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Equity Who? Why the Narrative of ‘Neurodivergence is an Explanation, not an Excuse’ leads us away from a Level Playing Field

A while ago, a post was floating around LinkedIn containing a meme with the words “Let’s normalise ‘I’m willing to work on that’ instead of ‘that’s how I am’”, with a caption containing the common phrase “ADHD is an explanation, not an excuse”.

Not an excuse for what, might I ask?

Not an excuse for failing to meet neuro-normative standards of productivity?

Not an excuse for having to remove yourself from sensory environments that overwhelm you?

What exactly is it not ok to say ‘I have ADHD, therefore I…” about?

What is the difference between an explanation and and excuse, to you? Is an excuse just something that you (subjectively) don’t perceive as a “good enough” explanation?

These were among the many questions floating around my brain upon seeing this, and I wanted to make space to explore those before sharing my thoughts on this subject.

The account itself is not relevant: it’s a relatively common message, and I want to dissect it.

Before getting into my critiques of this message, I want to reiterate that I fully understand the desire to understand your brain and to work with it rather than against it. I’ve spent years doing that myself.

I encourage people to develop systems around them that help them. As a coach myself, I see that in 99% of cases my clients actually have very high levels of self awareness and coaching does help people to actually implement changes that will help them - changes to their environment and support systems, not to themself.

And yet I also recognise that ADHD, like other minority neurotypes, is a disability. Surprisingly, it might disable people. Recognising your limits and the ways in which your mind simply will not change - that is also a part of accepting your neurotype and overcoming your internalised ableism.

I am not promoting ‘fixed mindsets’ (though I do find this concept overly simplistic in the case of neurodivergence), progress is of course possible. But that progress is going to be unique to each individual’s brain functioning and circumstances in life. So how can it not be an ‘excuse'?

Initial Reactions Dissected

This post drew me back to performance reviews in the workplace, where my neurodivergent traits (particularly Autistic traits) were consistently listed as things to improve upon. Yet, the only way to have my manager perceive improvement in these things was for me to mask. And my capacity to mask had greatly diminished after diagnosis. This is an experience common to hundreds of Neurodivergent people in comments on my posts, and in my coaching practice.

So I wondered, perhaps this person had never been through a performance review experience like this? Perhaps they’ve never had this ‘it’s not an excuse’ narrative used against them by a third party?

But even if they only intended this message to be used as an internal motivator for an individual, not held against them by others, it’s greatly reflective of internalised ableism.

It promotes striving for standards of neuronormaitve perfection that honestly, no one can obtain, even those who are neurotypical. It’s got “I should be able to do everything that everyone else can do, even if it harms me” written all over it.

The other element of my initial reaction was that this post was like the ADHD version of ABA therapy for Autistic people. For those that aren’t aware, ABA is behavioural therapy designed to effectively reduce autistic behaviours in a child and replace them with behaviours that are more socially acceptable. It is widely considered by Autistic adults to be harmful, with many experiencing it as extremely traumatic to the point where it is considered akin to gay conversion therapy.

Perhaps this reaction is specific to those of us who are Autistic, or ADHD + Autistic, having more awareness about the harms of behavioural interventions, but that makes it all the more important to listen to: the stigma and experiences of each neurotpye are unique, and we have a lot to learn from one another.

Finally in terms of reactions I want to mention one that came later. As an Autistic person I never pick up on hidden agendas in the moment, but it came to me much later here that there could be one. Is this rhetoric a play to get coaching clients? Let’s get vulnerable ADHDers to believe that they need to work on all of their ADHD traits and stop making excuses for themselves, then they’ll see our services as essential! A pretty gross idea, but a possibility.

The Equity Issue

On top of all the gut-instinct-issues I’ve described initially feeling above, the more I reflected on this messaging, the more I understood how much it threatened the push for equity for neurodivergent people at work that so many of us are striving for.

Equity is “the intentional rebalancing of power dynamics to result in the fair treatment of all employees regarding the accessibility of information, opportunities, and resources. Pursuing equity means detecting and eliminating barriers in an organization’s policies, practices, and procedures that prevent individuals (especially those from underrepresented groups) from reaching their potential” - Inclusalytics.

There is a difference between an individual’s potential according to neuro-normative expectations (i.e. the expectations deciding whether it is an ‘explanation’ or an ‘excuse’), and the individual’s actual full potential if they were in an equitable environment that recognised the uniqueness of their brain, traits and strengths.

An equitable environment where “I have ADHD, so I…” is met with “cool, let’s set you up for success in light of that information”, rather than “that’s no excuse, everyone has to meet this arbitrary standard”.

In that equitable environment, free from ableism (internalized or otherwise), your excuses are explanations and are valid. We’ll meet you where you’re at, and help you thrive.

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