DEI Efforts Must Account for Neurodiversity

It's not just a 'target'—brands are missing a huge opportunity for authentic connection

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If your brand is truly focused on connecting with all consumers, it needs to consider individuals with learning and thinking differences in its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Marketers have realized the power and influence diverse consumers have—but they’re missing the mark when broader DEI initiatives don’t speak to the more than 70 million people with learning and thinking differences, such as ADHD and dyslexia.  

One in five individuals in the U.S. has a learning and thinking difference, equating to 20% of domestic buying power—likely even more when you consider those who are undiagnosed, unaware these differences exist or scared to talk about them because of the stigma. Needless to say, neurodiversity is a critical issue with a massive impact, as that type of spending power can greatly affect your brand’s bottom line if you’re not paying attention. 

But neurodiversity isn’t just an “audience” or a “target” for marketers. Rather, brands should find a way to authentically connect with neurodiverse individuals.

The good news? There is a clear opening for brands to champion learning differences, be part of the conversation and include the 1 in 5—because people are, in fact, talking about this. In the last year, there were 7 million conversations on social media alone around “learning disabilities” where people were asking for support, resources and advocacy. This means brands can recognize the conversations and connect with the people driving them. But while there is this opening for brands to jump in, the connection needs to be authentic.

Authenticity wins over “brand washing”

We know it’s no longer enough to simply sell a product or service without real purpose or connection. According to a Kantar study from June 2020, 68% of consumers in the U.S. said they expect brands to be clear about their values, and 54% of consumers now expect brands to take an active role in social conversations and movements around marginalized communities. At the same time, consumers are increasingly put off by brands that are participating in “brand washing,” or the act of simply jumping onto a social issue without taking proper actions to back it up.

Given this, more brands are using their power to champion change in a more authentic, action-orientated way, especially when it comes to supporting individuals with disabilities. Unilever’s Degree recently put out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling on gyms to be more accommodating to disabled individuals, citing a survey that suggests 81% of people with disabilities don’t feel welcome at fitness centers. And for back-to-school, Target, Kohl’s and JCPenney invested in creating adaptive clothing to help parents find apparel made without buttons, seams or tags for children with physical and learning disabilities. 

While this is incredible progress, those who experience learning and thinking differences are still often overlooked in many DEI efforts. Here is where marketers can make an impact and encourage engagement and advocacy while ensuring their brands live by the values we are promoting.

Living fully in DEI values 

There are immediate actions that you, as a marketer, can take to make your brand more inclusive for neurodiverse employees and consumers.

Start internally. Before you promote inclusivity around learning and thinking differences externally, make sure your brand starts driving change from within. Simple steps include sending pre-reads before meetings, so people have more time to process; ensuring that you have closed captioning on Zoom meetings; or offering the opportunity to have cameras off to help with focus. Some employees might not disclose their learning and thinking differences, so these small steps can help them work better, especially amid the continuous work-from-home culture.

Drive accessibility within marketing and social media. Consumers have the right to equal access information, and they also have the right to understand and use that information. Look to standards in AAA/AA compliance and push beyond them. This includes using fonts that are more accessible and make text easy to read; being aware of spacious line-height, narrow text blocks and bolded, underlined links in marketing materials and content; and using multiple format play on digital ads and social media. For someone with a learning and thinking difference, shopping online or interacting on social media can be daunting, even exhausting. Whether it’s too many pages or menu options or ads that interfere while viewing content digitally, there is an opportunity to better optimize for neurodiversity.

Partner with mission-driven nonprofits and social impact organizations. Bring in nonprofits like Understood to your employee resource groups (ERGs) to help create awareness of and support those who have learning and thinking differences. From providing interactive expertise and peer support to running your campaigns from an accessibility standpoint, to training your teams internally and helping you broaden your inclusion conversations, partnering with a like-minded organization can make a seemingly daunting task much easier to accomplish. 

These are just a few of the things that you, your teams and your agencies can consider and apply to your DEI practices that show your brand is authentically committed to supporting and empowering people with learning and thinking differences. In doing so, your brand can truly be a changemaker and advocate for neurodiverse individuals.