Neurodiversity Innovation in the Workplace: Inclusion Insights from Chicago's DEI Leaders

Texthelp recently hosted an exclusive event at The Ritz Carlton in Chicago, bringing together senior DEI and HR professionals to discuss the growing importance of neurodiversity inclusion in the workplace.

The forum featured keynote speakers Jim Stachowiak, Accessible Technology & Operations Lead at Northwestern University, Jennifer (JP) Price, Manager at EY’s Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence, and Maureen Dunne, author of The Neurodiversity Edge. A panel discussion, moderated by Chris Grous, Inclusive Workplaces Director at Texthelp, included industry leaders Marsha McDermott, Director of D&I at RR Donnelley and Heather Tartaglia, Associate Director and Activation Lead at EY’s Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence, who shared valuable insights and strategies for creating inclusive work environments..

Diverse speakers enhanced understanding of the neurodivergent experience in the workplace. JP emphasized the challenges and strengths associated with auditory-focused listening, while Chris shed light on navigating corporate environments with dyslexia, ADHD, and the complexities of "masking" traits to fit in. Their insights underscored the importance of accommodating diverse cognitive styles and fostering environments where all individuals can thrive.

The Future of Work is Neurodiverse

The event highlighted a significant demographic shift in the workforce as 53% of Gen Z are reported to identify as neurodiverse. Chris Grous highlighted that understanding and supporting these individuals isn't just advantageous but imperative for future talent acquisition and retention strategies. Jim Stachowiak underscored the growing presence of neurodiverse students at universities, emphasizing a cultural shift towards greater acceptance and accommodation. 

Heather Tartaglia echoed this noting that as neurodiverse individuals become the majority, organizations must adapt their workplace environments and practices to foster inclusivity and capitalize on diverse talents. The insights pointed to a pressing need for organizations to proactively embrace neurodiversity, ensuring they are equipped to harness the full potential of this emerging workforce demographic.

The Business Case for Neuroinclusion

Leaders dived into the strategic advantages of embracing neurodivergent talent. Chris Grous emphasized that neurodiversity inclusion goes beyond compliance, stressing the importance of recognizing and leveraging the unique talents of neurodivergent individuals, such as pattern recognition and innovative thinking. Jim Stachowiak urged a shift in thinking towards embracing different perspectives, noting that neurodiverse individuals, when properly supported, can provide organizations with a competitive advantage through their creative problem-solving abilities.

Heather Tartaglia discussed the business imperative of neuroinclusion, citing the need for organizations to adapt to future skill demands and maximize business potential by integrating cognitive diversity into their workforce strategies. The consensus among speakers underscored the strategic necessity for businesses to proactively integrate neurodiversity into their workforce planning, not only to foster inclusive environments but also to drive innovation and competitiveness in an evolving global market.

The Disclosure Gap & Proactive Inclusion

Acknowledging an increasing willingness among individuals to self-identify, the discussion highlighted persistent barriers in workplace environments that can make seeking help intimidating - despite growing acceptance and accommodations in education systems, 76% of people do not disclose a disability in the workplace. Normalization of disclosure as part of regular updates within organizations emerged as a critical theme, with insights into concerns expressed by employees, such as potential impacts on benefits, underscoring the need for clearer, supportive communication strategies.

Heather Tartaglia shared EY's journey in fostering a safe and inclusive workspace, detailing successful implementation of comprehensive resources and dedicated support channels. Chris Grous discussed successful initiatives where organizations improved disclosure rates by removing traditional barriers to accessing accommodations, such as making support tools universally available and fostering open dialogue about neurodiversity within the company culture.

The group agreed on the importance of proactive measures in creating inclusive workplaces where neurodivergent individuals feel valued, supported, and empowered to contribute effectively. This approach not only enhances organizational diversity but also cultivates environments where all employees can thrive and innovate.

Strategies for Neurodiversity Inclusion

Exploring strategies for neurodiverse individuals to thrive in educational and work settings revealed several key insights. Jim Stachowiak shared the intersection between higher education support and workplace accommodations, emphasizing ongoing, accessible support such as inclusive technology as crucial for leveraging skills.Flexibility and providing options for different working styles emerged as critical, including examples such as extra time on exams, technology for aiding focus, and materials in electronic formats to accommodate diverse learning styles. The adoption of Universal Design emphasized three core principles: providing multiple means of representation, action, and engagement to proactively reduce barriers in learning environments.

JP outlined successful initiatives within EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence model, such as providing necessary tools and mentoring to navigate workplace challenges effectively. Heather Tartaglia elaborated on EY's comprehensive approach across three key areas - sourcing, skilling, and support - advocating for reevaluating job descriptions, adopting neuroinclusive interview processes, and providing neurodiversity support and training opportunities globally. She also outlined a structured four-step interview process aimed at effectively assessing candidates to settle them into the organization and culture.

Collage of three images showcasing Maureen Dunne and panel speakers: Chris Grous, Marsha Villanueva McDermott and Heather Tartaglia. Attendees can be seen seated in the room.

Heather also highlighted the role of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in enhancing learning opportunities and fostering inclusive environments across EY. Events like Neurodiversity Celebration Week underscored the ERG's inclusive approach, benefiting all employees. The group stressed the importance of executive sponsorship for ERGs to make impactful change, paired with clear communication and engagement via internal channels.

Emphasizing the importance of flexibility in hiring, Chris Gous suggested rethinking traditional interview methods to focus more on skills-based assessments and providing options in initial screenings to accommodate diverse needs. Further discussion centered on refining talent acquisition processes to attract and support neurodiverse candidates, advocating for clear communication and inclusive practices throughout the recruitment journey.

Unlocking Potential with Inclusive Tech

Inclusive technology plays a pivotal role in leveling the playing field and unlocking neurodiverse talent. Jim Stachowiak underscored the importance of providing inclusive technology tools like Texthelp's Read&Write software, which supports diverse learning styles and enhances productivity by enabling features such as Text-to-speech and Dictation. These tools not only accommodate neurodivergent individuals' needs but also streamlines workflows and enhances communication.

JP shared her personal experience at EY, emphasizing how Texthelp's tools facilitate effective communication and task management. For her, tools like Read&Write eliminate the need for individual accommodation requests, allowing her to provide clear instructions through dictation, which is essential for overcoming auditory processing challenges in her team.

Heather Tartaglia echoed this, highlighting Read&Write's broader impact at EY for neurodivergent and neurotypical employees alike, as well as those with English as a second language. She emphasized that inclusive technology isn't just about accessibility but also about fostering an inclusive culture where everyone can contribute effectively.

Overall, the forum underscored that inclusive technology not only removes barriers but also enhances workplace inclusivity, innovation, and efficiency, catering to the diverse needs of all employees regardless of neurotype.

Statistics shared at the event: 

  • 1 in 5 people are neurodivergent (around 20%)
  • Around 80% of individuals with autism are unemployed
  • 53% of Gen Z identify as neurodiverse
  • Texthelp’s Read&Write inclusive tech has positively impacted over 50 million people
  • Texthelp aim to advance the literacy and learning of 1 billion by 2030 through inclusive tech
  • At Northwestern University 1,400 out of 2,400 students (about 58%) are considered neurodiverse.
  • EY have seen a $1 billion in return on investment, three and a half million hours saved through their Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence
  • 375 million people need to be re-skilled by 2025
  • $8.5 trillion is predicted unrealized revenue due to the skill set crisis

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