We must periodically review what we think we know about Disability and Inclusion to avoid becoming stuck in habits of thought that narrow our vision and restrict our depth of perception. In fact, apply this to anything. We all need a refresh, no matter what field we are in.
That said, when we feel burdened by demands such a refresh is not a popular option and I could be seen as one of those annoying people who blithely expects others to do more and more with less and less time and attention – two deeply valuable assets.
I confess this is a risk, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest there is an easy pain-free alternative.
In this essay I ask only that you read it and take away one thought to chew on.
The idea of neurodiversity and the Bell Curve.
My favourite inclusion podcast – Leading with Empathy & Allyship – is a constant source of inspiration. The Power Of Neurodiversity In The Workplace With Tim Goldstein,broadcast on 23 Feb 2022, got me thinking.
Goldstein was making an important point. The term neurodivergent, in popular use, was often taken to imply something was amiss. We ‘diverge’ from a true or accept path. But he notes, we are all different. Its just that maybe 70% of us, who form the majority, might be considered to be neurotypical. That doesn’t mean ‘ordinary’ or uninteresting. All it means is that there is a spectrum, and the majority creates a ‘normality’. The minority adds to that ‘normal’ to fill in the range [spectrum] of being human. We are all diverse expressions of being human. Some of us may be a long way from being normal or typical, but we do not diverge from being human.
The Bell Curve is one of the most useful ideas to play with. Simply put, many things about being human can be mapped to a standard geometric curve which has a middle [normal/numerically dominant] and extremes [often expressed in negative or positive terms unfortunately] inhabited by a minority. The extremes are taken to polarities. The one we may be most familiar with concerns intellectual ability. At one extreme we have intellectual disability and at the other we have genius.
You can apply the Bell Curve to just about any human attribute as a useful guide to understanding that a diverse spectrum of human attributes is the norm. We can apply multiple Bell Curves to multiple attributes, and we are at different places on the curve for each attribute, normally. There are, no doubt, a few people who are extreme expressions for all measured attributes – at either extremity.
Neurodiversity is a shorthand way of saying we think differently, and some people do so in ways that extremely different from the majority. But we could also talk in terms of [pick your attribute]diversity. It is here we need to avoid a trap we unconsciously fall into. Diversity isn’t a merit scale. But we assume it is. It’s a scale of difference while retaining an overall similarity.
To DIE for
Normally proponents of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [DEI] don’t have a philosophical reason for arranging the letters of the acronym in any particular way, except to avoid having them read DIE, and IDE isn’t attractive – neither is EID.
I want to argue that D+I=E makes better sense. Here D is the spectrum of being human, regardless of what attribute/s we focus on; I is embracing that Diversity; and E is how embracing that Diversity is expressed.
The acronym doesn’t work, but the formula does.
Disability and Diversity
Many of us will have our expression of some human attribute impaired or impeded in some manner, whether temporarily or permanently – and it may not matter most of the time. Being tone deaf may rule you out of some few activities or roles, but not the many others.
The word disability is very useful to convey an important idea, but we use it selectively, and often adversely, to mean more than it needs to mean. It should be specific to a circumstance where an impaired expression of a human attribute leads to unfair disadvantage and exclusion.
Here I am not referring to social model of disability, but the idea itself. There are a few human attributes in relation to which we are instinctively discriminatory. Physical/sexual attractiveness is perhaps the most potent. But disability may also trigger unconscious adverse reaction in some people.
Depending on our psychological health [especially trauma related conduct] and our social conditioning, or status, we may also exclude or bully people who we see as vulnerable or weak.
People whose physical appearance or behaviour may signal they are vulnerable or weak may be people with disability. There is one area in which this is sadly very evident. The 2021 NSW State of Sector Report [the 2022 Report is late for some reason] published by the NSW Public Service Commission reports “Rates of self-reported experienced bullying, by different employee groups” on page 47. Staff with disability show a rate higher than 24%. Aboriginal people report over 20% and LGBTIQA+ people report over 16%.
We know from studies on bullying that one’s line manager, and next up manager are the major sources of bullying.
A human attribute that can be described as a disability may impact work performance, necessitating an adjustment or an accommodation. But the same cant be said of an Aboriginal person or a LGBTIQA+ person.
Is it the need for an adjustment or an accommodation that triggers a higher level of bullying for staff with disability – or is there something else at play?
Why bullying matters
By its nature bullying is about perceptions of vulnerability and the exercise of power. It excludes the victim from any sense of equity. There will be some perpetrators of bullying whose psychological make up render them unfit to be in positions of power over others, but bullying is also the product of unconscious conduct. It is not intentional and may not be recognised as bullying by the perpetrator. The problem here may be a lack of self-awareness and maybe a poor response to the stresses of leadership and responsibility.
It is possible to engage in bullying, regardless of why it is triggered in the perpetrator, because human Diversity is not recognised or acknowledged, and because Inclusion is not an intentional practice.
Bullying is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of organisational culture. Where Diversity and Inclusion awareness and practice are low the risk to the health and wellbeing of vulnerable staff is higher.
There is no simple solution. I am not suggesting we re-envision disability as perceived vulnerability or weakness, but let’s not forget that this is the root of problems for many.
The good news is that the Bell Curve tells us that most folks are likely to be responsive to calls to embrace Diversity and to be Inclusive. The bad news is that those who are not are often likely to be managers. The unfortunate reality is also that empathy does not always survive transition into roles of power over others.
Precisely why management and leadership roles must require ‘power over’ another is a question that merits deep thought.
Here it is not my intent to give managers a hard time. Between work pressures, personal life realities and the expanding demands placed upon managers to be across the many changes in social and cultural values, being a manager is no easy role these days.
But there’s another vital dimension to consider. A failure to embrace Diversity, practice Inclusion, and treat people with Equity is less likely to occur if everyone else is DIEing.
What’s your takeaway to chew on?