Many organizations have expanded their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts in response to nationwide protests against social injustice in recent years, as well as the growing recognition that companies need to take a leadership role in promoting a more inclusive society. Yet there is a new frontier in diversity that is just starting to get the attention it deserves: neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is the recognition that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways. It rejects the notion that there is one “right” way of thinking, learning, or communicating. Or that differences in the way people operate or behave should be viewed as deficits.
Instead, neurodiversity embraces the idea that diversity in ways of thinking can lead to increases in productivity, spur innovation and create an overall competitive advantage for organizations. And that individual’s neurological conditions represent a vast, untapped source of talent and creativity.
In April we celebrate Autism Acceptance Month – a month focused on celebrating differences, raising awareness and promoting acceptance for neurodiverse individuals. Employers should use this month as a springboard to launch, or improve, initiatives supporting neurodiversity in the workplace.
Nearly 15 percent of the world’s population – one billion people – experience some form of disability. In the U.S., this includes 2.2 percent of adults who live with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the 4.4 percent living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Plus, another two to three million American adults with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
These figures suggest that employers need to incorporate neurodiversity into their DE&I strategies. Progress starts with the understanding that neurodivergence is not an “illness” to be cured; it’s another opportunity to bring heterogeneous viewpoints into an organization that should be embraced.
Many companies rightly view race, gender, sexual orientation and other measures of diversity as a source of strength. In the same way, people who are neurodiverse bring distinct viewpoints, lived experiences and creative instincts that might not otherwise be represented on corporate teams.
Recent evidence suggests that organizations which hire and support a neurodiverse workforce perform better than their peers. According to one study, companies that offer an inclusive environment for this workforce segment achieved 28 percent higher revenue, 30 percent greater profit margins and about double the net income compared to their competitors.
These neurodiverse companies also have a more loyal workforce. A U.S. Department of Labor analysis found that employers who embraced people with common neurological conditions saw a 90 percent increase in employee retention.
Yet stigma, stereotypes and prejudice still keep many people with disabilities out of the workforce. A report released by Accenture in partnership with Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) found that only 29 percent of working age people with disabilities are participating in the labor force and the unemployment rate for this group is more than twice as high as for people without disabilities.
The study also found an untapped talent pool of 10.7 million people that could strengthen U.S. businesses and our economy. In fact, a small one percent increase in the number of people with disabilities in the workforce would boost GDP by $25 billion.
No wonder AAPD board chair Ted Kennedy, Jr. points out that “leading companies are accelerating disability inclusion as the next frontier of corporate social responsibility and mission-driven investing.” I agree. Employers must include mental health and neurodiversity in ESG metrics. And, I would add, as a source of innovation, creativity, and productivity as well.
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