International Reflections on Disability Inclusion from #GBDN2017 – where are the neurodiverse?

So on Tuesday 20th June I had the pleasure of being invited by Ruh Global to the Global Business Disability Network meeting, with the International Labor Organisation and the United States Council for International Business.  The meeting was attended by a series of inspirational speakers, sharing their wisdom of their own, personal disability inclusion wins and their innovative practices company wide.  Some serious companies were represented – AT&T, Boeing, Cisco, Special Counsel, Adecco, L’Oreal – a wide range of sectors all with amazing stories to share combined with recognition of the mountain we still have to climb to achieve inclusion.  Some interesting facts that I picked up:

  • The difference in earnings between disabled and non-disabled individuals is $6500 for those with a High School Diploma, and increases to over $20K for those with Master’s degrees. People with disabilities being screened out at the high earner, professional roles?
  • The global unemployment rate for disabilities is 80%.


  • Cisco Systems have found that their visually impaired employees in Indian call centres have higher productivity and lower turnover and error rates than their non-disabled counterparts.
  • Senior VP and C-level execs from the collected companies, as well as policy makers and researchers are in agreement that the business case for disability inclusion is proven through increased retention of talent.
  • Boeing deliberately target veterans with disabilities to boost their talent and have a dedicated accommodations team to ensure the tools to do the job are in place.

So there is good news and a tide starting to turn, despite the lack of legislative ‘teeth’ provided by the American with Disabilities Act, in comparison to some of the European laws, such as the Equality Act in the UK.  There was a good deal of talk about recruitment, and ‘getting people in’ who have disabilities; some great ideas about apprenticeship and managing disclosure in hiring practices which is very welcome.

What I heard less about was the development of talent who are already there.  Indeed, Rebecca Caruso from L’Oreal discussed how she has had Multiple Sclerosis for over twenty years, but only disclosed this when she was promoted to her Diversity and Inclusion role.  My work on the latest BBC series of ‘Employable Me‘ (screened next year) features people with a wide range of disabilities, yet many of them have senior experience and acquired their difficulties, through injury and development of health conditions.  How can we ensure that people stay included and indeed able to shine, whatever life throws at them?

And where are the neurodiverse?  Are they included in the disability discourse?  Legislatively the answer is yes. However, they were missing from the GBDN debate.  Neurodiversity is a current buzzword, and in the discussions I had it was seemingly attached to autism rather than the full range of conditions, whilst being euphemistically associated with talent, creativity and innovation.  Good!  This is progress from the ‘learning disabilities’/glass half empty days. While the euphemism and enthusiasm for neurodiverse talent is welcome, we can’t all be Richard Branson.  Yes, 35% of US entrepreneurs are dyslexic and corporations would do well to harness some of that creativity, but 50% of the prison population are also dyslexic and so social exclusion is a thing, it’s real, talent is suppressed, the deck is stacked. Only 1% of corporate managers are dyslexic yet it is 10% in the population at large.

There’s a large proportion of employees with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, dyspraxia (DCD) and mental health needs, who are likely undisclosed and failing to thrive for want of some simple accommodations.  The neurodiverse are already among our large corporations – 1-5% of adults have ADHD, 1% have Tourette Syndrome, 20% will experience mental health difficulties in their lives.  Neurodiverse conditions, as well as MS, Lyme and Chronic Fatigue, have cognitive impacts on memory, concentration, time management, organisational skills.  These higher order abilities may not always affect entry level employment but they will affect promotion viability into middle management.

There are answers to this problem.  My PhD research, for example, has found that a short, workplace coaching program can improve memory difficulties and increases supervisor ratings of performance in time management and organisational skills.  The wonderful Kimberley Vanderland explained at the conference how innovative design in working spaces can reduce distractions and improve concentration.  We can make these accommodations easily and cheaply; they cost less than missed opportunities, re-hires and performance management.

If we want to see neurodiversity talents at work in senior, strategic roles, we have to adapt the pathway to the top to get them there.