Developmentally disabled and neurodiverse communities have long been overlooked in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversations. The omission is rooted in the circumstances by which the function was established.
Developed in tandem with Affirmative Action law, diversity and inclusion is relatively new. The function, initially implemented as a corporate shield from employment litigation, prioritized inclusion based on sex, race, sexual orientation, color, religion, nationality, age, gender identity, and disability—groups federally protected from employment discrimination. While disability is a “protected class,” its designation has loopholes such that intellectual and cognitive disabilities easily slip through its cracks. As a result, corporate DEI efforts have effectively, even if unintentionally, kept cognitive diversity on its fringes—it’s a reflection of a broader societal problem.
If neurodivergent and developmentally disabled individuals face barriers, people with overlapping marginalized identities face obstacle courses to workplace entry. In fact, Black women at the intersection of race, gender, and developmental disability are nearly nonexistent in the workforce. Statistically speaking, the population is considered a ”rare occurrence”—meaning their presence is so minuscule that meaningful analysis cannot be obtained. That’s beyond marginalized, Black women who are neurodivergent or developmentally challenged aren’t even on the page.
But here’s what we do know: The employment ratio for people with disabilities is 21.3%, compared to 65.4% for people without disabilities, according to US BLS data; Women with disabilities face greater employment barriers than men with disabilities, The National Disability Institute confirms; and People of color with disabilities face even more significant employment disparities than white people with disabilities The National Council on Disability shows.
From the data and lack thereof, we can deduce that, for Black women who are neurodivergent or developmentally disabled—a trifecta disability rights advocate Dr. Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie calls the “three glaring identities”—extreme barriers exist.
For Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, ESSENCE spoke with Komabu-Pomeyie, a professor at The University of Vermont and Christie Lindor, a workplace culture and inclusion strategist and founder of the boutique firm Tessi Consulting. I asked them to clarify the difference between neurodivergence and developmental disability, and what unique skills they bring to the workplace. They also outlined key implementation steps for C-suite leaders building cognitive diversity into their strategic hiring plans.
Neurodiversity and Developmental Disability—What It Means And Why It Matters.
Neurodiversity encompasses the diverse ways people think, learn, and process information. It includes cognitive conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette’s syndrome. Developmental disability describes conditions that cause significant impairment in mental or physical functioning. While people with developmental disabilities can be considered neurodivergent, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. “It all boils down to a group of individuals that are really having a different experience than the shaped narrative of what our society says an individual should be experiencing when it comes to processing information, interpreting information, and interacting with people,” Lindor told ESSENCE.
The former E&Y executive and Deloitte senior consultant says both communities have much to offer to workplace culture and business bottom lines. “There is a growing body of evidence that shows neurodiverse employees and people with developmental disabilities bring unique and valuable perspectives and skills—including innovation, creativity, attention to detail, and a strong work ethic,” she said.
Still, the benefits gained by employing neurodiverse and developmentally challenged individuals are only as good as employers’ willingness to support their unique needs.
The Case For Workplace Cognitive Diversity.
Employment rates for people with disabilities are rising. Progress has been slow, but more and more companies are incorporating cognitive diversity into hiring processes.
“We’ve seen organizations like Ernst & Young and JPMorgan Chase pilot programs where they have specifically identified roles in their organization that align with the differences that neurodivergent talent can bring them,” Lindor said. Companies including Microsoft, Dell, Deloitte, and SAP, have followed suit. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still much ground to be gained.
Implementing Compelling Learning Experiences.
Training is a huge component to creating inclusive workplace culture. The problem is, workplace training is the worst. Beyond the lure of endless coffee, catered lunch, and all-you-can-eat bagels—when the instructor-led rubber meets the compliance training road, the monotony of “check-the-box” training can feel insufferable. The tediousness is owed to the mandates under which training is deployed. OSHA requirements, EEO laws, HIPPA regulations, and DEI training are workplace essentials but don’t necessarily make for inspiring curriculum—that is, unless Dr. Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie is the instructor.
Business leaders are regularly waitlisted for the professors’ award winning disability compliance courses, partially designed from interviews with global executives. Her accolades are impressive, but they’re not what makes the instruction great. Komabu-Pomeyie’s secret sauce lies in her deep passion for the topic she teaches. “I am a person with a disability. It’s not that I just did the research. I am living it. I know what it entails to be a person with a disability,” Komabu-Pomeyie told ESSENCE. This identity informed approach enriches the classroom experience. Students have described her methodology as “transcending the boundaries” of virtual training.
Lived experience matters. Evidence suggests professors with marginalized identities may be better suited to teach courses about those identities. Furthermore, the authors of a literature review published in the Journal of College Student Development said such instructors may be better equipped to “develop critical consciousness, create inclusive learning environments, and foster empathy and understanding among students.” That’s not to suggest aligning marginalized identity with training topics is required for meaningful facilitation, but for the instruction of niche topics like developmentally disabled and neurodiverse Black women in the workplace, Komabu-Pomeyie’s example affirms, at least anecdotally, that experience can be a major asset.
Outsourcing training to life-informed experts is a point worth debating for leaders cultivating disability-inclusive workplace cultures.
Unpacking Bias, Confronting Taboos, and Dispelling Misinformation.
Komabu-Pomeyie’s disability is physical, it’s the result of polio contracted at age eight, which left her partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound.
The Ghanaian immigrant grew up in a culture that viewed it as a character indictment. “We have many different names for disabilities and all are negative. In many cases, it is viewed as evil. I went through a lot of trauma in my home. My dad could not withstand the shame and humiliation,” she said. Fortunately, Komabu-Pomeyie’s mother was persistent in counteracting that narrative. “She would psych me with affirmative words and positive energy. My mother built me up daily by telling me, ‘you can add value to yourself if you go to school and take your education seriously. You must also hold onto the fact that you are a replicant of God, wonderfully and fearfully created,'” she recalls.
While her trauma was significant, Komabu-Pomeyie says it’s not much different from the discrimination faced by disabled people in the US. “We were seen as cursed, but here you had eugenics and sterilization. So when you do a critical analysis, it’s comparable,” she said. “The methods are different, but the message is the same—‘this group of people is useless.’”
Today, she pours herself into being the change she wants to see. Her matriculation at UVM exemplifies what’s achievable when corporations take a disability-inclusive approach to nurturing talented Black women.