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The Neurodiverse Edge

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The Neurodiverse Edge

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Business leaders want competitive advantages; they want to be productive, reduce turnover, save money, maintain good morale, and develop strong consumer appeal. Yet, what they often overlook is one of the most effective business practices available; hiring people with cognitive disabilities. A picture of Madelaine Sayko

While many businesses are becoming more aware of the value of hiring people with disabilities they still shy away from those who disclose their status as having cognitive disabilities.  One of the problems is that even when business leaders have a committed inclusion program, they are not comfortable with cognitive disabilities.  Much of their trepidation comes from a lack of understanding. There is often the fear that the individual will lack the intellectual capacity to perform most tasks, or that they will have behavioral problems that will make it difficult for them to integrate into the work environment.  Neither of these viewpoints is necessarily true.

It might surprise many business leaders to know that at any given time as much as 50% of their workforce can be considered to have a cognitive disability. Realizing that cognitive disabilities are already a factor in the workplace, having the skills and programs in place to address them makes good business sense. Today’s workforce is neurodiverse; by this I mean that the learning and thinking styles of individuals will vary considerably, some due to permanent disability, some due to temporary impairments. These factors make it more imperative than ever that businesses understand how to manage in a neurodiverse world.

At the root of the problem is having an inadequate definition of cognitive disability. The Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University defines cognitive disability as a physical, mental, or emotional condition which causes severe difficulty in concentration, memory, or decision making. There are two key points to be considered within this definition.

The first point is that difficulty in concentration, memory, or decision making can result from chronic pain, stress, ADHD, mental health issues, medications, or any multitude of factors. Whether the issue is a learning disability, aging, or PTSD, a manager is very likely to be already working with individuals with cognitive challenges. With the right skills and education, managers can enable these individuals to remain effective employees.  The ability to support individual employees and ensure inclusive productive teams is one of the challenges of management; the good news is that it can be done.

That brings us to the second important point; there are many tools and processes that can be used to compensate for cognitive impairments. Like many other disabilities, cognitive disabilities increasingly have accommodations that are being developed or identified, that are easy and cost effective to implement. These accommodations can allow employees to maintain parity with their peers, and work effectively.

It is helpful to think of cognitive disabilities not as intellectual issues, but as processing issues. The person may retain the ability to comprehend concepts, to think creatively or analytically, but they may require minor assistance to execute tasks.  Some examples of this might be the use of memory aids, or quiet space for concentration, or even a preference for written over oral communication.

Individuals with cognitive challenges may also bring particular strengths to the workplace.  The tenacity and commitment to overcoming injury or illness can carry over to all work assignments.  Recent Gartner polls have shown that only 30% of the workforce is fully engaged. The determination that individuals with disabilities have towards their work often sets an example for other team members.  Research also shows that persons with disabilities are less likely to leave a job. The Department of Labor estimates that businesses experience as much as 4% annual turnover in staff. Reducing that number even by one person each year can save as much as $250,000 over a 5 year period.

New Federal regulations are expected to further promote the hiring of persons with disabilities. These regulations may require that organizations track the number of people within their workforce who have disabilities. For some businesses there are also economic advantages from tax breaks and other benefits. However, when it comes to non-apparent disabilities such as cognitive challenges, employers benefit the most when the culture of the organization supports disclosure.

Perhaps one of the most important points about cognitive disabilities is that in many cases, given the right environment and supports, the individual can demonstrate significant improvement in functioning. Research has consistently shown that neurological processes can improve over time, at any age. When one looks at all the pluses that people with cognitive disabilities can bring to the workplace, it is clear that they make a good investment in your organization’s future. CC

This article re-print originally appeared in the Maine Business Leadership Network e-newsletter (February).

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About the Author:

Ms. Sayko’s professional background includes several decades of executive management in technology development and healthcare systems. Ms. Sayko has helped found technology start-ups and has worked for both major corporations and as an independent contractor. Currently Ms. Sayko sits on the board of The Acquired Brain Injury Network of Pennsylvania (ABIN-Pa) and is the Community Education Coordinator for Delaware County, Pennsylvania.