Neurodiversity is broadly defined as “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; this is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits”. When considering whether such differences should be considered a disability, it is better to reframe the question as ‘for what reason(s) should neurodiversity be considered a disability?’
Within the United Kingdom’s legal framework, a disability is defined as an impairment that has a “substantial and long-term adverse effect” on one’s “ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. For many forms of neurodiversity, this can be (but is not always) the case. For example, autistic people may have significant support needs which would, according to the Equality Act 2010, constitute a disability. The DSM-5 delineates three ‘levels’ of autistic spectrum disorder. Level 1 is defined as ‘requiring support’ and refers to individuals who “may struggle in social situations and show restricted and repetitive behaviours”. Individuals classified as such require minimal support to function in their daily lives. Level 3, however, is defined as ‘requiring very substantial support’, and refers to individuals who “have restricted and repetitive behaviours that they get in the way of functioning independently in their daily lives and activities. They have extreme difficulty coping with changes”. One of the challenges in deciding whether to define neurodiversity as disability largely stems from the diversity inherent both within and between individual qualifying conditions. However, there is an argument to be made that the broad umbrella of conditions should be considered a disability due to the legal protection this offers to such individuals. A recent study has shown that employment tribunals relating to discrimination against neurodivergent employees rose, on average, by a third in the last year. This can be explained partly by an increase in awareness surrounding these conditions, but also by the fact that research has shown that 50% of managers would be “uncomfortable employing or line managing someone who is neurodivergent”. The research, published by the Institute of Leadership and Management, also found that neurodivergent individuals do not feel their workplaces are doing enough to ensure colleagues behave inclusively.
Another relevant element to consider with respect to considering neurodiversity a disability is the source of the disablement – the condition itself or the systems in which a neurodivergent individual encounters difficulty. In 1990, Mike Oliver examined this question in further detail, expounding upon the distinction between impairment and disability made by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation in 1976. Oliver’s work defined two models for understanding disability, the individual (or medicalised) and social models. The former was underpinned by the personal tragedy theory of disability, and “locates the ‘problem’ of disability within the individual” and views the “causes of the problem as stemming from the functional limitations or psychological losses which are assumed to arise from disability”. The concern with this approach to disability, which extends to neurodiverse individuals, is that it has led to the dehumanisation of disabled people and subsequent attempts to either discover a cause or ‘cure’ them. This can be seen in the historic attempts to prove that vaccines cause autism, a theory which has been proven to be critically flawed. Under this model, it can be argued that neurodiversity should not be considered a disability because it has led to medical professionals attempting to ‘cure’ such conditions or “restore the disabled person to normality”, a reality which has been shown to be impossible. However, with appropriate consideration of support needs, disabled people can live full and fulfilling lives. This position has now been adopted by the NHS; for example, they state that “autism is not a medical condition with treatments or a “cure”. But some people need support to help them with certain things”.
The ‘Social Model of Disability’, on the other hand, advocated a critical theoretical framework for understanding disability. The focus of this model is not of the loss of a socially prescribed sense of normality engendered by a medical condition, but of the construction and maintenance of systems which disable through their inability to “provide appropriate services and adequately ensure the needs of disabled people are fully taken into account in its social organisation”. Under this model it can be argued that neurodiversity should be considered a disability for two key reasons. Firstly, it recognises the multitude of disadvantages that society creates for neurodivergent people. For example, the Disability Law Service conducted research into how local authorities assess disabled children for support needs. Of their sample of 149 local authorities, only 93 were found to have ‘functional’ eligibility policies. A further 41 of these policies (44.08%) were found to constitute unlawful discrimination in contravention of the Equality Act 2010, as they indirectly discriminate against autistic children compared to other disabled children. Another example of barriers neurodivergent individuals face is in workplace environment design; fluorescent lights, loud noises, and uniforms which engender sensory overload or discomfort are common. Secondly and intersecting significantly with the first reason, acknowledging these barriers as stemming from the social organisation of systems means that there is a possibility that the limiting factors associated with neurodivergent disabilities can be reduced or removed altogether when appropriate adaptations are made. This does, however, require wide ranging adoption of the social model and coordinated action to change the way that disability is addressed within society.
There is a school of thought which argues that neurodiversity should not be considered a disability because it constitutes “a difference that should be acknowledged and accommodated”, or that it should be regarded “not as disabilities, but as perfectly normal neurological differences between people”. There is a deeply ingrained perception that being disabled is equal to being abnormal or defective. Such assumptions abide and underpin the previously referenced personal tragedy theory of disability, a “cultural expression of the individual or medical model and is materialised through the recycling of disciplinary messages that ‘able-bodiedness’ is valued while impairment is a mark of misfortune: to be endured, struggled against, and overcome.” Insisting on differentiating neurodiversity from disability in this fashion risks perpetuating the harmful othering of disabled people. Similarly, there are sources, such as the Harvard Business Review, that highlight the advantages that neurodivergent people can bring to the professional environment. An example of this is a neurodiverse talent program run by HPE, the results of which indicate that neurodiverse software testing teams are up to 30% more productive. Such programmes have the potential to challenge historical discourse which assumes that disabled people do not have talents, skills, and experiences that could benefit a business greatly. However, this narrative has potential to further differentiate neurodivergent individuals from other disabled people, inadvertently confirming that implicit assumptions about the latter group hold true.
In conclusion, neurodiversity should be considered a disability. Maintaining this framing affords legal protection against discrimination which, according to a variety of sources, persists in spite of recent developments in social and cultural awareness. Efforts to redefine how neurodiversity is understood should be concentrated in the framing of the disablement. Doing so offers hope that disabled people, not just neurodivergent individuals, will one day be treated with greater dignity and will no longer be considered abnormal or defective. This is a massively oversimplified depiction of the enormously diverse challenges that disabled people face, not least the obfuscatory distinction between disabled and non-disabled people. However, it is important that any future developments which seek to improve the quality of life of disabled people first challenge incorrect and harmful assumptions which underpin the personal tragedy theory of disability.
If your organisation would like support to strengthen their understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace and embed inclusion contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0207 267 8369.
Article written by Conor McCrory, Programmes Coordinator