News & Stories

James Calnan, Communications Manager at Eastlight Community Homes, blogs about the Diverse Voices session on neurodiversity.

March’s Diverse Session, on Neurodiversity, brought together lived experiences of ADHD and one housing association’s journey to celebrate their staff’s differences.

Neurodiversity, or more accurately my lack of knowledge and understanding around the many ways different people see the world around us, has been on my mind for some time now.

So when the email from PlaceShapers came through for this Diverse Voices event, I signed up straight away.

Session chair Paula Whylie, HR/OD Business Partner at Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association (LYHA), began by telling us that while having conversations and raising awareness is great, having an impact and making a difference is key.

One organisation making a difference is Project SEARCH, which supports young people with learning disabilities and autism to enter employment. 

Carmel McKeogh, Project SEARCH’s Director and Programme Specialist, explained why they do what they do through working with organisations, including four Housing Associations:

  1. First and foremost, there’s an injustice. 70% of people with learning disabilities want to work. Fewer than 6% can find employment, because there’s little out there to help them from education to work.
  2. The programme they offer sees 60% of young people finding permanent employment that they love – they stay 3.5 times longer than average and attendance is high.
  3. The culture of an organisation itself is often transformed for the better through finding meaningful employment for young people with learning disabilities and autism.

Those young people include Harry Georgiou, who explained how becoming a supported intern with Project SEARCH had been “life-changing” for him, his family and others who had been through the programme.

Harry talked about how finding work helps him to be fulfilled and happy, changing his outlook and his perception of what he can get out of life.

While coming off benefits saves the system money, for Harry the advantage of being able to see friends and treat himself occasionally without worrying where the next payment was coming from was far more beneficial.

Harry finished by stressing that supporting young people like him was just the right thing to do.

So what can housing associations do (beyond considering whether Project SEARCH is for them)?

Paula and colleague Sally Hilton started by stressing that LYHA aren’t experts in this field. They are curious explorers with a drive to increase their knowledge and expertise so that colleagues can tip up to work as themselves, not their job role.

When they put on a session on neurodiversity for the business, it quickly became clear to Sally that more work was required to support colleagues.

So a group of staff with personal or family experience of neurodiversity formed a Strength In Difference (SID) Group.

Through listening to colleagues’ stories, they discovered that occupational therapy wasn’t quite working for them and that more specialist support would help them bring their best selves to work.

That’s now in place, as are a series of other changes, including to recruitment where interview questions can be shared beforehand so the interview process isn’t quite as terrifying (as I write this, we are doing something similar with our All In community programme and are happy to share our findings to anyone interested).

Everyone in the session spoke of the importance of speaking out and educating people about neurodiversity. Someone who walks that talk was the session’s final speaker, LYHA housing apprentice Tasha Rhodes-Farley.

Tasha talked about how being diagnosed with ADHD aged 15 was a blessing and a challenge: a blessing because it helped her understand how her brain worked, and a challenge because she worried about sharing her diagnosis with potential employers.

Tasha explained some of the challenges and benefits of working with ADHD. She’s superb at tasks like research – if she focuses on something then she gets it done. What helps her is knowing what’s coming – today was about this session, the next day is about learning. Going into Leeds city centre is fine as long as she knows about it in advance – having a friend surprise her with a trip and she’ll struggle.

LYHA is an environment where Tasha can thrive, and while she’s extremely grateful, she feels that support should be the rule, not the exception.

The answer, for all the group, is for individuals and organisations to understand and then take action. Tasha finished by referencing a speech from Legally Blonde about the importance of speaking up. It may sound like I’m protesting too much, but I haven’t seen the film, so afterwards I looked up the speech in question.

I think it’s this one. So - watch and speak up!

James Calnan, Communications Manager, Eastlight Community Homes

Issued 29/03/22