I had a hard time deciding on an undergraduate program in college. There were several programs I was interested in but none in particular that felt like the right fit. Eventually I discovered the School of Integrative Studies at George Mason University (GMU), which allowed me to customize a degree across multiple disciplines. It also provided me a learning environment that wasn’t available in other programs, by offering small classrooms and hands-on, experiential learning. I thrived, and ultimately graduated with honors.
Fast forward to a few years after graduation, when I started working at CGI. Once again, I was taking on roles and responsibilities that were interesting to me, but didn’t quite feel like the right fit. A little over a year into my tenure, I was asked to become the accessibility point of contact for the project I was supporting, and it was here that I once again found my niche. I jumped headlong into learning about accessibility, mentored by Jennifer Gauvreau, who had founded our Accessibility Practice.
Accessibility as a practice ensures that people with disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, motor impairments, cognitive disabilities, etc.) have access to data, products, and services. At CGI, our focus is predominately on ensuring that digital content like websites, software applications, mobile applications, and electronic documents are accessible to all people.
Over the years I have considered myself a champion of accessibility, both professionally and personally. In 2016, I founded the Accessibility Champions Network (ACN), which is a special interest group comprised of CGI members across various projects who share a common mission for delivering inclusive solutions to our federal government clients. More recently, in October 2021, I assumed the lead role for CGI’s Accessibility Practice.
Accessibility is also something that is important to me personally. A member of my immediate family was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in early 2014, making my work as a champion of accessibility even more important. Again I jumped headlong into learning everything about autism. However, I found at that time that a lot of the medical diagnostic criteria and research associated with autism described the way it presents in children, especially boys. I later learned that its presentation can be different in other segments of the population.
Finding neurological niches
In 2020, I started hearing about the rapidly increasing number of adult women who were being diagnosed with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other neurological conditions. In reading more about these conditions, I soon learned that they sometimes present much differently in females than they do in males. The more I learned, the more I discovered that many things in my own life suddenly made more sense, particularly when it came to sensory, social and cognitive differences I have experienced since childhood. It seemed like every day I was having multiple “aha” and “oh, that’s why I’m like that” moments. After spending a lifetime thinking these were simple quirks in my personality or issues specific to me as an individual, I felt relief to learn that there was a neurological reason behind all of it—and that others experienced the same things.
I also eventually realized why there were certain social, academic, and professional environments that were best suited to my neurological profile. For example, the smaller classrooms in my undergraduate program reduced distractions and allowed me to more easily follow up with my professors if there was a concept that I didn’t understand. My curriculum was also very research-based, which allowed me to maximize my analytical skills and other natural strengths.
At CGI, the opportunity to focus exclusively on the accessibility discipline motivated me and allowed me to excel. In particular, the concept that everyone should have equitable access to information resonated with my personal values of fairness and inclusion. Moreover, the actual practice of testing satisfied my process-oriented and structure-thriving mind. I was also part of a small team comprised of an incredibly supportive manager who constantly helped me to grow and kin-like colleagues who shared in our common mission and values.
In short, I was able to find my neurological niches, both in college and at CGI, because the organizations provided me environments, tools, and opportunities that allowed me to take full advantage of my cognitive strengths.
The path forward
According to Forbes, 2021 was the year that the Neurodiversity Movement came of age. Neurodiversity in itself isn’t new but in recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of people like me who are recognizing they are neurodivergent.
Moreover, with the societal focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), we have also seen an increased awareness and acceptance by businesses like CGI that diversity of all kinds is important. To this end, in April 2022, I had the privilege of working with several other CGI members to launch our new Disability & Neurodiversity Advocates (DNA) member resource group.
The next evolution of the neurodiversity movement is in ensuring that disabled and/or neurodivergent people are fully supported, and organizations provide them with the environments, tools, and opportunities in which they can thrive. There is no one-size-fits-all solution as far as the human mind is concerned, so employers should explore opportunities that maximize each member’s cognitive strengths and allow them to find their neurological niche.
Read more CGI member stories in the Life at CGI blog series.