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Embracing Difference in the Workplace

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

A recent article published in the Melbourne University Law Review addresses the issue of ADHD in the workplace. I was particularly pleased and proud to read it because it quotes my Masters research. For those who wish to read the article in its entirety, here is the reference: IT JUST DOESN'T ADD UP: ADD/ADHD, THE WORKPLACE AND DISCRIMINATION. Melbourne University Law Review 34 No. 2, 2010. Authors : Bruce Arnold, Patricia Easteal, Simon Easteal & Simon Rice, The authors start by making the valuable point that workplace conditions which appear fair can often discriminate against people who find conforming to them difficult or even impossible, due to neurological or cognitive differences. Furthermore, people who experience discrimination are required to prove this by using the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This can be problematic for those with so-called 'invisible' difficulties such as ADHD, because of the attached stigma, and the way the DDA is interpreted. An alternative approach, as advocated by the authors of this article, is to treat ADHD within a framework that recognises different abilities (in the same way that gender and race differences are treated), rather than classing it as a disability. Infrastructure and employment practices in our current society were designed at a time when there was little acknowledgement of genetic diversity. Conditions that suit the majority are considered to be fair. As a result, people who do not fit in, and require special arrangements appear, and are labelled disabled. However, the acknowledgement that women, for example, are disadvantaged in the workplace does not label them as disabled, rather as having different needs. Is it possible that neurodiversity could receive the same treatment as women, when attempting to provide fair working conditions? Workplaces that accommodate women using flexible working conditions benefit greatly from the contributions made by these women. In the same way, workplaces that provide flexible working conditions for people with ADHD will be enriched by the many positive attributes they display. We know from the research that ADHD can reduce employment opportunities for some. People with ADHD can find it difficult to complete tasks without digressing to another activity; time management can be problematic; they may hyper-focus on one task to the detriment of other equally important work; they appear to procrastinate, particularly with tedious tasks; they may fidget and pace. In addition, they may experience difficulty with social interactions - talking excessively and appearing over-emotional. On a positive note, there are many characteristics of people with ADHD, and these should provide incentive for changes in the workplace. As this article argues, the flipside of what is described in the literature as an 'impairment' of executive functioning may be a creative genius with a richness of wandering thoughts that could greatly benefit an organisation. Tapping into diversity can improve organisational performance. Anti-discrimination law in Australia places ADHD in a disability framework, based on the idea that ADHD is a deficit relative to a norm. This approach compares a person who has a disability with a person who does not, or against a standard that is 'objectively' reasonable. The law anticipates that people with a characteristic that differs from the 'norm' will suffer for it. Therefore disability discrimination laws operate to protect, not to promote. They endorse a positive view of a difference indirectly - by reprimanding those who take a negative view of that difference. As this article points out, however, legislation that prohibits discrimination on the ground of race or sex is designed to negate the concept of a 'normal' sex or race and to promote equal, non-differential treatment. Therefore, when a person complains of sex discrimination, they identify as having a particular sex, and claim they have been treated differently because of this. Disability discrimination, on the other hand, establishes a deficit, which does not measure up to the accepted 'ability'. Instead of protecting people who are deemed less able, the article proposes that they be accepted for a different ability. If there is unfair treatment in the workplace, it should be addressed within a framework of neurodiversity, that recognises people as differently abled, rather than as disabled - in the same way that people are recognised for being differently gendered or having different cultural backgrounds. Using this approach, a person with ADHD would not be labelled as an employee with a 'problem', but as an employee with abilities. If performance problems arose, the adjustments made would be designed to accommodate diversity, rather than to compensate for disability. In conclusion, the article points out that modern workplaces are more diverse than ever before, and a simple 'one-size-fits-all' approach to management is no longer appropriate. Workplaces could and should be adjusted to accommodate neuro-cognitive diversity.

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