playing field to gain employment that others may find it easier to get simply because of their physical or mental condition. Gabriel said at our event that “a career is the best therapy” too. There is a balance between the business case and the human case.

In a few weeks BCS will publish the first section of its new Diversity in IT report. We will cover, over the next few months, disability, age, ethnicity and gender issues. The first part published will be on the current state of work in IT for disabled people.

As a starting point we asked a highly engaged cohort of BCS members for their diversity experiences. This was a small sample size (and we are doing a much broader survey before 2018 is out), but it gives food for thought.

First, what about perceptions: Over half of the respondents felt that IT has a poorer approach to diversity issues than other industries.

What are the recruitment approaches like? 71 per cent thought that recruitment methods should be changed to broaden the diversity in the workforce.

And some interesting approaches for starting points have already come to the fore, even in this small sample size:

  • Over 60 per cent of respondents had not received unconscious bias training - so this awareness raising is an obvious starting point.
  • Only 40 per cent of employers make allowance for neuro-diverse requirements through recruitment processes - is there another quick win here?
  • Raising awareness in the business of the value of diversity is also an ongoing benefit: A clear view expressed in the comments is summed up well by one member: ‘Broader diversity brings broader backgrounds and experiences, thus new and fresh perspectives.’ And we know IT loves the new!

Look out for BCS’s research, which will include an analysis of current research already out there, a BCS research component and a commentary from a key BCS organisational member.

You can read more about invisible disabilities here: What is an invisible disability

John Levell’s article is available here: Rise of the Chief Neurodiversity Officer

November 2018
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