Over the last few weeks I’ve been reflecting a lot on what exactly inclusion means, and more specifically how I’ve felt when my ADHD and dyspraxic self have been part of something and I’ve been valued. And the comparison when this hasn’t happened. This isn’t just indicative of work, but everywhere. Socially. In the community. In education. Accessing services. And of course at work. Inclusion is, and should be a fundamental part of life. Although it isn’t, and we know from hearing lived experiences, that it really isn’t top of everyone’s agenda. When I was younger and going through education (and several degrees to try and figure myself out), I assumed, like many of us do, that to be included I had to ask for something or be accommodated in some way. We’re taught to believe that our brains aren’t built to fit in with everyone else. In school we ask for extra time in exams, tuition if we need it, annual reviews to asses our needs. I now realise that all of this stuff, although support offered by schools is often very minimal, is not inclusion. At university, I didn’t ask for any support, disabled students allowance is available for some, but after the messaging of “not fitting in” at school I didn’t want anything else to make me appear different. This “you don’t fit” and “we have to accommodate you if there’s enough time/money/resources” rhetoric is damaging. Constant messaging about not being good enough or failing as a teenager and then an adult has an impact long after events take place. It’s no different in the community, after complaining when it was indiscreetly announced to a busy Boots that my ADHD medication is a “controlled drug,” a pharmacist recently suggested that I ask to speak in a private room to pay for my ADHD medication, if I’m “not comfortable” doing so over the counter. She missed the point. It’s not about my own internal stigma of the medication I take to make my brain function, it’s about her staff responding in a way that doesn’t single me out or disclose confidential medical information to strangers, making me feel different & judged for a diagnosis they know little about. It all comes down to the training of public facing professions, which is very much on them to learn, and not me to educate. Similarly I’ve heard stories and experienced myself of people who appear a little bit anxious or different being followed around shops by security guards, or stopped at entrances and asked to produce receipts. I’m sure you can see a pattern of the negative messaging we experience everywhere, support based on assumptions, judgements made and feeling accepted being challenging. This led to me regularly giving up trying to attend social events because I worried about being a burden on my friends. I would rather they had a good time or enjoyed themselves without me there, and resolved that they would be better off that way. I experienced a lot of panic attacks when I was younger too (they are pretty much non-existant these days), so spoiling someones night because I have to leave early or simply that I’m not fun to be around because I’m an anxious mess, felt like a step too far. I was rarely worried about the anxiety itself, but mostly concerned about the affect it would have on other people and not myself. Again harping back to negative messaging of inclusion and the early days of school when I first recognised being ‘different’.
Recently I had Covid over Christmas, and this led to a lot of time in my own head thinking, and resulted in channelling my hyperfocus to write a whole supporting neurodivergence at work guide, I need to find a suitable home for this but until then I’ve shared a link at the end of this blog post. It’s more useful here than sitting on my laptop not being read. If anything my productivity and focus on creating something useful is evidence that self isolation and ADHD really do not mix. Or they really do, depending on your perspective. If anything I was very much on brand for much of December (in between the coughing!).
The reading I’ve done while writing this guide, has lead me to the same conclusion; that we’re really not thinking as deep as we should be when it comes to including neurodivergent folk. I focussed on work, but if we start embedding different practices at work, I’m sure they can be translated into other parts of our lives too. We’re barely scratching the surface about what we could do for neurodivergent workers. If you google “neurodiversity in the workplace’ you’ll find well meaning articles, often by organisations and not always speaking from lived experiences, talking about adjusting lighting and the environment for those with sensory needs, or allowing neurodivergent people to wear headphones. Or offering quiet spaces to work to avoid distractions. My own access to work report from my last employer echoes this. I was offered assistive software and a timer. Software that I rarely used and the timer has never worked. Being provided with a timer won’t help any time management issues I have, when my executive function difficulties mean I forget it exists in the first place. Crucially the fundamentals of inclusion are not being addressed, if despite all of this practical support and equipment, I’m still in a workplace where I don’t feel valued, with a manager who isn’t understanding or willing to learn about what I need. While reasonable adjustments, if they aren’t blanket chuck loads of software or equipment at you, are important for employers at the start of their inclusion journey, the conversation shouldn’t end there. We need to dig deeper. Go further. Reflect more. To truly help everyone understand what neurodivergent people need. Both at work and beyond. And it shouldn’t just be us starting the conversation. To feel included we need others to be invested in our interests too. Wanting to learn. And listening to our stories.
We need to start talking more about how we can feel psychologically safe at work.
How can we feel comfortable communicating our needs, preferences and support that would be helpful to our team? When can we feel safe in a space to know we can call something out if it isn’t okay, and not fear our jobs? How can we feel happier? Workplace inclusion and accessibility issues can not be addressed or solved, if the workplace is not a psychologically safe place to be. Offices are typically designed for neurotypical people, and ND brains often miss out on opportunities or progression as work doesn’t feel safe, either because of a toxic work culture or because of expectations assuming who you must be to fit in specific professions. Universal neurodivergent design and a welcoming atmosphere where we feel able to be ourselves can help us feel included and psychologically safe at work. Feeling psychologically safe to me means;
- Being able to be honest, open and not feeling judged
- Being listened to and actions put into place resulting from any suggestions
- Managers asking what I need or don’t need. Before assuming.
- Feeling that my contributions, experiences and ideas are valued.
Reasonable adjustments and special changes to how an organisation usually does things does not make me feel psychologically safe or a real part of a team. But how can psychological safety become part of day to day work conversations and how can we embed this dialogue?
The first thing before any of the others, and even the reasonable adjustments is the attitude of a workplace. You have to portray that you really want to be inclusive for me to feel safe. A lot of organisations state that their practices are inclusive, but then their actions tell a different story. The attitude starts at senior management, demonstrated in job ads and at interviews and filters down to all employees. If you’re really invested in inclusion, it shows.
Systemic inclusion to benefit everyone
Systemic inclusion is simply put, universal design. Making your workplace accessible and inclusive of neurodivergent and disabled people, whether you know they work for you or not. Everybody benefits from a diverse and inclusive workplace culture, your productivity, creativity and even finances develop when you attract and maintain different skills, abilities, lived experience and talent. To put systemic inclusion and universal design into context, providing a lift is vital for wheelchair users accessing an office, but everyone benefits from having a lift installed. You don’t just build a build a lift when a wheelchair user joins your company or organisation. Similarly having quiet spaces to work helps people with ADHD to avoid distractions and be their most productive, but everyone benefits from a quiet space from time to time; if we’re having a difficult day, feel all peopled out or need to focus on a deadline, dopamine deficiency or not; we all benefit. The key is not having to ask for these things because they are already built into the workplace design.
Understanding toxic work culture and creating cultural change in organisations
I didn’t know how to phrase this but saying it how it is seems best. Toxic work culture exists in so many work environments, often for years and even decades there is a sense of “this is how we do things here,” and people who have held a certain degree of power for a while, refusing any cultural change. Or even being open to conversations about change. It’s very hard (and even impossible) to put things in place for a psychologically safe environment, when the culture is toxic. I’ve been in situations when not replying to a message quick enough was used to question my commitment. And other times I’ve relied so much on a supervisor for advice and support, that ultimately led to an unhealthy relationship, and almost failing a degree (another piece for another day.) Both of these were toxic, and detrimental to my mental health, more so than I wanted to admit at the time. When employers seek to understand that toxic work cultures exists rather than running away from the issue, and begin creating cultural change, we can really move towards inclusion and an environment where we feel safe. Safe spaces can’t exist in toxic, unhealthy and constrictive environments.
Training for managers
Above all workplace training for management, line managers and other employees in your organisation should include how to practice systemic inclusion, practicing cultural change and the difference a welcoming workplace can have. Training should include understanding neurodivergence, but not blanket assumptions or definitions. If management are trained on how to promote psychologically safe environments, the importance of developing safety plans and ways they can improve staff wellbeing, not just for neurodivergent employees but everyone, we can then truly begin supporting, understanding and accepting of differences at work. Differences that don’t just include neurodivergence.
It isn’t about getting it right all of the time. Getting it wrong is how we get it right
I hear more than I should, people being concerned about getting inclusion wrong, saying the wrong thing, or unintentionally being discriminatory. We can’t get everything right all of the time and when we’re learning, we generally don’t. It’s about understanding the basics (through training, workplace culture and systemic inclusion) and then adapting to people’s needs as you go. A new neurodivergent person on your team will give you further opportunities to learn and reflect together about how you can make things better for them. If you’re not open to learning and getting it wrong some of the time, you’re not going to learn how to get it right.
Communicating needs and preferences to a team.
When all of the above become second nature and normal in a workplace, we can then begin to feel comfortable dictating our own care, and what works specifically for us and our brain. Previously, and not just in work environments, I haven’t felt able to do this because I didn’t feel I’d be listened to. The first time I experienced what listening truly meant, was when a youth worker let me have a go, and didn’t focus on me not being able to do something. Instead she said; “you can, and I’m here to support you,” and in that moment, that’s all I needed to hear. That my contributions and opinions are valued. Since then I have not stopped having an opinion, and speaking out for things that aren’t right or fair or just. My GCSE history teacher (hi as I know you sometimes read this!) saying in a school report that I have an “innate sense of justice and fairness” really did have a point. I’ve experienced a lot of good, supportive people alongside the unhelpful and trauma inducing ones, to develop a clear understanding of what should and shouldn’t happen at work, at school and everywhere else inclusion is necessary. A lot of how I’ve felt, can be explained by how comfortable I’ve felt communicating my needs. When a dialogue is created to do this, I thrive. When it isn’t, I internalise a constant sense of failure and not being good enough for the system. And if that’s my experience, I know it is close to other people’s too.
I feel psychologically safe when people appreciate and accept me
Inclusion isn’t a complicated concept; it’s making an environment accessible to everyone so we all benefit, but why do so many workplaces and other systems get it so wrong? Why are unions needed to fight discrimination? Why don’t people get that difference is a good thing, and adds value? Why is writing this piece even necessary? We need this conversation because evidently we still have a long way to go, to get to a stage where questioning if it’s the right decision to disclose isn’t a thing and work & education becomes safe for everyone. You’re going to get the best from me when you appreciate and accept me. I don’t need anything drastically different to the next person, I just need you to have the right attitude. We began with attitude, and we’ll end here. If your attitude is in the right place, and not just your heart without the actions, we can really begin to work on making systemic inclusion the norm.
We need to look deeper into inclusion, beyond reasonable adjustments and anything practical. It’s about getting to the heart of the values, ethos, practices and culture, to really understand if work is a psychologically safe place to be. And then if it isn’t, make changes that matter so we all want to be there.
As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, I’ve written a guide for workplaces, exploring inclusion further, that I’m sharing here. Feel free to use, download and let me know if it’s helpful. It’s written as a guide, whilst also sharing some lived experiences too. I hope it can at least help to generate some conversations.
Great post, lots of things to think about! I think the section, ‘Getting it wrong is how we get it right’ is really useful. Thank you 🙂
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Thank you so much!