Celebrating Neuro-Diversity

,  7 August 2018

The creative industries have been talking about the importance of diversity for quite some time – but what about neuro-diversity? Partnership Manager Melanie Shee talks about her personal experience of dyslexia and asks the creative sector to take neuro-diversity more seriously.

Creative Successful Dyslexic - collaborative piece at Gateshead College’s end of year Art and Design Show
Creative Successful Dyslexic - collaborative piece at Gateshead College’s end of year Art and Design Show

As anyone who works in the arts will tell you, diversity is a frequent topic of discussion. But the more specific focus on neuro-diversity is less so.

It can feel as though there is a new publication or article every week highlighting the sector’s lack of diversity. In 2016 diversity and fair access was the focus for Creative & Cultural Skills’ national conference. In our accompanying publication for this - Building a Creative Nation: Diversity and Fair Access - Jo Verrenet of Unlimited wrote:

"If you listen to the rhetoric, everyone wants diversity, everyone wants to be fair. Yet look at any of the statistics gathered by Arts Council England, Creative Industries Federation, Creative & Cultural Skills, or any manner of other sector bodies and you’ll see that, despite a number of interventions, the cultural sector in the UK is a long way from being diverse. Despite good intentions, the bigger picture is proving hard to shift".

Learning differently

Addressing neuro-diversity across our workforce is something I’m very passionate about, largely shaped by my experiences as a dyslexic. Although I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until I was in my late 30s, I knew I learnt differently from many others I went to school with, and found myself struggling in the classroom.  

Dyslexia is widely known about, but often misunderstood. It is not just about being unable to spell, but rather it describes a range of different but inter-related factors that impact an individual throughout their life. 

Although I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until I was in my late 30s, I knew I learnt differently from many others

Those who are dyslexic will identify with different experiences, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of criteria to define us. For me, the greatest impact is on my short term working memory. I can struggle to recall dates and names, I mispronounce words, my visual processing and auditory skills filter what I hear and what is then reproduced in my memory.

 My diagnosis also explained why engaging in art, watching films and dancing were the only subjects at school I could truly connect with, and enjoyed. But it also explains why I failed the majority of my exams despite my hard work – teaching just wasn’t geared towards the way I learnt.

Dyslexia affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. It is not something I’ll `grow out of’ but I have developed coping strategies over the years, some that have been more successful than others.

New ways of thinking

In the past, dyslexia was often seen as a negative thing, a view fuelled by the detrimental impact it can have on one’s written and spoken literacy skills. But it’s good to know we’ve moved on from this and can now embrace dyslexia for the positive attributes it feeds:

  • lateral thinking and problem solving
  • empathy
  • an ability to see the big picture
  • being creative and hands on
  • resilience and tenacity.

It’s widely reported that many of our scientific and creative greats might today be classified as dyslexic: Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Walt Disney and John Lennon. 

Given this, I still don’t understand why our sector doesn’t better consider the importance of neuro-diversity in the workplace, and flexible recruitment approaches to better reach out to this demographic. I’ve seen many job adverts written in black ink on white pages! Note to the sector: some dyslexics find this combo painful to read…

We may not be able to prove that Einstein was a dyslexic, but the fact that many think he may have been is good enough for me. Perhaps we should heed his advice when it comes to recognising difference. After all, “everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Gateshead College supporting diversity

This is why I was delighted to recently attend Gateshead College’s end of year Art and Design Show, which was a wonderful celebration of difference and diversity. In 2016 the College launched its Celebrating Difference project, to promote equality and diversity among its students, together with a positive attitude to challenges in life and work. 

Students have been encouraged to explore the theme of ‘difference’ and why diversity and individuality are to be celebrated. 

With support from organisations and artists such as Dyslexia North East, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Eddy Hardy, students have been encouraged to explore the theme of ‘difference’ and why diversity and individuality are to be celebrated. 

Kathy Richards, lead tutor for this project, states: ‘It is estimated that one in four people working in the creative industries are Dyslexic, so using this as an example of difference we looked at themes including, mental health awareness; abilities and disabilities; race, religion and culture; sexuality and gender; body image and identity’.

The art works created as a result of the project were later exhibited as part of the College’s annual equality and diversity week, and led to Gateshead College winning Dyslexia North East’s Partnership of The Year Award!

More thoughts about supporting greater diversity across our workforce:

Arts Council - Change Culture Toolkit

Breaking the Cycle: Kate Danielson writes for Arts Professional

The future workforce, diversity and social mobility

How do we solve the lack of diversity in technical and production in the arts?


Stay updated

Sign up for our fortnightly campaign newsletter

I would also like to hear about events specific to Northern Ireland

View our privacy policy.

Latest training opportunities

channel="supporter-blog" url_title="celebrating-neuro-diversity"