Thank you to Colette Marquess, a PCS union representative in Belfast, for writing this report after attending the Neurodiversity in the Workplace course run by Janine.
I recently attended a 2-day course run by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) on “Neurodiversity in the Workplace”. The course was presented by Janine Booth, an activist, author, poet and tutor, who is on the autism spectrum herself and has an autistic son.
Due to the pandemic, the course was run on the Zoom platform. Janine began by explaining the ground rules for the Zoom course, including the importance of muting ourselves when not speaking to minimise background interference. Although familiar with Zoom for family and friend gatherings during lockdown, I knew nothing about Zoom Whiteboards or ‘Break Out Rooms’, so it took me a while to get my head around it. We were provided with frequent rest breaks during the 2-day course as concentrating on a sea of faces on screen for two full days at a time can be rather exhausting.
Most people in the workplace are ‘neurotypical’. Others are ‘neuro-atypical’ or ‘neurodivergent’, which means that they have a different neurological make-up or ‘brain wiring’. People with conditions such as Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Tourette Syndrome or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are all neurodivergent.
Janine was a lively and engaging presenter. She was only diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 45, so she has had years of feeling ‘different’ or ‘out of step’ with the rest of the world without being able to pinpoint why. I can relate to this experience as my adult son, Daniel, who is now 24, was recently diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Learning more about his condition made a lot of things just click into place for me: his need for order, structure and very specific instructions; his intense focus on his work and outside interests; his inability to read body language or interpret common idioms. All these things are very specific to Daniel and make him the wonderful human being that he is, but autism is a spectrum. Indeed, many of the conditions mentioned above are on a spectrum, from mild to severe. This should not be thought of as a straight line, rather as multi-dimensional.
This course gave me the opportunity to learn more about the other neurodivergent conditions. It made me realise that our focus should be on recognising the strengths that each individual has, the unique skills they can bring to the workplace, rather than on negative, stereotype views of what they cannot do.
Janine explained the difference between the medical and the sxzsocial model of disability. The medical model looks at what is “wrong” with the person and says that people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The social model, on the other hand, looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. Such barriers are not just physical. Attitudes based on prejudice or stereotypes also disable people from being fully included in the workplace.
She then challenged us to apply the social model to a set of statements made using the medical model approach. To do this we had to start with the barrier rather than the condition, state how the barrier itself causes problems, focus on what the person can do rather than what they can’t and replace or remove any patronising and disabling language. For example:
“Fatima’s autism makes her hypersensitive to bright lights so she can’t work in our office, poor thing” was rewritten as “The bright lights in our office make Fatima distressed as she is autistic and is unusually sensitive to light. She can work here if we turn them down”. Re-writing the statements in this way was quite difficult, but as Janine said, this course was not meant to be easy! The purpose was to challenge our entrenched ways of thinking and to reflect on the unconsciously disabling language we use to describe the difficulties faced by disabled people in the workplace.
Throughout the course we worked in small ‘break out’ rooms and presented our findings to the whole group using the Zoom whiteboard. This was quite daunting for me at first. We could add comments using the ‘chat’ function, but my group found it easier to discuss the issues as group with one person acting as note-taker.
Next each group was allocated a case study and asked to apply the social model of disability in practical situations involving neurodiverse workers. The case studies were based on actual tribunal cases and it was very disheartening to see how poorly people had been treated. In many cases, there was little or no training or awareness of the needs of the disabled person.
At the end of the first day, we were invited to educate ourselves about one of the neurodivergent conditions, each group choosing one of the conditions to prepare a short presentation for the main group. As I said earlier, this course wasn’t easy! It was demanding, highly interactive and all the more rewarding for it. First, we watched a 12-minute video entitled “What is Autism?” which was made by Janine for her YouTube channel. The video was witty, direct and very informative. I would highly recommend it as an introduction to Autism.
Some of the groups stayed on in the break out rooms to discuss and prepare their presentation, but by 4pm my brain was ‘fried’, and I sorely needed some downtime from the computer. My group chose Tourette Syndrome and we met early in the break out room the next morning to go over our presentation. I learnt so much from this exercise. How to collaborate on a new platform with people from all across the Civil Service, how to listen, really listen, to the presentations prepared by the other groups and ask questions to enhance my understanding of the various conditions. This was not your usual passive training course! You really had to engage and be open to learning new things.
For example, did you know that many people with Tourette’s have better cognitive control due to the effort involved in suppressing tics? Or that the name for the involuntary swearing or use of socially inappropriate language associated with this condition is Coprolalia? I also learned that the reason workplaces use typefaces such as Arial or Courier New in internal communications is because they do not contain serifs, those little lines at the end of typefaces, which makes it easier for people with dyslexia to read.
We then discussed a number of other case studies, looking at the ways in which the workplace can be made a more suitable environment for neurodivergent workers. This encompassed difficulties with the recruitment process itself, the lack of training or awareness, the implementation of ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled workers and more generally, how work is organised, and tasks communicated to the disabled person.
Finally, we looked at Neurodiversity, Work and the Law: the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 (The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in N Ireland), the Public Sector Equality Duty and rights for carers. It was a lot to take in over only two days, but I thoroughly enjoyed the course. Janine was an excellent facilitator and I learnt a lot from the shared experiences of the group.
P03 International Examiner
Janine Booth’s 12-minute video, “What is Autism” can be found here: