How do you think about disability?

For this Ally Tips, we’re taking a look at Neurodiversity (or Neurodivergence) and how we can create work/learning environments that are conducive to all ways of thinking! Neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Judy Singer (and recently updated) to recognize that there are many ways that people’s brains can be “wired” (such as people with dyslexia, autism, and ADHD) that produce different ways of thinking, problem solving, and learning. Part of this recognition is that there isn’t a single “normal” way of thinking. A history of ableism, however, has taught us to believe that there is one kind of body and, by extension, one kind of brain that is normal and that produces normal behavior. Rather than being viewed as simply different, neurodivergent people are often viewed as less intelligent, less competent, and less capable of functioning. Of course, they are trying to function in a world that was built according to the needs of a “normal” body. Read more below about how disabilities have been framed, experiences of neurodiverse people, and changes we can make to our everyday behavior to include neurodiversity!

Reflect: How do you think about disability?

The way you view disability informs how you respond to people with disabilities, particularly if you are traditionally “able-bodied.” There are four popular models on disability, as described by Berghs and colleagues (2016) although more are created as our understanding shifts. Firstly, the medical model believes that anyone born with a physical or cognitive difference is a defect from the standard, “able” body and therefore is not functional in society. Secondly, the human rights model examines disability through the lens of rights that have been taken away or infringed upon because of one’s physical or mental status (e.g., the agency to make personal decisions). Thirdly, the social model examines disability not as a condition inherent to a person, but as a condition created by systemic barriers to access and normalization of a standard body. Lastly, the Critical Disability Studies model questions how ideas like “impairment” and “disability” are constructed by our language and culture (like the social model).

Learn: What kind of brain is the world built for?

Although disability visibility in higher education is growing, stories like Krista’s (in the above tweet) are common. The difficulty of receiving accommodations for neurodiverse and other disabled academics translates to low morale and attrition (Brown & Leigh, 2018; Yerbury & Yerbury, 2021). Even in fields like STEM (Austin & Pisano, 2017), that have been argued to be more conducive to neurodiverse thought patterns, people with conditions like autism are far less likely to be employed, even with respect to educational attainment (Roux et al., 2015). Another barrier to the persistence of neurodiverse students, faculty, and staff is that white, cisgender, men have been the primary subject of neurodiversity study (Goldman, 2013). This bias has led to gendered and racial/ethnic disparities in diagnosis, such as in the timing and prevalence of autism diagnoses (CDC, 2020; Kirby, 2021), and little research into the experiences of neurodiverse people with other marginalized identities in the workplace. Women with “invisible disabilities,” such as ADHD, often have their disabilities discounted, are perceived as helpless, or are asked uncomfortably invasive questions (Olkin et al., 2019). The prevalence of lower wages and workplace stress for both women and those with disabilities means that neurodivergent women are likely to feel even more acute psychological harm from these experiences (Brown & Moloney, 2018).

Change: Include and Celebrate Neurodiversity

  • Engage Universal Design: Universal Design is a philosophy that examines the basic elements of how we communicate and interact with one another to increase accessibility. UD for Learning looks at engagement, representation, and expression of knowledge through multiple means, in the classroom and beyond. Consider incorporating different ways of sharing information as well as different ways for people to share their thoughts (besides raising one’s hand). Consider how your meeting space might be more or less conducive to keeping one’s attention.
  • Referring to people with disabilities: Language around disability is complicated. Many people debate about whether person-first or disability-first language (“person with disabilities” vs. “disabled person”) is more empowering. Defer to how an individual with a disability refers to themselves, and if you don’t know, use person-first language. If you are looking to refer to someone via their disability, without knowing how they refer to it, consider why you feel the need to share that information with others without knowing that person well enough to understand what kind of language they use.
  • Rethinking your language: There are common terms that can be easily understood as ableist, like the r-slur, and more colloquial phrases that people don’t understand as ableist (e.g., “you’re so crazy,” “stop being spastic,” “I’m so OCD”); however, some accepted medical terminology has actually been criticized for being ableist – such as denoting someone as “high-functioning.” Terms like these imply that the individual is successful in spite of their condition, which erases the reality of living within an ableist society.