Neurodiversity Rhymes with Flexibility: The Case of IBM
Persons with disabilities are still victims of certain stereotypes that hinder their full integration into the labor market. In evaluating a person with a disability, attention is often focused on what they cannot do, rather than what they know how to do, or could do. The case of IBM in regard to neurodiversity shows how it is possible to construct projects that can include all workers. We discussed the issue with Consuelo Battistelli, Diversity Engagement Partner for IBM Italy.
December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For the occasion we have decided to deal with neurodiversity. The term was used for the first time in an article published in 1998 in The Atlantic, which addressed the presence of a high rate of autistic workers in Silicon Valley. The term was used again by the sociologist Judy Singer in a chapter of her book entitled "Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a 'problem with no name' to the emergence of a new category of difference." According to Singer, this new term gave dignity to people who were generally categorized as autistic.
"Neurodiversity policy" is based on the idea that "neurodiverse" persons are a marginalized group of society, and thus can become organized politically, as has happened with other groups. The neurodiversity movement aims to get away from the medical model which sees autism as a form of mental disorder, and thus the person who suffers from it as abnormal or deficient. The neurodiversity movement upends this normalizing vision, proposing a new view that promotes autism as a normal variation of the brain, as one of the many forms of the human condition: autistic advocacy is the affirmation of a new identity based on this difference. Some others have stressed the risk of exploitation of these skills in orders to use them in performing specific duties, making the individual as productive as possible.
We discussed the issue with Consuelo Battistelli, Diversity Engagement Partner for IBM Italia.
Zenia Simonella: December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. From your point of view, what is the situation of persons with disabilities in the labor market in Italy?
Consuelo Battistelli: The unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is still much higher than that of persons without disabilities. About double. It's not an encouraging figure. Furthermore, we are talking about a significant number of people: only a few work, although many could. When they are employed, they often perform duties not in line with their characteristics, because there are still stereotypes. This is because attention is focused on what these people cannot do; never on what they know how to do, or could do. As long as we remain tied to certain stereotypes (that, ultimately, are cultural barriers) little will change. A blind person can only answer the telephone, nothing else. People are not asked what they can do based on their talent and accumulated skills; the decision is made not to listen to them, applying preset schemes. This does not benefit anyone, either the people or the company. The company fulfills its obligation, and that's it. Certainly, it's positive that Law 68/99 exists, otherwise who knows what the situation would be. But we need to go further.
Z.S.: What is neurodiversity?
C.B.: It's not a disorder; it's a condition, a way of thinking. Those who define it as a disorder or disease do so because they see it as something that deviates from the norm, the standard. In Latin divèrtere means "turn away," take a different path; the term "divertirsi" and "divertimento" – Italian for to have fun and enjoyment – also come from the same root. But we are not inclined towards enjoyment, creativity. We prefer the path we know, it reassures us, is more controllable, scares us less. But neurodiversity can be a synonym of talent. Certainly, if you want to see the neurodiverse as someone talented. If you see neurodiversity as a talent, this is positive for everyone, not only from an ethical standpoint, but an economic one as well.
Z.S.: IBM was one of the first companies to promote the theme of diversity and inclusion. It has been working on neurodiversity for some time. What projects has the company adopted?
C.B.: IBM has in fact dealt with diversity and inclusion since it was founded. This is demonstrated by the fact that it has often anticipated legislation on the subject of equality. For example, in 1914 the company had already hired the first employee with a disability, 76 years before the American law on disabilities; or in 1935, when the first professional women entered IBM, 28 years before the Equal Opportunities Act. Regarding the issue of neurodiversity, we began to actively discuss it in IBM Italy this year; and at the global level, since 2015. Initially, a business resources group (BRG) was established on neurodiversity, thanks to the efforts of two colleagues, one Australian and one American. In 2020, the BRG became a global program, the official ND@IBM Program, whose motto is "Nothing About Us, Without Us." It is managed in collaboration with the neurodivergent colleagues at IBM. A characteristic of this project is to offer safe spaces, i.e. virtual places for encounters only for people with a neurodiversity, where privacy is guaranteed. These are spaces for interaction where a spirit of community has been created.
In addition to the BRG, our company has carried out activities to enhance awareness on other forms of neurodiversity in more than 30 countries. It Italy we proposed a cultural activity first with managers and then with all other employees, through the assistance of Specialisterne, a company working on social issues that deals with people with autism and Asperger's syndrome. IBM has also placed a great deal of attention on the issue of selection of neurodiverse professionals with a high level of preparation (for example, data scientists); this has taken place in 8 countries, but not yet in Italy, unfortunately.
Z.S.: Some see so-called "autistic advocacy" as entailing the risk of ghettoization or exploitation of a group of individuals with specific skills with respect to the performance of some tasks. What do you think about this?
C.B: It is still a cliché: a blind person answers the phone. There is no focus on differences. What is the risk when we speak of disabilities? Standardization. They are all the same, they all use the same instruments. This is not true. It is easy to give the same task; that makes it one less problem for those who have to manage inclusion. Inclusion must be constructed. For me, we need to construct a project in which there is synergy; otherwise inclusion doesn't work, especially if the organization is rigid and has standardized processes. Disability and standardization don't mix. We always need to start from the person, that as I was saying, is always the last one listened to; or is not listened to at all.
 H. Blume, "Neurodiversity. On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom", The Atlantic, September 2018.
 J. Singer, "Why can’t you be normal for once in your life?’ From a 'problem with no name' to the emergence of a new category of difference," M. Corker, S. French (edited by), Disability Discourse, Buckingham/Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999.
 K. Runswick-Cole, "'Us' and 'them': the limits and possibilities of a 'politics of neurodiversity' in neoliberal times," Disability & Society, 29(7), 2014, pp. 1117-1129.
 L. Dobusch, "The inclusivity of inclusion approaches: A relational perspective on inclusion and exclusion in organizations," Gender, Work and Organisation, 28(1), 2019, p. 382.
 Runswick-Cole, op. cit. p. 1124.