Disability is often used to describe an ongoing mental or physical challenge. Having a disability does not mean a person is disabled. Invisible disabilities, in simple terms, is used to describe a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, or immediately apparent or obvious to others. In this sense, hidden or invisible disability is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of conditions and/or challenges that are unseen. While it is difficult to discuss the full breadth of this spectrum, this article will focus on neurodiversity.
“Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” (Harvard Medical School, 2021).
Neurodiversity emerged first as a concept in the 1990s, with a focus on fostering inclusion of all people with diverse neurological and developmental conditions (including but not limited to autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and other learning disabilities). It is through this approach that greater value for diverse thinking, learning and behaving can be recognized, and foster these unique strengths. Importantly, neurodiversity promotes equality and inclusion.
Neurodiversity and the workplace
Lack of awareness, lack of appropriate infrastructure and stigma are all obstacles to inclusion. Often, it is through small adjustments that a workplace can be more accommodating to persons in the neurodiverse minority. There are a number of UN policies that call for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities, beginning with the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2030 Agenda: leave no one behind, and the SG’s recently launched United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy. Not only is this core to our programming but there is also great value in ensuring a diverse workforce and inclusive working environment. How can we address the greatest barrier of all: misconceptions?
A snapshot of my personal experience
“Specific learning difficulty is a commonly used term and includes issues such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and specific language impairment which can all have an impact on the ability to learn” (Source: personal psychological assessment). Perhaps, to a large extent, having a hidden disability means not only others but you do not see it. I don’t feel disabled and have lived most of my life without being diagnosed. This has meant I have developed coping mechanisms, ways to compensate, and found strengths in my weaknesses.
It was only during the final semester of my bachelor’s degree that I recognized my biggest challenges to learning. These being; structuring work and coping with multiple deadlines, difficulty with spelling and feeling overwhelmed due to a specific learning difficulty that I had. To a certain extent, it was a relief to understand my personality in a psychologically scientific manner. It let me address this with extra support and mentoring – being able to focus my energy strategically. However, it did not resolve the pressures I felt when seeking success. This had its roots in past bouts of anxiety and depression, in which I felt overwhelmed with the sense that I should and could be doing better. Fast forward a few years, I am proud to be completing a master’s degree with a current average of 93%, the highest grades I have ever received in an academic context.
In my role at the UN, my opportunities and responsibilities have flourished in an exciting way. My disability has not held me back. I am proud to be able to think in a non-linear manner, or as some would call, “thinking outside the box.” Competing priorities, last minute changes, and being required to work autonomously is core to my role and a source of positive pressure. I’m glad to work alongside a team that allows me to focus and apply myself, particularly appreciating positive feedback that reassures me of my contributions. While I have not shared my hidden disability with my peers, I also wonder whether if I was more transparent, my job would be less stressful. As I write this article anonymously, perhaps I do fear prejudice, even though I come across as self-confident and persistently tackle tasks to the best of my ability.
Through my personal experience, and that of friends who also have a diagnosed disability, I am sensitive to the spectrum we all sit on, that each person has their unique characteristics and working manners, and that this neurodiversity can and should be valued. It is through this diversity in teams that shared strengths can be harnessed and weaknesses can be overcome. Perhaps with greater understanding of neurodiversity, and greater sensitivity to each other, the UN can foster the strengths of its workforce.