Chelsey Randall-Wright sat down with Natalia-Nana to discuss neurodiversity, barriers, and what inclusivity looks like.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, yeah. I’m Natalia Nana. My pronouns are they/ she. I am an Inclusion and Belonging Consultant for a National Heritage charity in the UK.
And how did you end up starting to work in inclusivity?
Initially, I worked on cultural community projects when I graduated from university 20 years ago. It was just after we had race riots in Birmingham, Bradford and Oldham which were a real shock because they are multi-ethnic communities. The government realised you’ve got different communities living side by side, but they’re not actually integrated, they don’t have cohesion; or harmony.
I was working at an international charity, and they were focusing on gender equity and recognizing that
actually, while you’ve got loads and loads of women working there, funnily enough, it’s still the men who are the leaders. I started volunteering on their inclusion working group and using my background in gender studies. That evolved to include, “Well, actually, what about LGBT+ equality and what about racial equality?”
Could you define what inclusivity means from the perspective of a large national charity?
Oh, good question because we talk about diversity and inclusion and now, we talk about equity, diversity and inclusion so you have to talk about all three together – Diversity is having people with different identities – using a space, being employed, being volunteers and being visitors. But we realized it’s not enough to just invite people with different identities to come along if they don’t feel included – if they don’t feel equal, if they don’t feel safe and positive. So, inclusion is about trying to make sure that everyone who comes feels that they have a sense of belonging. Equity is really looking at how you do that in a way that is fair? Fairness doesn’t mean the same for everyone, fairness is actually often the opposite. Fairness means you do something in a way that you can help someone, say, with a disability or neurodiversity to be just as included as someone who is neurotypical. That often means treating them differently to enable them to have the same quality of experience. That for me is true inclusion.
What are the most common barriers you come up against in this work?
There’s a few that are always repeated. One is resourcing – it’s huge work trying to take people on a journey to change. It’s trying to change people’s hearts, minds, ways of thinking, ways of behaving, ways of working. Also, policies, structures- all of that takes a lot of time, effort and investment. So, that’s one challenge of getting the proper resourcing from an organization to do that when people are busy and money is tight. Then, you’ve got the human challenge – nobody likes to be told they need to change and this work is really vulnerable, challenging and uncomfortable and there are particular areas of extra sensitivity such as when talking about race, gender and sexuality. So, you’ve got to deal with both the practical and logistical challenges and also the human.
How do you promote inclusivity without appearing tokenistic or overcompensating?
That’s a really good question. I think from my side, the biggest factor is if you’re genuine then it isn’t tokenistic. If you focus more on that and one’s true intention, rather than how it appears because what will look like tokenism to one person will look like representation to another. Like, for instance, The Little Mermaid- the Disney film just came out. There’s lots of racist backlash about it and lots of people saying, “Oh well, it’s tokenistic. Disney, you’re just doing it to appear woke.” Though it could be dismissed as a tokenistic stunt- you see videos of little black girls, whose faces light up when they see a woman who looks like them being the main Disney character and you go, “Oh that’s representation. That is making them know that they can be a princess as well.” So, from my side, I try not to think about appearance too much and instead focus on what the motivation is for doing it. If your only motivation is how it looks, well then, it’s tokenism. If you’re doing it as part of a wider program for genuine equality and fairness, then it’s not.
Can you ever have too much inclusivity?
Short answer, no, but what I want to recognize is that rights can contradict each other. So, for instance where you’ve got issues of people’s religious beliefs and we
want to have freedom of religion where that can- because of their interpretation of faith, lead them to have deep beliefs that go against someone else’s identity, that can be a real problem. Because then you’ve got to say, well, whose inclusion do we prioritise here? I would still say that the issue there isn’t too much inclusion, the issue is not enough resource, time, care and dialogue for people to truly understand the reasons for inclusion being so important and to make an environment so inclusive where people feel that whatever their beliefs or identities across a whole spectrum, they’re all welcome and valued. So, it’s not that you can have too much inclusion, unless that you can have inclusion that’s been done badly.
What have you learned about neurodiversity from your work?
Loads. Neurodiversity is probably the main area along with gender diversity that I’m really focused on absorbing more experience and understanding of now. My journey in neurodiversity really began years ago though, when I was a teacher and having to adapt resources for people who have dyslexia and that’s where I started learning about visual processing and understanding about people who find too many visuals overwhelming. I had done deaf studies years before I became a teacher so I had learned about how you can have this thing called visual noise where there’s too many images, it can be distracting and overwhelming and difficult for your brain to process. So, for me, it’s been a long journey out of my interest and studies in deaf communication and my teaching of kids who mainly had dyslexia or developmental processing challenges and now, more recently focusing on identities like autism and ADHD which I’m being assessed for myself and has really helped me understand the different ways that people need to take in information.
I think one of the main things I’ve learned about neurodiversity is how socially constructed it is. Someone has drawn a line and said, “Well, this is typical. This is divergence.” So, for instance, learning more about autism and following autistic accounts on Instagram and learning about what socially accepted stimming- which is where people of different identities or even all identities, do physical things to themselves.
Neurotypical people will pace, bite their nails, will suck their thumbs as children, will do lots of things that are seen as acceptable and these are all stimming, it’s ways of expressing our emotion and frustration and leaking it out of our body but we’re doing it in a way that is socially acceptable whereas an autistic or otherwise divergent person might be shaking their hands rapidly and that is seen as weird, or scary, or embarrassing when actually, it’s just a different version of biting your nails or pacing up and down or grunting at your desk, which is seen as acceptable. So, I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned about neurodiversity is much like race and gender, how socially constructed they are but how very real, life-damaging and consequential they are too.
What does a fully-inclusive environment of the future look like for you?
I have no idea, but I know it when I see it.
I love that answer
Sadly, I can’t even conceive of it because there’s my dream self which can imagine it and then there’s the reality, where even leaders who were on board with this stuff still just have so many gaps and it’s not a priority in their real daily lives that I’m not sure if we’ll ever get there without a serious extra push of serious investment. What it would absolutely require is for people with majority power identities to do so much internal wrestling. I don’t see they’re ready to do that, but a fully-inclusive culture would be where everyone can safely be themselves whilst of course, respecting others’ presentations of that as well. But no, that wouldn’t even be fully-inclusive. The minimum should be where everyone can safely be ourselves. The dream would be where we can joyfully, fully, freely. I’m a Christian and the part that I most hold to is that God wants us to have life to the full and there’s a quote I love by some dead white guy saying, “The glory of the divine, the glory of God is a human fully alive.” That’s my faith and I think for me that partly grounds my passion for absolute genuine diversity and inclusion.
Tell us a random fact about yourself
I have five full names. There you go.
Do you have a message you’d want to share with neurodiverse people?
Oh. I think one thing I’m thinking about a lot at the moment is as part of my ongoing decolonizing and decapitalizing journey is divesting from the need for external authority, which is part of my Christian deconstruction as well. That links to neurodiversity and saying, actually, self-diagnosis is sufficient. Why do we need a doctor, generally, a Cis straight male who is following guidelines which were generally created by middle class, white Cis straight men based on the identities of middle class, straight white men. Why do we need them to determine whether or not I have ADHD or autism or any other identity? Actually, just knowing yourself is the most important thing and similarly, there is absolutely zero shame at all- like I said, I’m going through an ADHD assessment because for me, having language to it can then help with finding support. It can help access things and for me, the label has helped me understand myself and importantly, to explain myself to others.
Do you have a favourite piece of neurodiverse reading – a channel, a social media account, a podcast?
I absolutely love Lauren Melissa Ellzey – @autienelle on Instagram – she’s fantastic.
Thanks so much for your time, Natalia-Nana!
Natalia-Nana Lester-Bush is an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion specialist and consultant in London, for multiple academic institutions and national charities.