In the seven-odd years of my work promoting workplace neurodiversity, I have come across people using the words allyship, advocacy, and activism interchangeably, like they mean the same thing. Some people use them as labels on their bio, and many are not even aware of how these terms mean different things. For us to be effective allies, advocates, or activists, we need to first understand our current role and then find the appropriate term or terms that best describe/s that role. Yes, it’s that simple!
Why is this important? I find someone online who calls themselves an activist, then I arrange a meeting in the hope of finding the support I need. But when I talk to them I quickly realize what they’re doing is allyship and may not have the solution to the problem regarding which I got in touch with them in the first place. This happened quite a few times and continues to happen frequently even today. I find it difficult to understand what kind of involvement people have with neurodiversity, their role, or the expertise they possess based on the labels they attach to their names. At times finding the right person to consult can get laborious and frustrating and may not yield the outcome I was hoping for. As an autistic, I find this particularly troublesome. Wouldn’t it be great if people simply used the labels that best described their work?
I didn’t mean to rant but maybe I’m beginning to sound like I am. I decided to write this piece with the limited agenda of educating people who need to be with the hope that they will edit their bios to better describe them. So, I’ll get straight to it.
First off, allyship, advocacy, and activism mean different things in how they describe our role in the neurodiversity movement. In the context of the workplace, they would mean the different activities that we undertake, all in pursuit of the same goals – equality, equity, respect, dignity, and full societal inclusion for the neurodivergent population.
Many people I have met have the best of intentions but have little guidance as to where to begin their journey of heightened awareness. Allyship, advocacy, and activism are words we hear often in this type of critical work, but what do they mean in the context of the larger strategy of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion? Is it better to follow one path over the others? It is advisable to explore the meaning behind these terms, how each can help us be a better partner to the neurodivergent population, and the lifelong learning it takes to offer active, and meaningful support to this largely marginalized community.
Neurodiversity Allyship means you’re doing the hard work to actively support neurodivergent people — often those with whom you have relationships or who are in your sphere of influence. An ally is associated with another or others for a common cause or purpose; a person or group who aids and supports an ongoing effort.
The term has come to represent someone who is not a member of the neurodivergent community, but who expresses or gives support. To put a finer point on it: Allyship denotes passive support, to associate, join, or unite; with someone or a group or something in which you have a vested interest.
Neurodiversity Advocacy is taking action in service of the neurodiversity movement, and the people it affects, to influence decision-makers and decision-making. Generally speaking, an advocate is someone who supports, promotes, and pleads for or on behalf of the neurodivergent community. Therefore, neurodiversity advocates use their privilege and platform to bring attention to the injustices affecting the neurodivergent community and undertake activities that affect change. Advocacy is to speak or write in favor of, to support by argument, or to recommend publicly. It refers to the public sponsorship of a larger cultural, economic, political, or societal movement.
Allyship and Advocacy in the Workplace
Most times people confuse the term advocacy with allyship. They use the label Neurodiversity Advocate when what they mean is Neurodiversity Ally. The differences between these terms might seem little, but they are powerful. The lines between allyship and advocacy are further blurred in the workplace. For example, when a woman is talked over in a meeting, perhaps a moment of allyship — creating space for her to be heard, is best. Or what is needed is advocacy for transformed meeting dynamics that enable conducive behaviour more systemically. Or perhaps both are required.
As an inclusive leader, our number one priority is to create an inclusive culture in which everyone feels accepted, understood, and valued, and to build an equitable environment where they can thrive. The difference ultimately lies in the intent. So, when we use these terms concerning neurodiversity, it is advisable to consider the role we play and the activities we undertake in the workplace.
A Neurodiversity Activist is someone who is active in campaigning for change to benefit the neurodiversity movement, normally on political or social platforms. Activism is what activists do, that is, the methods they use to bring about that change.
Perhaps the best, most all-encompassing label we should all be aiming for is Neurodiversity Activist. An activist is an especially active or vigorous advocate of a cause. Activism is the place where real systemic change happens. This type of unwavering commitment to what one believes in not only needs dedication, but careful, and constructive practice. One might think that activism comes naturally to the passionate and the invested, but neurodiversity activism in the workplace requires specialized training to be more effective as an activist.
As people involved in the neurodiversity movement, in whatever capacity, I recommend that we align with shared understandings of the language we use, the terminology, the definitions, and the meanings. This will help us to collaborate better and be more effective in the pursuit of our shared goals. While saying so, I also recognize the need for understanding varying viewpoints on this subject. All of us are sailing in the same boat and we may have different life experiences. So, it is better ultimately to accommodate each other’s opinions, however difficult they may be, as I hope you are accommodating mine as you read this piece.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joel Godi is the Founder & CEO of Neurogifted. He is openly AuDHD and is a proclaimed neurodiversity advocate and activist. He has worked with companies and professionals across the world in creating value and solutions for neurodiversity initiatives.
He is also a specialist Neurodiversity Consultant and Speaker, Social Psychologist, Entrepreneur, Trainer & Facilitator, and has professional interests primarily in L&D, Education, and Neurodiversity.
He can be reached via email at email@example.com
or through his social media handles below.