There are a number of reasons to expand your company's diversity and inclusion initiative to work with the neurodiverse — those of us who are autistic, have ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or some other type of neurological wiring that sets us apart from the neurologically typical. There is, of course, the ethical argument, recognizing that everyone deserves the same access to opportunity and quality of life. But that argument, important as it may be, is rarely sufficient for stakeholders to agree to policy changes. They want to know that such changes will also be good for the bottom line.
So let's address that. First, by broadening your hiring policy to include those that have thus far been outside the scope of your recruitment efforts, you are going to increase your talent pool, often bringing in people who will add value and innovation. There are also government regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that can be costly if not followed. But there's also the neurodiversity market: the purchasing power of the neurodiverse, their families, their friends, and the many people, organizations, and companies who work with those who are neurodiverse.
In order to capture that market, in order to be a company or organization that appeals to the large — and largely untapped — neurodiversity market, you have to show a commitment to the people in that market. You already know the value of engagement inside your company's walls, and it's really the same argument for those who are outside those walls. If you just think in terms of numbers, not people, you're not going to reach as far into that market as you otherwise could.
So, exactly how big is the neurodiversity market? Extrapolating from a few sources12, the number is about $320 billion annually. And that's just the disposable income of the US neurodiverse population and their friends and family. Another $175 billion3 is spent annually in the US on services for the neurodiverse. My guess is that your business would do well to capture some of that market share.
A Double Embrace
The way to tap into this market most successfully is to embrace neurodiversity from two, entirely complimentary angles. First, hire people who are neurodiverse. Tap into an underrepresented talent pool. But you would be doing yourself — and those you've hired — a terrible disservice if you stopped there. You've also got to change the culture of your workplace so that it is much more aware and accommodating to your neurodiverse colleagues, both those you've now hired and (note carefully) those neurodiverse employees who were already on your payroll, but flying under the radar because of the stigma attached to autism, ADHD, etc. Second, show the marketplace that you are committed to neurodiversity. This is where PR and marketing come into play. But you must be committed to a true cultural shift.
As I was researching for this article, I happened to stumble upon a video on my personal Facebook timeline. It epitomizes the kind of cultural shift I'm talking about. In 2013, a Canadian auto parts retailer, Canadian Tire, entered into an eight-year sponsorship agreement with the Canadian Olympic Committee. One of the promotional spots that came out of this is the video, “Wheels”:
In this video, one kid, who is playing basketball with some friends, notices another kid watching them play. That other kid is in a wheelchair. The next scene shows the basketball lying on the porch of the kid in the wheelchair. Puzzled, he puts the ball on his lap and wheels himself to the court where he saw the other kids playing ball. What he finds is that the other kids have found ways to make him feel included: they are all using tricycles or wagons or anything they can sit on with wheels, and they're having a riot playing basketball. When the child in the wheelchair shows up, he is made to feel welcome.
Yes, of course, this video was designed to tug at your heart strings. I know it got me good! But it affects us emotionally because we know that what those kids did is critical: openly and fully embracing difference. Now, imagine the constituents of the neurodiversity market viewing your company with the same emotional weight. The way to best capture market share is to show the kind of adaptability and commitment shown by those kids.
As the video, “Wheels”, shows, when you show your commitment to diversity as part of your marketing message, the response can be powerful. But don't just say it. Mean it. Make sure that your casting is inclusive, your language is inclusive (don't use paternalistic language or outdated terms). The message will come across as genuine when it is genuine.
Employee resource groups are a transparent way to give voice to those who might otherwise be sidelined or silenced. The feedback from ERGs can be invaluable, not only as a litmus test to your diversity and inclusion initiative, but also as a source of fresh thinking and innovation. Learn to listen with an open mind.
There are nuances to successfully hiring and keeping those who have different neurological wiring. Think about partnering with an autism- or disability-focused recruiting firm. They know the ins and outs of the market and can be an invaluable guide. At least at first, until you've got a good handle on the process. Until it becomes infused in the way things get done.
When workplace accommodations are implemented properly, your entire workforce can benefit. Accommodations must be understood by all as necessary for some, to give them a similar level of ease in doing their work — a level that most take for granted. And accommodations are not, generally, expensive, averaging less than $500 per employee4. That's a small investment in unleashing your employee's true potential.
The thread that ties all these elements together — marketing, ERGs, hiring strategies and accommodations — must be woven into the tapestry of your workplace culture. It's not enough to revise the mission statement to say something about neurodiversity, then distribute it as an email from the CEO. It's not enough to have the Diversity & Inclusion team give a talk to the Executive team. Live the commitment. Sponsor neurodiversity- or disability-focused volunteer events; bring self-advocates in to speak to your employees on a regular basis; encourage mentoring and partnerships between and among your neurodiverse and neurotypical colleagues.
When your workplace culture is infused by an embrace of neurodiversity, that's when everything will come together. That's when you'll be attracting the best of the neurodiverse talent pool because they will know your company as a great place to work. That's when you'll be known publicly as a company that is indeed truly committed to neurodiversity and, hopefully, diversity in general. That's when you'll be getting the best of both ends of the neurodiversity market.
1 Understanding Neurocognitive Developmental Disorders Can Improve Education for All, Brian Butterworth and Yulia Kovas. Science 19 Apr 2013: Vol. 340, Issue 6130, pp. 300-305 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1231022]
2 2016 Annual Report - The Global Economics of Disability, Return on Disability, http://www.rod-group.com/content/rod-research/edit-research-2016-annual-report-global-economics-disability.
3 This figure was calculated using the same extrapolation method as above.
4 Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities, http://bbi.syr.edu/_assets/staff_bio_publications/McDonald_Exploring_the_Bottom_Line_2007.pdf
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