26 May 2022

Members share experiences of neurodivergence in conference debates

Members identifying as neurodivergent gave powerful testimonies to their colleagues at PCS national conference, as delegates debated two complex motions on neurodiversity.

One of the points of debate was related to whether neurodiversity itself should be described as a disability, with many speakers saying that it should not. Rather, some neurodivergent conditions could be described as having disabling aspects, they said.

Another point of debate was whether there should be a seat reserved on the union’s NEC for a neurodivergent member.

Speaking in support of motion A22 on Wednesday (25), John from DWP Derbyshire told delegates he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 17 and subsequently faced a lot of difficulties in trying to get a diagnosis for autism. He had to resort to challenging doctors using the NHS Constitution to force them to go ahead with the process.

Catherine, from the Forestry Commission, asked for A22 to be remitted. She said she was autistic and also a parent to two autistic teenagers. She said she believed being neurodivergent was not a disability, but neurodivergent conditions would usually be classified as a disability under the Equality Act.

“I am disabled by society’s lack of willingness to accommodate me,” she said.

Andy from DSG NW branch also asked conference to remit the motion because it called for the NEC to review the union’s neurodiversity policy by producing a paper that would supersede a previous motion carried at conference in 2019. He said this wording was “dangerous” because it would set a precedent for motions to be over-ridden without a further debate and vote.

H, from HMRC Merseyside branch, was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 42. They opposed the motion in favour of a later motion (A29) which proposed rule changes on adding representation for neurodivergent members to the union’s equality work; and securing a reserved seat on the NEC for a neurodivergent member.

Motion A29 also said that “although many aspects of living with a neurodivergent condition are disabling in our society, neurodiversity is not itself a disability”.

H said that was something for the neurodivergent community and individuals to decide for themselves: “There are disabling aspects…. I am autistic; it’s not a superpower and it’s not a disability either. I have my own strengths and my own weaknesses, the same as anyone else,” they added.

Grace from DWP Durham branch said females are often not picked up as being neurodivergent, although she was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia as a child.

“I am also of the opinion that I have ADHD, so I have a very long diagnostic pathway in front of me,” she said. “I think this union campaigning around that area will be fantastic, especially because – at least in the DWP – they will not provide diagnostic tests for members of staff.”

In the debate on motion A29, Clara-Louise from East Midlands R&C branch said she had dyslexia and OCD, and was currently waiting for a diagnosis of Asperger’s. She opposed the motion because it stated that “neurodiversity is not itself a disability” and was concerned about how this would impact members arguing for reasonable adjustments at work.

Phil from the Office of National Statistics said he agreed it was not helpful to classify neurodivergent people as not disabled “en masse”.

“I'm autistic and I could go on at some length about how that affects my day-to-day life. But I would invite you to imagine what it's like experience being taken out for an entire day by a loud noise, or the wrong kind of lighting or even just something that someone has said that you have completely misinterpreted, because you have an entirely different relationship with language than the neurotypical population.”

Gilaine from DfE Yorkshire and Humberside, in support of A29, said she was diagnosed with autism in 2018. Those in the neurodiversity activism space often discuss the ‘disability’ issue, she said.

“I consider myself disabled, but I am not disabled by anything about myself. If the barriers that exist in society that make life difficult for me as an autistic person were removed, I would just be a person with a different way of thinking, and of processing information and stimuli.”

While many of the points and sentiments within each motion were broadly supported, neither motion was passed. Delegates voted to remit motion A22. Motion A29 – a rule-changing motion that required a two-thirds majority to pass – was lost.