“Neurodiversity is often given less priority than other areas of DE&I”

One in five people across the globe are neurodivergent. Here, Cathy Donnelly, Chief People Officer (CPO) at Texthelp, (a literacy and assistive technology company), shares her best practice for developing an employee experience where neurodiverse colleagues are coached and supported to fulfil their potential and feel valued.

Based in Northern Ireland, Cathy splits her time across offices in the US, London, Belfast, the Nordics, and Australia and believes that building a globally inclusive community that recognises and celebrates diversity will foster a high-performing culture for the company. Cathy’s job is also to develop employee engagement strategies that positively impact business results — from talent acquisition and throughout the entire employee life cycle.

Q: How can businesses benefit from enabling greater neurodiversity in the workplace?

A: “It goes without saying that enabling greater diversity in the workplace requires a more open and forward-thinking company culture. Neurodiversity often gets neglected or is given less priority over other areas of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives – partly due to the fact that neurodiverse conditions are typically less ‘visible’, and fall under the radar. However, businesses that encourage neuro-inclusion will see increased engagement and productivity from staff.”

Q: What is your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

A: “Diversity and inclusion have played a large part throughout my career, likely before it was ever known as diversity and inclusion. For example, 20 plus years ago, I was Head of HR for a chain of bars and hotels and I introduced flexible working including for during term time and also compressed working which was highly unusual back then – my goal was to attract and retain working parents who were struggling to balance the demands of work with childcare.

“More recently, I have done a lot of work with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) focusing on gender, disability, race or sexual orientation – educating employees on the experiences of others in the workplace and creating safe spaces for employees to tell their own stories. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is critical for business success – research by Forbes tells us that decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60 per cent better results and inclusive teams make better business decisions 87 per cent of the time.” 

Q: Can you explain a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organisation to have a culture inclusive of neurodiverse people?

A: “Across the globe, one in five people are neurodivergent – many of which may be your boss, co-workers, or customers. If you think about it – in school, students are typically provided accommodations, such as assistive technology tools, to support their preferences and needs. When they graduate and enter the workforce, it’s important that they still have the tools and support to think, work and learn in their own preferred way. It is important to create a work culture that is inclusive to all in order to provide a safe space for all employees and their different needs.

“Improving neurodiversity has to run the length and breadth of the employee experience. This means improving recruitment processes first and carrying these practices through to the onboarding stage and right through the full employee life cycle. This could be as simple as including a statement in a job advert about neuro-inclusion or inviting candidates to ask for any adjustments that will support them to be their best through the recruitment process.

“However, even with these practices in place, many neurodivergent employees will unfortunately hold back from declaring their condition until they feel totally secure in the business. As such, the support that organisations provide, must be available to every employee and candidate – avoiding the need for people to self-identify. Providing inclusion tools for reading and writing, or ensuring that enough time is offered for completion of tasks during recruitment and on-boarding should be an absolute must.”

Q: Businesses are required to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations?

A: “Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to a job or work environment that will enable a qualified employee with a disability to perform essential job functions. They help ensure that employees with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities as others. A few examples of accommodations may include providing flexible work schedules, implementing or adjusting products, software and equipment to assist neurodivergent employees, and having support staff, such as translators and interpreters.

“When thinking about reasonable adjustments, it’s important to place your focus on equity over equality. Equality means giving everyone the same resources. But at work, our different circumstances and needs can mean that we need different support and resources from our colleagues. Equity takes this into account. Displaying equity involves trying to understand your people, and in turn giving them personalised support to help each person reach an equal outcome.”

Q: Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

“Businesses should go beyond providing what is legally required by them. One way for businesses to be more inclusive is to think about the way they present qualifications and requirements in job postings. After all, the employee experience begins before an employee formally joins a company. It’s important to make sure recruitment processes are inclusive and welcoming too. By thinking about our language choices and requirements in job postings, we are more likely to attract candidates who bring a wealth of diversity and lived experience.

“Employers should also provide accessibility tools that are easy to use and allow neurodivergent candidates and employees to thrive in their own way. It’s also a good idea to be transparent about diversity and inclusion – share what you do to make the work environment more inclusive through storytelling. This can bring candidates a sense of ease that they’ll have the support they need, and help you to retain the neurodivergent talent you already have.”

Q: Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability and neurodiversity inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?     

A: “This for us starts at the recruitment stage when we advertise opportunities, making sure we consider any adjustments that we need to make to allow applicants to be at their best throughout the process. For example, we advertise our Read&Write for Work software on our careers page, making it available to anyone who needs it before they apply and therefore, making the application process that much easier.

“This continues as new hires join the company – they and their family members have access to our full product suite, supporting their communication, and ensuring they can understand and be understood.

“We have also organised education sessions for employees on various disabilities so they can really understand the lived experience of others which has created a real sense of empathy amongst our employees. We also train employees on creating accessible communications – after all, our business is all about accessibility so it’s really important that we practice what we preach internally as well as externally.

“We have a very strong set of values; fun, curiosity, respect, integrity, tenacity and empowerment – we live and breathe these every day which drives our culture and behaviours and creates that feeling of inclusion for all.”

Paul Fox, Inclusive Workplaces Specialist 

for Texthelp, is speaking at Diversity Network’s Neurodiversity Digital Focus Day on 27 September about Using Technology to Help a Neurodiverse Workforce Thrive.

Hear from Paul as he shares:

  • In the workplace, 43% of employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions do not feel comfortable to approach their employer to ask for change. Inclusive technology can offer instant and discreet support to staff, without the need to self-identify. 
  • In this session, explore our inclusion tool, Read&Write for Work. It’s a powerful set of reading and writing tools to help the huge numbers of people who struggle with digital textDiscover how it can be easily integrated into your workplace so that your entire workforce has the support they need to work and achieve in their own way.

Click here to claim your FREE ticket to the Neurodiversity Digital Focus Day on Tuesday 27th September 2022, sponsored by Texthelp.

Click here to listen to Texthelp’s James Deignan speaking with Diversity Network about living and working with ADHD in the INCLUSION Podcast.


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