Universal design & neurodiversity in the workplace

Business and academic research on inclusive workplace cultures typically focus on race and/or gender. Disability and neurodiversity are often overlooked or excluded from this research and resulting policies and practices. A universal design approach is the way to take a holistic look at the issues and solutions for neurodiversity in the workplace. Indeed, these are good workplace practices for everyone. That’s what universal design is about.

Workplace employee groups can help marginalised groups feel heard, but they can also place an additional burden on individuals to seek workplace improvements.

five young people in the picture, two men, three women. Three are sitting on couches, and two stand behind. They look like they are having a discussion. Four are white, there is one black woman. neurodiversity in the workplace.

A short paper by Preziosa and Hill uses the 7 principles of universal design as a framework for implementing inclusive practices. The authors present the 7 principles in a matrix, and used four principles, briefly outlined below, as an example:

Equitable Use: Avoid the need for people with disability to have separate service or experiences. Eliminate label-based inclusion, such as targeted hiring programs for autistic people. This segregates employees into specific fields and requires them to self-identify any “special” condition they have.

Flexibility in Use: Build in preferences outside the norm such as playback speed options for training videos. Offer to be flexible and acknowledge that individual differences are expected and welcome.

Simple and Intuitive to Use: Avoid unnecessary complexity and repetition of processes, tools, and webpages.

Tolerance for Error: Allow room for mistakes and edits. Ensure digital form, tools and software allow for review and correction.

The authors claim that neurodiverse employees who receive support services show higher retention rates, and most required less than 4 support hours a month. In addition, many benefitted from support with problem solving and organising their work.

Universal design and employment scenarios

The authors matrix consists of 7 universal design principles and 6 workplace elements. They are: Designing, Hiring, Contracting, Training, Performance Review and Wellbeing. The information is also good for managing groups and teams outside the workplace environment.

The title of the short paper is, What can organizations do to create an environment which successfully supports, engages and retains their neurodiverse employees?

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Foosball or Football Table with red and white teams. Games such as these are cater for workplace neurodiversity.

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety or depression can feel stressed and uncomfortable. Consequently they are less productive. Employers could be missing out by not considering neurodiversity in the workplace. 

As many as one in eight people are neurodiverse according to an article in The Fifth Estate. COVID led to sterile environments. Offices removed their fabric coverings and other soft elements to make cleaning easier. But it makes spaces noisy, clinical and uninviting. 

Even working from home isn’t the answer for everyone. Just because you can work from home doesn’t mean you should. Long hours in a hard chair at the kitchen table isn’t optimum.

The article discusses colour, signage, the size and shape of spaces, textiles and plants. Even games such as Foosball tables have a place.

The solutions are in design of the office, the office culture and inclusive policies. When it comes to neurodiversity we have to ask, what is neurotypical anyway? Workplace designs that consider diversity are good for everyone.

There is more in this article titled, Considering neurodiversity to create better, more productive workplaces. The Fifth Estate also has an ebook for purchase, My (new) Happy Healthy Workplace

Related articles

7 things an autistic person needs in the workplace are:

  • No two people are alike
  • Ditch the stereotypes
  • Ask how we would like to be referred to
  • Be open to having a conversation to discuss what works
  • Be flexible to customise our working environment
  • Help us maximise our strengths
  • Provide us with opportunities to progress

Research on designing technology for neurodiverse users reminds us that this ends up being good design for everyone.

The Autism Research Starter Pack has strategies for including people with autism.

And a book

The Canary Code: A Guide to Neurodiversity, Dignity, and Intersectional Belonging at Work.

“This groundbreaking book combines the lived experience with academic rigor, innovative thought leadership, and lively, accessible writing. To support different types of readers, academic, applied, and lived experience content is clearly identified, helping readers choose their own adventure.”

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