Neurodiversity intervention pilot

Reflection on an intervention to increase knowledge of neurodiversity in staff development sessions at UAL


This report looks at intersectionality in regards to leading workshops for staff development. This links to the social justice theory of inclusive practice (Hahn Tapper, 2013) and the aim for all staff development at UAL to be accessible. While studying for the Inclusive learning and Teaching in HE unit, I reflected that merely creating materials to be accessible is not enough. In reading ‘Disabled People, The Voices of Many’ a Shades of Noir journal, I decided to try to improve our sessions to model good practice to consider intersectional as well as disabled needs. I wanted to create something for the needs of those with more than one protected characteristic.  

I started bringing in interventions during workshops in November 2020 and the work is ongoing.

The ‘course’ in this case is the Enhancing Assessment for Equity and the Fostering Belonging and Compassionate Pedagogy strand with the Academic Enhancement model (AEM). There are 25 BA courses enrolled these strands. My pilot action research across 6 workshops may have potential for further uptake. I introduced the artefact, (a verbal statement and then a visual artefact) and then interviewed presenters using narrative inquiry. Due to time restriction of this compressed unit, I was unable to collect participant feedback.  

Inclusive learning theory
The enhancement model is centred on co-design theory (Sanders and Stappers, 2008) and inclusive learning theory (Boud and Carless, 2008). We learn in unconscious bias theories that we accidentally and inadvertently have expectations that, for example, everyone can hear or see well, that attendees at a workshop are able-bodied mentally and physically. As a disabled, white woman from working class background, I drew on my own experience of discrimination during my HE career.

Reflection on process
In my journey through this unit I hit a threshold concept moment during the reading around disability. On reading Hahn Tapper (2013) ‘A pedagogy of social justice education: social identity, theory and intersectionality’, this referred to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2006), by renowned theorist Paul Freire. At that point I came to realise that my own understanding of ‘intersectionality’ was slightly muddled. I then felt that modelling practice could bring in intersectional needs and this would have a greater impact on learners with more than one protected characteristic.

The first step was to bring in an introductory statement to 5 staff development  workshops. These workshops were moderated by at least two presenters and ranged from 6 to 16 attendees from course teams unknown to us. I sought agreement of my team and we introduced each session of ‘Workshop One, mapping your assessment’ with a statement similar to this one:

This session will recognise that there are people in the room who are neuro-diverse or who may have disabilities. This means that we will be using silence in order to concentrate on tasks, so don’t be alarmed if there is no audio. We ask that you speak one at a time and use the hand to show you are speaking. If you can use the camera please do so to aid those who are lip reading. The slides are also accessible and session can be watched again.

I began by introducing the statement myself, as the disabled person in the room. That didn’t work. It became important to me that my co-presenters made this statement as an advocate for me, for my neurodiversity on my behalf. I felt the burden and embarrassment of always be ‘the one’ to stand up for people who are neurodiversity, or disabled. It added to the cognitive load during the session. However, it makes me hyper-aware when I witness what Rene Eddo-Lodge (2017) describes as black burden in practice in the art studio and in academic management meetings.

At first, saying that statement was quite awkward and we would stumble over the terminology at first, however this became normal after the 3rd of 4th time. One of my colleagues reflected:

‘It has been reminding me about these things. It’s been putting me in a much more positive, inclusive space just by stating these things. It’s been grounding me as a person’. – AEM workshop leader

After the sessions I asked for feedback from the presenters as video testimonies. I was unable to collect similar testimonies from attendees, due to time restraints within the unit and a lack of access to them. In one workshop one participant staff member said “I’m glad you mentioned disability because I am hard of hearing too’. I was reassured he felt comfortable enough to reveal this. Without the intervention this would not have come up.  

How had this artefact been used?
The artefact (of changing the introduction to the workshop) was used in 6 workshops during November. At this stage I am testing out different ideas and ways of introducing, seeing what I am comfortable with and my co-presenters are comfortable with. Being a disabled person with a hidden disability has meant that I have to name my own position in order to participate fully. I am meeting new colleagues for the first time online. Even though I have asked my co-presenters to open the session to be mindful of ‘neurodiverse participants’ it doesn’t always run smoothly in the online setting. Other practical factors such as connectivity, audio quality and general netiquette push this request into the background. I then trailed a slide which stated our intention for the session however, I was cautioned on being too didactic: “For me, I would not want to put a whole bunch of rules up. I feel really quite strongly about that. I would say this is what we’re choosing to do because this is what it does.’ AEM Strand leader

Evaluation of process
Planning for intersectionality had not yet been built into the current Academic Enhancement strand. We had not allowed enough time for open discussion, and drilling into to participants own lived experiences, and how this affected their practice. By asking my colleagues to reflect on how they delivered the intervention I learned more than I expected.
In my interviews I collected narrative datasets from three colleagues and did some semantic mapping seen in Fig 1.


I learned the following challenges appeared:
•  I should consider physical disability as well as neuro diversity
•  One slide giving a statement is not enough, and in fact might be counter-productive by drawing attention to otherness of neurodiversity and to a ‘deficit model’ of disability.
•  Saying we ‘are’ inclusive and truly ‘being’ inclusive and embodying practice, are two entirely different things.

The deductive analysis leads to the following. It is better to model and embody the practice of inclusivity rather that to dictate absolute statements “We are aware of neurodiversity’.

  • Simple signs and semiotics can’t speak to all the intersectional needs in the room.  There is the possibility they may trigger an opposite reaction – and signal otherness.
  • Using verbal statements to declare intent is outweighed by the act of modelling behaviours
  • The aim is to embody inclusive practice

My recommendations are:
Prior to the staff development session:
• Prepare all materials in advance and run through accessibility checks. Send slides or videos in advance.
• Let all attendees know beforehand that this session will be mindful of and accessible to those with neurodiversity and other needs.

During the session
• Embody inclusivity in the pace and choice of activities.
• Facilitate the session to allow all participants an equal chance to speak or use the mic.
• Encourage use of camera – to reduce cognitive load but do not insist.
• Give sufficient time and be confident in using silence.

I can summarise that one intervention, statement or slide will not change behaviours. It was the associated techniques I brought in that made more of an impact because they demonstrated the embodiment of being inclusive in action. Next, I need to think beyond any single statement, and do more work with other protected characteristics on a larger scale. The success  of the artefact was seen in reflections in the behaviour of our small AEM team in this pilot. My own journey through this unit was enlightening and has given me confidence in discussing my own position with intersectional needs.

Listening formative feedback along the way from my learning group was inspiring. In addition the output from my small scale project was enlightening. I learned about the challenges that my able-bodied and disabled colleagues felt and their implicit assumptions around neurodiversity. I would like to develop more actions that share the small changes we can make to all Exchange staff training sessions, so that we can together embody inclusive practice, awareness of neurodiversity and intersectionality.

Thanks to my colleagues in the AEM team, and to my learning group who gave me feedback along the way. Thanks to Terry Finnegan for her guidance and thoughtful prods. Big shout out to Aisha, Montana Angie and all the team for a valuable learning experience.

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DOI: 10.1080/03075070903254602
Sabri, D. (2014) Becoming Students at UAL ‘Signing up to the intellectual project that is the course’? Year 1 report of a 3-year longitudinal study for the University of the Arts London

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