Bethany Stephenson is an administrator, freelance social media marketer and blogger. She works part-time for Bristol Disability Equality Forum. Bethany not only took part in Babbasa’s Autumn 2019 Challenge Programme, but she is also part of the 2021 Trailblazer programme. During Neurodiversity week (March 15th-21st 2021) Bethany reflects on her life as a working neurodiverse woman.
This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which before last week even I as a neurodiverse woman didn’t even know existed. I’ve written something a little similar to this over on my personal career blog, but this piece will be more focused on inclusion, accessibility, the working world and how companies and institutions in Bristol can be more neurodiverse.
To begin with, what even is Neurodiversity? Basically, it’s the way in which there are there are various ways in which the brain can function. Humans think about things in different ways, but it is also a Disability and that everyone should recognise and respect those who are neurologically distinctive as how we do to those with other forms of Disability. Neurodiversity can include Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette Syndrome, Autism/Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Dyscalculia and others. I have Autism. I have written about my story and the benefits of autism on my blog. But whilst I am a member of this identity category, I find it hard to see myself as a spokesperson for the community and am not and will never be the fountain of all knowledge of everything neurodiverse. There are so many other Neurodiverse and Disabled people out there – in Bristol, the UK, the world.
Before I go any further, I’d like to quickly point out what inclusion and accessibility mean. Inclusion is not the same as diversity; the latter is the people and the former is the action. Inclusion is not the who or what but the why and how – the doing rather than just talking or listening or writing.
Accessibility is the design of (but also the action of) making objects or products, services, environments and language useable for all people, whether Disabled or not. Whilst is focuses on enabling access to the Disabled, research and development in it benefits everyone. It is usually more related to the digital sphere but also impacts our physical spaces. This links to the social model of Disability; that whilst our bodies or minds may be inconvenient sometimes, it’s society that has created the physical, attitudinal and social/communicative barriers.
According to ACAS, there is an estimate of 1 in 7 neurodiverse people, more than 15%, in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows around 13.9 million people, 22%, in the UK are Disabled and that around half of persons with Disabilities aged 16 to 64 years (52.1%) in the UK were in employment compared with around 8 in 10 (81.3%) for non-Disabled people last year.
However, Scope argues that Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people – whilst no figures can be found for how many people with all forms of Neurodiversity are in the workplace, autism has been given a figure of only 16% being in work. We Neurodiverse have much to offer, but businesses still unsurprisingly fear assumed risks of hiring and the suspected residual stigma towards us.
The industries that I work in and want to work in – social media marketing, communications, marketing, media, administration – are still not Neurodiverse enough. Whilst people with Disabilities are seen in them, only certain types are represented and it is done by very few companies – according to Marianne Waite, founder of Think Designable and inclusive design director of Interbrand, 0.6 per cent of advertisements represent Disabled people.
I also think that Neurodiversity is still stereotyped according to each form’s better known characteristics and does not appear to recognise that the effects of the difference within an individual can vary for each and change over time. We who identify as one do not have the same experiences of it and it is only part of us, not the full picture of our individual selves.
So, with all that said, how do we in Bristol combat this? There are a few ways that workplaces can become more Neurodiverse in the people they employ and the way their organisation works. Begin by using Neurodiversity in your employer brand, role descriptions, hiring and onboarding documents – wherever you can. It is vital that employers, co-workers and recruiters understand and appreciate our differences by reconsidering preconceptions and societal judgements. Be aware that information is comprehended by people in different ways and that the words you use can have values and judgements attached to them.
Another major part of being more Neurodiverse is the disclosure process – giving us the chance to tell you about our differences and how it may impact our work. When employing us, businesses should ask us what our form of neurodiversity is, what terminology we prefer to use, which is also what should be done in regard to gender pronouns and sexuality, and what adjustments we might need (physically, socially and digitally). Employers, those of Bristol companies and businesses around the UK and the world, need to listen to, understand and appreciate us.
Employees and employers can also help one another to make the working environment more Neurodiverse; work is such a reciprocal relationship and you can’t change the workplace, or society for that matter, on your own and both parties have to do things to help each other.
There are plenty of resources on Neurodiversity in the workplace, such as PDF guides (this CIPD one is good), podcast episodes, books, online articles and videos out there that can help – I’m currently reading a piece on neurodiversity in advertising on the Campaign website. Networking is also a great way for helping each other out, even in the online sphere – I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter if you’d like to say hi!
Before I conclude, I’d like to quickly mention self-employment, the freelancer, flexible work and the portfolio career. It’s not rare for those with Disabilities/Neurodiversity, to be self-employed. The ONS state that one third (34.6%) of persons with Disabilities work part-time and that 15% are self-employed. Reports have been written by both IPSE and the Department of Work and Pensions on this and I’ve written posts on my blog on flexible work and remote work/working from home (here and here).
For me at the moment, I now have a portfolio career, which I’m going to write a post on my blog about soon. I combine multiple streams of income from a mix of part time employment, freelance work and voluntary opportunities. I’m using my skills across various roles – I’m what Emma Gannon calls “multi-hyphenate” or what Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis of Amazing If call “squiggly”.
I’d like to finish by quoting the retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas. She says that “work should be a place where you bring your whole self” – work is personal to each and every one of us. Yet, for us Disabled and Neurodiverse, we cannot do this if we are continued to be pushed aside at any point of the work lifecycle, from recruitment to retirement. There is a difference between saying you want to be more inclusive and actually affecting change. Everyone should feel that they belong without having to conform, be able to contribute and work to their fullest potential.