John B. Goodenough, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry last month, struggled to learn to read. “Back then,” he says, “You were just a backwards student.”
His experience is still all too common, yet he and many like him demonstrate clearly that dyslexia is not a definitive barrier to career achievement. We must ask ourselves if our entry level recruitment and education systems should always depend on literacy.
Is reading a ‘transition technology’?
In the twenty-first century, with the rise of assistive technology, we now have glasses and apps that you can point at any text to read out loud. We have had many improvements with video conferencing technology, which was once almost unusable. Meetings and messages with hologram avatars are no longer science fiction.
This change in the way we communicate is coming whether we embrace it or not. As an organizational psychologist it is apparent to me that not only will it be an enormous accommodation for the neurodiverse but that our visually-talented, unusual communicators may become increasingly able, as opposed to disabled.
The functional disablement criteria could change across the whole neurodiversity spectrum. For example, having ADHD means I can do all my office functions sat on a train, in a café, in a cab between meetings. In the future, will people who can’t operate like this be called disabled?
- Those that need to sit still might have “Attention-Limited Syndrome” or “Sedentary-Dependent Concentration Disorder”!
- People who can’t think without handwriting (as opposed to voice-activated typing) could be diagnosed with “Developmental Technology-Adaptation Impairment.”
- Non-autists may suffer from “Hyper-Social Fixation Condition,” because they need face-to-face meetings.
You get the point.
Who Decides What Intelligence Looks Like?
I hope that these frivolous examples demonstrate the extent to which our perceptions of intelligence, ability and talent are unreliable over time. We are completely biased within our current paradigm of technological, social and industrial norms. And it is for this reason that recent stories of DNA intelligence tests for embryos are deeply, deeply troubling me. There are many ways to be intelligent and even more ways to be valuable. Which aspect is being selected in these tests?
Group Think – A Warning
Breeding specific types of thinking out of the gene pool based on our current perceptions of what is ‘good’ holds the potential for disaster. Polarized, homogenized thinking has not worked out well for humans historically. The Social Psychology phenomenon of “Group-Think” where we make errors of judgment when surrounded by those who think just like us, is thought to have been a large factor in the Nazi decision to invade the Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Current political polarization may also turn out to be predicated on our social media amplifying similarity into a frenzy. In business, Group Think has been highlighted as a factor in the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the financial crisis of 2008.
Volkswagen Senior Directors Meet For Crisis Talks As Emissions Scandal Widens
Diversity of thought is better for humans, and better for business, reported widely by numerous outlets including the World Economic Forum and Bloomberg.
Our future diverse talent pool is not going to be supported by nervous parents who want to avoid additional English classes. We need to stop this ableist nonsense before it undermines our ability to evolve as a species. Growing up different might not be easy, a fact to which I can attest, however it has always been the case that that our greatest innovations come from unusual thinking. A long line of Nobel Prize winners were written off as children, including Albert Einstein.
Aside from limiting our future workforce and society, it’s also ethically terrifying to decide which type of humans are worth it and which are not. If we’d had this power in the 1950s, might we have eliminated even “intelligent” embryos if they were female, because those characteristics were not thought to be compatible? Will prospective parents be able to chose heterosexual babies?
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, tinkering with things we do not understand. Being clever enough to manufacture smart glasses that read does not qualify us to start messing with the gene pool. What we need most is an education system that prepares our young people for the creative, flexible employment of the 21st century and beyond, not tools for eradicating those that the current system discriminates against.
Biodiversity boosts productivity and sustainability in nature, the same is true for neurodiversity and the future of work.