Students with a diagnosis of dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and Autism are frequently afforded additional time at school or college to complete exams. This is because exams, designed to measure long term memory and the ability to draw rationale conclusions and arguments, are taken in circumstances that rely heavily on handwritten literacy, sitting still, and performing to order. The extent of knowledge examined is a good predictor of future performance, but the exam conditions themselves are not. This is why they deserve extra time for people with hidden disabilities, and indeed all disabilities. In the workplace, however, the same does not follow. It is rarely considered reasonable by the courts to pay someone the same money for doing less work than their peers. There are, however, some exceptions. Extra time is reasonable in recruitment scenarios, selection for talent pipelines, during transitions, contracting or training. In other words, anywhere when the method of delivery is at odds with the everyday role, but not the everyday role itself.
Consider the example of a security firm, who wanted to run an assessment in their hiring process to measure the speed at which applicants could appraise a situation, summarize it, and write up a condensed memo to issue to public services for back up (e.g. ambulance, police). They presented a scenario, via a 2 page written document, and timed how long it took to precis the details into a shorter text. Now this required an extra time accommodation, because the 2 page document was dependent on their reading speed and accuracy, not their ability to appraise a crisis. In real life, the applicants would be processing the scene with multi-sensory, contextualized data – looking, listening, moving around the environment to count intruders, hear gunshots, see fire. Further, the call for back up would likely be by phone rather than text, or if by text then using a phone with predictive text. To overcome this issue, the firm designed a Virtual Reality headset experience that allowed applicants to move around the space, exploring and noticing to discern the essential factors. They then allowed them to speak or type the memo on their phones. At this point, they no longer had to provide extra time, because they had removed the unrealistic barriers and good performance of this role was absolutely dependent on speed.
Many neurodivergent people find it very difficult to adapt to change, with good reason. An example is when we are faced with a new layout, software or process that changes the way we deliver our jobs. Many of us rely on our long-term memories, including our spatial memories, to find things. We move actions to “automatic pilot” in order to free up cognitive space. A bit like when you remember a pin number by typing it out on an imaginary pad, our muscle memories take over every day tasks. So when a software or machinery is updated, it can take us ages to retrain our actions. And, while we are doing so, we have less cognitive space in our conscious memories which slows us down elsewhere. The moral of this story is about planning upgrades and change in batches and making sure that people have back up support during the transition. Neurodivergent employees might need extra time with support and they might need to let go of their targets for a few weeks while they adapt. This is often considered reasonable, because the small accommodation of time here is repaid with retention of experienced staff and good will.
Sadly, many employees transition into work from education expecting to have lower targets than their peers, or longer to meet them. They might expect a shorter task list or lower caseload. They might think it is acceptable to ignore requests for work if they are overloaded rather than respond with professional courtesy to explain a delay. They might not have the skills to renegotiate a deadline or to ask questions as to its purpose and instead become unresponsive. It is not reasonable to accommodate these behaviours, particularly when these are visible to other team members who may become hostile to the one who isn’t “pulling their weight.” In these situations, it is better to assume a positive intention (rather than wilful discourtesy) and patiently explain to the employee the “unwritten rules” of professional etiquette and respect for colleagues. You could offer coaching support to help a new employee set up strategies for managing their workload or role playing how to ask for help, clarification or more details. You can provide technology support in the form of speech to text / text to speech software, automatic to do lists and planning software to support their efficiency. These are all reasonable responses. They are also incredibly helpful beyond the current role, because long term, neurodivergent people will not thrive in their careers if they can’t work to agreed deadlines or deliver quality work at a pace commensurate with their peers.
Time is a grey area of nuance in disability accommodations which requires a lot of experience and skill to navigate. Not only is it dependent on the role and employee, but the organization itself is also of relevance. Large organisations, for example, have a higher expectation on adjustment than smaller organizations with fewer resources. However, pretending nothing is wrong won’t last. So many managers and leaders are self-conscious about having “hard conversations” but actually its harder if you don’t. Letting things slide only leads to worsening perceptions on both sides, a neurodivergent employee who can’t work out why they aren’t trusted and an employer and team who are getting increasingly passive aggressive because the individual isn’t doing their fair share. In the end, we are belittling and infantilizing disabled people when we lower our expectations of them. It breeds dependency. Many neurodivergent people struggle with managing time. Many of us cope in hidden ways, such as taking work home and working extra hours. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t overcome with strategic adjustments and some self-awareness around our patterns. Transparency could be incredibly cathartic for your employees and help set them up to confidently handle conversations about time for the rest of their career.