In the 1950s, a social experiment set out to create an approximation of the bodies of the average American man and woman. The models became known as Norma and Norman, says Ed Bailey.
Using the average person, based on average body measurements, as a proxy for a real human may sound logical – scientific even. However, the very idea is flawed. Stripped of any human diversity, these sculptures that are intended to represent a ‘standard’ body, in reality represent no one.
This tendency to classify and categorise is an established feature of human nature, and has allowed for Norma and Norman-esque frameworks to dominate how we assess ourselves and others. This in turn has dominated the general understanding of a neuro-typical human mind, and effectively created an ‘a-typical’ categorisation that stands outside of what is deemed normal and average.
In a Newton Talks Podcast, I had a discussion with Professor Amanda Kirby, leading expert in neurodiversity, who noted that none of us are actually average – and nor should we aim to be. We are all neurodiverse, and it’s limiting to assume otherwise.
Embracing human variability and diverse ways of thinking
The Norma and Norman experiment can be seen as a metaphor for the increasing standardisation in the workplace. As businesses try to create cohesion and find people that “fit” their workplace culture, they inadvertently isolate those who don’t align with that culture, while also simultaneously missing out on potential great talent from applicants that don’t appear as obvious fits.
This occurs because the general framework for what we see as ‘normal’ in the workplace often fails to take into account human variability. In reality, as humans, we not only have different physical dimensions, but also different cognitive traits, strengths, weaknesses, experiences and interests.
With the growing interest in workplace culture and diversity and inclusion initiatives, businesses have made some strides in acknowledging and accommodating their employees. But this has often only addressed small features of the workplace or only benefited certain groups of people. In fact, one group that has repeatedly been overlooked and remains the furthest behind in terms of equity in the workplace are those who identify as neurodivergent. This is not only harmful to these individuals, but also incredibly limiting to the rest of the workforce.
To champion neurodiversity is to not only acknowledge, but to insist upon, variability. None of us are really “average”. Indeed, the ability to think differently about the world around us is the most powerful thing about being human. It’s also a competitive advantage. Having this diversity of thought will bring more creative collaboration to the fore, and create a culture of mutual learning.
Equitable workplace practices for all
Championing neurodiversity in the workplace can play out in two very important ways. The first involves unlocking talent from within. This means creating a culture which is sensitive to the varying needs and ways of working of those that you already employ.
This involves small adjustments, such as allowing for hybrid and remote working, and openly communicating within teams about neurodiversity and the strengths, challenges, communication styles, and other considerations for each individual. This allows for respectful dialogue and organisational transparency to unfold as businesses work to create more inclusive work environments and ensure the wellbeing of their employees. Here we can see how implementing universal design into the workplace can become an instrument through which employers safeguard equity and equality for all employees.
These adjustments are incredibly important because they allow for a psychologically safer working environment. Uncomfortable work situations can take a high toll on individuals’ physical and emotional wellbeing; therefore, eliminating these barriers is productive for both employee and employer. By creating an environment where every individual can perform at their best, businesses can unlock new levels of productivity, creativity, and collaboration.
The next way championing neurodiversity can play out is in terms of recruitment and hiring. When looking for new hires, it is important to go into this process with a deep understanding of the variability of the human mind.
Not only does it make businesses more receptive to people with varied ways of thinking, but it also opens the door to more dynamic, amenable hiring practices. For instance, this can include offering interview questions in advance, so that someone with communication or processing difficulties has time with them, which could help reduce the anxiety of being put on the spot. And the great thing about integrating this practice into your hiring process is that it would benefit everyone. It puts in place a more open recruiting process, whereby people can ask for help if they want or need, but don’t have to have a diagnosis to access it, because it’s available to everyone.
Ultimately what it all comes down to is championing a culture that welcomes a ‘non-Norma/Norman’ perspective. Which means putting respect and appreciation for diversity of thought above simply preserving the status quo. This may very well be a considerable culture shift for some, but it is one of the most important shifts businesses should be making today. The missed opportunity is a greater price to pay than any clutches on limited and existing processes. How will you know the great talent you might be missing, if those very people you want cannot apply in the first place?
Ed Bailey is the Business Manager (Public Sector) at Newton Europe and co-founder of Newton’s Disability Network.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.