When I graduated from Brown University 20 years ago, I wrote a message on my cap—”dyslexic on board.” The world I was graduating into viewed learning differences as something to be ashamed of, but I was proud of my super power. I also dreamed of a day, in the years to come, in which the stigma of neurodiversity would fade into the background.
As young people conclude their college journeys this spring, it pains me to say that ableist views about learning differences are still predominant. One in five Americans have a learning disability, yet our society still treats them if they are unworthy of support. Years of neglect in the classroom—where full funding for special education still has not been achieved—has infected the workforce. According to Harvard Business Review, neurodiverse unemployment runs as high as 80%. This is unacceptable.
Related: Myths about neurodivergent people
As the founder of a nonprofit, Eye to Eye, created by and for people who learn differently, it is unfathomable that, 20 years after my graduation, young people with learning differences must still enter a workforce that is skeptical of their value. If we’re serious about giving the next generation a shot, companies must take the lead and show that they view learning disabilities as an asset, not a detriment.
To be sure, stigma around learning disabilities surrounds all aspects of society, not just the business world, and neurodiverse leaders like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York City Mayor Eric Adams (both dyslexic) have taken positive steps to push back against the belief that to be disabled is to be unable. But as the class of 2022 takes its first step on the post-college journey, businesses can play a vital role in ensuring this class is met with the acceptance which so many earlier classes have been denied.
Stigma in the workplace thrives because too many businesses create a culture of silence. Growing up being made to feel less than, it’s easier to believe your workplace won’t accept your differences than embrace them with open arms. One of my first jobs was at a clothing store. Despite being hired as a greeter, I was told I first had to work inventory. This required reading and categorizing, something I could do, but it played into my dyslexic weaknesses. As a greeter I would have had a chance to play to my dyslexic strengths. Within weeks I received warnings of poor performance. I ultimately quit the job before being fired. What pains me is I never had the chance to show my potential with customers, and instead left the job with more shame. That’s why I feel for the astounding 81% of young adults who have not revealed their learning difference to their employer.
A shift to a more open and inclusive culture doesn’t have to be back-breaking. It can be as simple as asking employees where they feel they can shine and encouraging the use of a tool like Grammarly to show that you don’t look down upon those who may have dyslexia. Flexible schedules and access to technology that has friendly accessibility options is also helpful. At Eye to Eye, we have multiple policies that were specifically designed for folks who learn differently, including a mix of autonomy and structured work.
The most important tool, however, is empathy. Employees who learn differently often don’t like to ask for help. We’re afraid of being ridiculed or being denied responsibilities. After my first job experience, I vowed to always self-advocate. That opportunity came quickly in my next job at an ad agency where I expressed my talents in working with people and my challenges with the written word. I was heard and valued, and quickly found my niche. I spent hours learning directly from people how they experienced products and got to show my findings in creative ways, like with video production, so my value was not measured solely by my ability to read or spell well.
Businesses that don’t welcome neurodivergent graduates into their ranks not only contribute to ongoing stigma, they deny themselves talent. It’s already been established that diversity as a whole brings tremendous value to companies. In fact, businesses with diverse employees are 45% more likely to report growth over the previous year. Why? Diversity breeds innovation of thought and that is especially true for neurodivergent employees.
I spent my whole life coming up with solutions to overcome the challenges I faced as someone with ADHD and dyslexia. When I was told by my publisher that in order to have my book, Thinking Differently, in audio format I would need to read it, I reminded them I was still dyslexic and reading words remained a challenge. A professional reader came to the rescue and everyone was better for it. Innovation is around the corner when we see these moments as opportunities.
When I wrote those words of pride about my learning disability on my mortarboard all those years ago I hoped that, one day, our society would embrace my differences. We’ve made progress since my graduation, but we still have miles to go to reach our destination. If more businesses make the decision to openly embrace neurodiversity, not only will their bottom lines improve, but the next generation and society as a whole will be stronger.