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Neurodiversity and Workplace Policies

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord? 

HAMLET: Words, words, words. 

(Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2) 


Neurodiversity Celebration Week took place between 21 and 27 March. The following week was Autism Acceptance Week, culminating in World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April. This means neurodiversity has featured heavily on social media recently.  

During Neurodiversity Celebration Week, I spent some time reflecting on my practice as an employment lawyer. Were there any areas of my work that were not particularly neurodiversity-friendly? Could I improve things for neurodiverse clients? Was it something to consider?  

At the time I had received a case file that included around 50 pages of policies on disciplinary, grievance, and harassment at work. The dispute involved a dyslexic member of staff. I perused the densely packed text. “Hardly dyslexia friendly,” I mused to myself, observing the irony.  

I tried to imagine being dyslexic and receiving all that text to read as a new employee. How would that make you feel? How would it affect your perception of that employer? 

What is neurodiversity? 

The term “neurodiversity” (or ND for short) was first coined by the social scientist Judy Singer in the 1990s. It refers to a difference in brain processing that can affect social interaction, learning, attention, sensory processing, and other aspects of interacting with the world and other people.  

It has become a collective term for conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. The word was an attempt to reframe the narrative away from the negative connotations that the conditions were pathological disorders needing to be remedied. Consider it as just another aspect of diversity. 

I received a diagnosis of autism a couple of years ago. It was a shock at the time. But that was due to my own perceptions of what autism meant, no doubt influenced by the movie Rain Man.

Visual thinking 

The American scientist Temple Grandin has written extensively about how her autism is an asset in her specialist field of designing facilities for livestock. One of her theories is that autistic people are more likely to be visual thinkers. She has even written a book entitled Visual Thinking, which describes the way in which she thinks, quite literally, in pictures.  

This concept of visual thinking has been commented on by a number of specialists as being a common experience across the ND community. Sir Richard Branson, who is dyslexic, has spoken about how he is able to “see” innovations and business opportunities. He has also written about the way dyslexia shaped his approach to developing products and services at Virgin by focusing on short, concise slogans that resonate immediately. Basically, dyslexia helps him cut out the waffle.

Written policies in the workplace 

Some estimates suggest 15% of adults are ND. That translates to one in seven employees. Potentially, a sizeable chunk of your client’s workforce could be alienated by the presence of a text-heavy staff handbook. And if those 15% are more likely to be visual thinkers, preferring diagrams and pictures, how effective is the traditional staff handbook for ensuring information is absorbed?  

As an employment lawyer, I realised that most workplace policies are presented as pages on pages of text. Usually they are typed as 10-point Arial or Times New Roman. Each policy laid out in paragraphs. Blocks of text, broken up only by headings and titles. 

But is there any legal or technical reason why a staff handbook must be formatted as pages of continuous text? I cannot think of any legal requirement for the contents of a staff handbook to be presented that way. So why do employment lawyers continue churning them out when requested?  

Is it convenience (I mean the lawyer’s convenience, not the client’s)? After all, what could be easier than accessing a precedent, replacing the square brackets with the name of the employer, and sending it to the client? And perhaps the client feels reassured. After all, if their lawyer has provided all those documents, it must be to satisfy a compliance obligation of some sort. 

Somewhat ironically, there is one particular section of the staff handbook that is always laid-out clearly in bullet point format, with lots of space for the text to breathe: the non-exhaustive list providing examples of gross misconduct that could constitute dismissal. Lawyers always get that bit right. 

Alternatives to text 

In 2018 I recall seeing a sample subject access request procedure in the form of an infographic. Two pages of boxes, icons, and signpost text explaining how to respond to a data request. It was fantastic. It communicated the necessary information in a clear and concise way. Surely that is the purpose of a workplace policy: to convey essential information that the worker needs to know. 

There might be circumstances where a text-heavy policy is required, which is fine. But if not, do lawyers have a responsibility to consider alternatives, such as using flowcharts, graphics or process maps? They are likely to be more inclusive towards the 15% of your client’s staff who are ND. Do we, as employment lawyers, ever mention this to a client? 

I might be wrong, but I suspect there is a fear that turning workplace procedures into infographics would appear unprofessional. Style over substance. A workplace policy is a legal matter which should not involve a graphic designer.  

It could also make the policy look childish. There is a counter to that: Steve Jobs (himself dyslexic) instructed his designers at Apple to make the iPad so easy to use that a small child could pick it up and start using it immediately. 

Consider the last time you bought a gadget or piece of tech like a smart-TV. Usually, it comes with some form of “quick start guide”. Is it ten pages of unbroken formatted text? More likely it is a series of numbered graphics and text boxes explaining how to set-up and use the device.  

There is a reason why they have been designed in that format. They are aiming to communicate essential information to a diverse range of people. Does that remind you of anything?  

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