When Auxilium Group scooped the award for Best Workplace Diversity Consultancy 2018 at the Welsh Enterprise Awards earlier this year, we were understandably delighted. Not just because it is always nice to win something, but because it really vindicated a vision of ours.
We believe diversity in the workplace, and with it equality, are absolutely vital. Yet, at the risk of confusing everybody, the way diversity is treated is not always equal.
What we mean is this. Over the past couple of decades or so, a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of investment has gone into addressing workplace diversity along lines of gender and ethnicity. And quite rightly so. It wasn’t that long ago that it would have been a genuine surprise to find a person who wasn’t a white male on the management team of any sizeable legal or professional services firm.
Things had to change. Through a lot of hard work, a lot of campaigning, a lot of education, a lot of hammering home the point that talent has nothing to do with whether you are male or female or the colour of your skin, we have started to get somewhere. Not nearly far enough yet, by the way, but somewhere at least.
We are 100% behind this kind of drive for diversity in the workplace. We offer consultancy services to businesses on how they can attract the very highest calibre female and ethnic minority candidates into their workforce, and senior positions in particular. But our belief is, diversity is not just about gender and ethnicity. If we truly want our workforces to reflect the make up society, then we have to embrace what is now increasingly referred to as neurodiversity.
Waste of potential
Here’s the scale of the problem. Many, perhaps most people won’t even know what neurodiversity means. They will know what it refers to by other names. Names like learning disabilities, mentally handicapped, special needs. This kind of pejorative thinking about the way people’s brains work corresponds with some truly frightening statistics around employment.
According to government figures, less than half – 46.3% – of disabled people are in employment. But if you take physical disabilities out of the equation, the situation becomes quite shocking. Just 16% of adults diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum are in full time work. According to Mencap, just 6% of adults with a learning disability “known to their local authority” – i.e. with recognised care needs – are in employment.
There was a time when, if you were a wheelchair user or had severe visual or hearing impairment, you would struggle to find work because there was an automatic assumption that you simply could not do whatever work it was you were applying for. Those attitudes have been challenged, and now employers are legally obliged to make necessary arrangements to support physically impaired employees who can otherwise do a job just as well as anyone else.
But that hasn’t yet filtered through to how we treat diversity in cognitive functions. The stats tell their own story.
The reason why this has to change is that we are not just talking about people with serious mental impairments. Of the 84% of autistic adults who do not work full time, for example, many of those will be at the ‘higher functioning’ end of the spectrum. We’re talking people who might well be educated to degree level or higher, but the fall out of employment because they struggle with the social side, with mores of acceptable behaviour, with noisy distractions, with compulsive urges that make it seem as if they are never working.
We’re talking also about the young people who drop out of education too early because their ADHD or dyslexia are neither spotted nor managed early enough, and they very quickly become implicitly labelled as unemployable. We’re talking about an enormous waste of potential, of hundreds of thousands of people who are doomed to relying on other people to support them, who have their self-esteem and confidence shattered for the crime of operating outside psychometric norms.
Our position is that the majority of people who exhibit a very wide range of divergent neurological characteristics are very far from being unemployable. We advocate neurodiversity in the workplace along with all other forms of diversity because it is important that this last glass frontier in the quest for equal representation in the workforce is shattered. We will continue to do all we can to advise and assist organisations on how they can support neurodiverse candidates into employment, and preach the benefits of doing so.