Welcoming Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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Monday, December 13, 2021
By Sharon Shinn
Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
Philanthropist K. Lisa Yang funds research efforts aimed at improving employment prospects for people with invisible disabilities.

“When we talk about diversity, we shouldn’t just consider race and gender,” says K. Lisa Yang, a former Wall Street banker and a leading philanthropist in the field of neurodiversity research. “We should talk about people with disabilities, because disabilities affect all races and ethnicities.”

Yang and her husband, Hock E. Tan, have funded several centers and institutes devoted to research into neurodiversity. These include the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at Harvard University. As of 2019, the couple had provided nearly 70 million USD in autism-related research funding. Two of their three children are on the autism spectrum.

But Yang’s interest in neurodivergence goes far beyond autism. “I’m also interested in people who think and process differently, including people with dyslexia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “I’m interested in the invisible disabilities.”

Because visible and nonvisible disorders are often related, Yang also has founded the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at MIT, which considers the connections between the mind and body. Researchers there hope to learn, for instance, why amputees have phantom pain and how that phenomenon could strengthen a connection between the remaining muscles and artificial limbs.

Yang recently spoke with AACSB Insights about the efforts she has made to promote neurodiversity in the workplace—and how universities can join in those efforts.

You have founded three centers aimed at autism research and brain research. How do you hope these centers will make neurodiverse individuals more welcome in the workforce?

To be specific, the center at Cornell focuses on employment for people with disabilities, while the sister centers at MIT and Harvard focus on basic and translational science in autism research. Research brings forth data that informs and creates awareness, understanding, and acceptance. I hope that collectively, these centers can educate companies and the rest of society about how to make the concept of neurodivergence seamless in the workplace. I want these centers to spark constructive change in the same old ways of doing things.

What is the benefit to creating multiple centers at multiple schools instead of investing in just one?

My intent is to create centers that focus on different aspects of invisible and physical disability, as well as basic and translational research in mental health disorders. They are meant to be coherent and synergistic.

I encourage all of the entities I am involved in to collaborate with each other, which has led to some great partnerships and exciting new ventures. One initiative designed to encourage employment for people with disabilities is at the Workability Innovation Lab within the Yang Tan Institute at Cornell. The lab aims to re-engineer the workplace by focusing on inclusion of diverse abilities through policy, practice, research, and evaluation.

Another example is the Integrative Computational Neuroscience Center, which I founded at MIT. It uses mathematical models and computational tools to sift through all the data we are gathering about mental health. We can’t just compile data as if it is an end to itself. We can’t just create opportunities for scientists to present at conferences. We have to use the data to bring solutions and create impact.

You have partnered with nonprofits as well as universities. Why was it important for you to engage with both?

Universities provide cutting-edge research, and they reach a generation of passionate young people who are at a very impressionable age. But academia sometimes just plods along, and it can be difficult to create research that moves the needle.

That’s why, in most cases, academic theory needs to be informed by the way practices are implemented in the workplace. Then it’s validated by university researchers, who also explore how to scale. The two groups have to work together.

It’s not enough for neurodiverse people to get jobs—they need to succeed at their jobs.

As a case in point, for seven years I have supported a nonprofit based in Philadelphia called Neurodiversity in the Workplace. The organization partners with companies such as SAP, Dell Technologies, and Bank of America to support neurodivergent employees who work at high-level jobs.

It’s not enough for neurodiverse people to get jobs—they need to succeed at their jobs. Too often consultants will come in and promise companies that they can create programs for hiring diverse employees. These consultants deliver PowerPoints written in corporate speak, but they don’t provide boots on the ground. They aren’t present when the neurodiverse person has a meltdown. An organization like NITW is actually embedded in the companies where neurodiverse people get hired. It works with people on a granular level.

One of your goals is for organizations to realize the value that neurodiverse people and people with a range of disabilities offer in the workplace. How do you articulate this value?

Companies aren’t going to hire anyone out of the goodness of their hearts. They want an employee who will bring value to the bottom line. Hiring neurodiverse people is not charity. It’s an economic proposition.

Companies should hire people with disabilities because those people have a reason to be there. Maybe it’s because of the way they think or look at the world. They can focus on detail. They can spot anomalies and see patterns. They also react differently to sensory stimulation such as sights and smells. They can let employers know that a hermetically sealed workplace has too many pollutants. They can tell that the fluorescent light is problematic because it’s flickering.

How much progress have you seen so far, when it comes to companies hiring individuals with disabilities?

There’s been great progress in recent years. Companies such as Walgreens, Home Depot, and many supermarkets have a long history of hiring people with disabilities, but generally those are for part-time low-paying jobs. That has worked out well for some people with disabilities, but there are others who have higher levels of skill and education. These people often are so desperate to have jobs, they will take one they’re overqualified for, but they don’t get any satisfaction from it.

We’re making great strides, because today companies such as Dell Technology and Bank of America are hiring neurodivergent people for jobs in cybersecurity, programming, and software writing. I hope their success will showcase to the rest of the business community that neurodiversity can be a positive for the bottom line.

But these hires are only successful if the company is ready to change its culture and its environment. Eight or nine years ago, SAP started a seven-year pilot program of hiring people with disabilities. My daughter took a job there, and she still has a meaningful role to play, but the program has not been as successful as it could have been. That’s because SAP wasn’t able to change the internal culture. A company that wants to hire neurodivergent individuals has to have not only the right job openings, but also the culture and the environment to take that plunge.

What do you think most recruiters and HR professionals don’t understand about people with autism, depression, or other nonvisible disabilities?

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma for professionals who struggle with nonvisible disabilities. This stigma arises because many people aren’t aware of the prevalence and immense range of disabilities. Officially, about one in four people in the U.S. have some type of disability. Personally, I think it’s easily 50 percent, when you count depression, PTSD, or the emotional scars from sexual or physical abuse.

Not only do companies need to train their talent management professionals, they also need to invest in changing the ecosystem so everyone understands that mental wellness at work is not a luxury. We have to demystify and destigmatize disability in general. We have to address issues such as bullying and microaggressions if we want to create workplaces where everyone feels safe. Hopefully, such changes will apply to everyone in the workplace, because if companies prioritize health and wellness, that becomes the new normal.

How would you advise companies to approach the process of hiring people with disabilities?

The first step is for employers to alter the interview process to allow a neurodiverse person to get his or her foot through the door. Then companies should employ simple strategies such as providing neurodiverse individuals with questions before the job interview. This step reduces the anxiety of job candidates and helps keep the focus of the interview on the job skills rather than on how candidates “perform” socially.

Companies should also abandon the notion that there is a corporate archetype for every role. Instead, companies should determine what value employees can add to a team rather than considering whether they fit an existing culture or stereotype.

Companies should abandon the notion that there is a corporate archetype for every role. Instead, they should determine what value employees can add to a team rather than considering whether they fit an existing culture or stereotype.

Once neurodiverse individuals are hired, companies should offer ongoing support, such as career consulting. This helps employees break down communication barriers and also teaches them simple productivity and organization techniques, which helps ensure they have the tools they need to succeed.

For instance, the career consultants might help neurodiverse employees learn how to make presentations. How should they interpret data? How should they present themselves in front of a group? At the same time, managers need to understand how neurodiverse people work. They’re very literal. They respond to visual and tactile instructions. There are many ways companies can ensure that neurodiverse people will succeed after they’re hired.

What should business schools be teaching today’s students about integrating people with disabilities into the workforce?

It is time that deans at business schools ensure that the courses offered include the perspective of people who are disabled—or just different in some way. Additionally, it is imperative that leaders in education act to erase pain points arising from conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, including disability inclusion.

When you visit college campuses, what are the most common pain points you see still remaining for neurodiverse individuals? How would you suggest schools create more welcoming learning environments?

Stigma is the biggest problem for disabled students. Most discrimination comes from the faculty and the administration because they’re all going by the same diversity playbook. Peers often are more accepting, but they might exhibit microaggressions—for instance, they might not date these students or accept them into fraternities.

The first step toward a more welcoming environment is to remove stigma through education and awareness. For instance, schools could gather students, faculty, and staff who are disabled and ask for advice on how to remove pain points.

We often talk about work/life balance to describe how people divide their time between the office and their personal lives. You seem to have found a different kind of balance, between being a businesswoman and a philanthropist. How were you able to achieve this?

The only way to achieve balance in life is to have a set of guiding principles, and these are mine: I show tolerance and mutual respect for people with cultural, ethic, religious, and gender differences. I work for inclusivity and social justice. I view philanthropy as impact investing. And I respect human dignity.

I understand that there are many roads to economic achievement and that all countries will achieve technological and economic gains at their respective paces. I have seen how much Singapore has accomplished since I was growing up there, so I can see the possibilities in every country.

To truly make our time on Earth meaningful, I believe we must undertake journeys of individual discovery, honed from our own life experiences. We also must participate in the collective journey of humanity, so that we can overcome our own personal tragedies and achieve victories for others.

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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