How small adjustments can make massive & inclusive differences at work

We got the email one dreary winter afternoon: “Can you come educate our restaurant staff in how to be more equipped to serve our customers with differences? We want our restaurant to be for everyone.”

This is the kind of email that turns a dreary afternoon into a bright one.

A local restaurant had some money for a workshop with their servers and front of house staff to about our absolute favorite thing to talk about: neurodiversity. So, we packed up our projector and workshop bins and headed out early one Saturday morning to work with the restaurant team.

The people who worked at this restaurant were like a lot of other people: they knew that there were people coming to their business who had physical, emotional or neurological differences. They knew they had a few staff with the same manifestations…but they didn’t know what to do about it. The awareness had arrived, but the follow up path seemed confusing and with many unknowns. They were saying, “We know where we are, but not where to go next.”

I for one, love it when people reach this state – the growing edge, the place of awareness and un-knowing where true knowledge springs from.

We started with a walk through the restaurant. Then we met the staff and taught them about neurodiversity and the basic tenants we base our work on in our every day engagements with neurodiverse adults. We heard the stories the staff had to tell us and listened until we understood where they needed skills and strategies.

Since this time, we have done the same process with clinicians, parents/caregivers and day camp staff just to name a few and the question is the same: we know neurodiversity is among us…but now what?

Let’s turn back to the restaurant and observe the small changes they made appropriate to their industry. Many of these changes are nearly imperceptible. These “invisible” changes are important as they provide a normative experience for any person dining there. Here are a few examples:

  • The restaurant bought weighted cutlery (and tell patrons it is available) for people who may have tremors or different motor control. What makes it an invisible strategy is that the cutlery looks exactly like regular cutlery, you cannot tell it is weighted until you pick it up. It provides support without any difference in look to any other diner in the space.
  • The restaurant changed all of their menus to have matte lamination so people who have sight differences or sensitivities can have a glare-free menu experience. All menus look the same and no one notices the difference – except the person who can no read it without a trigger to their ocular system.
  • The restaurant put small discreet baskets in each washroom that included a few extra hygiene support items such as black gloves, sanitary wipes, etc. No one really notices unless you are providing personal care and then it could be a godsend.
  • Instead of reciting or reading the daily specials off quickly when people arrive at the table the restaurant servers provide a visual and slowly say the options. They now ask if they could repeat the daily specials or provide it in written form for anyone at the table. The staff do this for every party regardless if someone looks disabled or not.
  • The restaurant has a beautiful “mocktail” menu that rivals the regular drinks menu! In this way all patrons can enjoy delicious specialty drinks. Not only is this a wonderful way to respect people who don’t drink due to brain differences and medications, but also, deeply respects those who are in active recovery from addiction.

These very small changes suddenly open up this space to people who have different needs but those needs can be accommodated with very little attention drawn therefore providing a normative experience for anyone regardless of their physical, emotional or neurological support needs.

Here are some more ideas that you could put into practice right away in a variety of work settings:

  • Communicate in more than one way

From the restaurant example: say the daily specials out loud, but also have them written down. Some people cannot focus on verbal language only, having a visual (either words or pictures) can support processing. Is there a long list of instructions to remind staff how to fix the fancy coffee pot in the breakroom? Try adding in visuals or sending a YouTube video to the team to demonstrate “how-to” in a different format.

When in doubt or if struggling with communication: ASK. Be curious and respectfully ask the person who seems “not to be getting it”: can I explain this in a different way? Would it be helpful to see a visual or is it better for me to talk you through the steps?  Start to explore what type of communication works best for the person’s brain.

  • Presume competence

This is a principle that requires you to know the person has a neurodiversity or a disability. Sometimes when a neurodiversity is visible a few false presumptions can take place (I am not saying this happens all the time, but I have observed these dynamics happen often in my own community when I am out with neurodiverse adults). Sometimes we assume that a neurodiverse person needs more help than others. For instance, I see an adult with Down Syndrome (a visible neurodiversity) I might assume I have to talk slower so they understand, talk louder so they can hear me or do a task for them as maybe their motor control is different. These presumptions can be false, and out of line for me to assume without being curious. Almost all people I know with a neurodiversity would like to be treated like everyone else. When we presume competence, we show respect. We allow the space for people to ask or request support, accommodations, and modifications on their terms.

  • Nothing about me, without me

It is likely human nature for us to strategize, get ideas and support when managing a challenging situation at work. Please do this respectfully with co-workers. When it comes to a neurodiverse person on the team – strategize with them. A common trauma experience that happens with people who have diagnosed neurodiversities is that there will be meeting about them, that they are not included in. Often as with children, this is done for a very specific reason. But in the adult world the most success will be found when we openly include neurodiverse people in all conversations, even the hard ones. Be curious. Ask gentle questions. Respect boundaries. Let the person know you are available to problem solve when the time is right.

Neurodiversity is among us and thank goodness it is! We know that different brains show up with different ideas, innovations, and solutions. We know that different brains help us see the world in a way we might not have considered before. What do I always say? “Neurodiversities come with barriers, plus gifts”. It’s not the most grammatically sound statement, but it portrays what I need it to – as humans we learn from the new and the different. As humans we grow when we learn. As humans we soften when we accept each other in change – even when the change is invisible. You never know, that change may have given someone the softness their day needed.

Trust me, the invisible changes you intentionally make for someone else could make them feel very seen indeed.