This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. When I think about how access and equity for the disability community has changed over the last three decades, there are many reasons to celebrate—but there are also ample opportunities to create more change.
One area still evolving is how to drive more representation. Consider this for a moment: When you’re shopping and you see someone who looks like you in an advertisement, does it make it easier to see yourself wearing, using and purchasing the advertised product? For me, I feel understood and connected to the product. It allows me to be a walking representation of the advertisement.
In the disability community, we’re seeing more advertisements of people with various mobility needs, such as wheelchair and cane users, individuals whose language is American Sign Language, and individuals with prosthetics. This is progress we should celebrate! Kudos to the companies who are designing their advertisements and products to reflect a broader world. For families who are seeing their circumstances reflected at local stores and accessible markets, this serves as affirmation from companies that their family is beautiful and matters.
However, we don’t often enough see the differences that are hidden or that may only come with self-disclosure or a diagnosis.
Many of my autistic friends (this community prefers diagnosis first, not people-first language) have shared that representation of the autism spectrum is usually portrayed as one of two extremes: As either a mathematical genius or someone who is painfully unskilled in social situations. This is incredibly shortsighted, and it’s simply not the reality for many people. Representation is one of the tools we can use to help combat these stereotypes.
The Center for Disease Control finds that one in every 45 adults you will meet in the U.S. falls on the autism spectrum1. By pure statistics alone, you are likely working with someone that doesn’t fit the stereotypes so often portrayed. If you’re thinking about your 45 closest colleagues, you’re probably saying their names and not saying “the math genius who sits down the hall.” That’s an important recognition, and bravo for challenging stereotypes. The autistic community is incredibly unique, and there is no profile or set role that determines their success. But that’s not always what we see in the media when discussing the autistic community.
As noted in a report from Drexel University, up to 85% of the autistic population is unemployed or underemployed2. What can we do in our own companies to increase representation?
We, together with our Autism@Work Eastern Regional Group partners, are looking at ways to remove barriers to employment and implement supportive processes that allow people to showcase their skills. This August, we launched our first Neurodiversity@Work cohort with Neurodiversity in the Workplace to continue our neurodiverse employee programs.
We understand that representation doesn’t happen by accident—rather, it takes purposeful action to acknowledge that there is a gap in the reflection of the world around you.
In celebration of 30 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am so honored to co-lead Neurodiversity@Work with Alicia Peracchia at SEI. The Neurodiversity community is continuing to challenge stereotypes, increase representation, and push companies to broaden their employee populations.
I cannot wait to see how much progress will be made over the next 30 years, and I’m incredibly optimistic about the future, particularly for the autistic community in the workplace. To my colleagues and friends in the neurodiversity space, thank you for letting me be a part of this journey, and I’m looking forward to what we achieve together.