CEP: Editorial - Harnessing Our Abilities | AIChE

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CEP: Editorial - Harnessing Our Abilities


We all have limits to our abilities. Some of us stumble over our words and lose our train of thought when speaking to a group; others can’t string together three coherent sentences. Some of us get so bogged down in minutiae that we lose sight of the big picture; others are so busy dreaming up the next project that we neglect important details and miss deadlines. This thinking extends to physical characteristics. Some of us are so short that we can’t reach the second shelf in the cabinet; others are so tall that we can’t fit into the backseat of a car.

You’re probably thinking something like “Sheesh — what a downer!” What if instead I had written: We all have different strengths and abilities. Some of us are excellent writers; others get our message across most effectively by speaking. Some of us see the big picture; others are meticulous about details. Some of us are tall and easily retrieve objects from high shelves; others are short and fit conveniently in the middle of a car’s backseat. Unfortunately, too often society frames differences and limitations as disabilities.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) — a national campaign to raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the many contributions of workers with disabilities. A disability can involve an impairment that is physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these.

The concept of neurodiversity helps in understanding cognitive and mental differences, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia. Thomas Armstrong, Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, writes on the organization’s blog that rather than viewing neurological disabilities as deficits, “we’re discovering that people with neurological disabilities possess important abilities that so-called normal people lack, and that we need their special talents in order to get the job done.”

Armstrong explains, “The central imperative of neurodiversity in the workplace is that employers focus their attention on differences, not disabilities, and in particular, that they discover as much as they can about the assets of their employees ... and match them to specific roles within the workplace.” In that way, “employee engagement and satisfaction will improve, innovation will increase, and productivity will skyrocket.”     

For instance, he points out that individuals with autism tend to be good at focusing on small details rather than the big picture, and at working with systems as opposed to interpersonal relations. A Danish company, Specialisterne, recognizes this. Its employees, the majority of whom have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, act as business consultants on such tasks as testing software for bugs — work that focuses on small details within systems that they can do alone.

Armstrong suggests that employers can benefit by steering employees with ADHD “away from 9 to 5 desk jobs, and toward roles that involve movement, novelty, frequent changes in activity level, and creative problem-solving,” and by placing people with dyslexia “in work roles where there isn’t a heavy writing and reading load, but where instead, there is a reliance on visualization, out-of-the-box thinking, and intuition.”

An open session, Chemical Engineers with Disabilities Discussion Forum, is planned at the upcoming AIChE Annual Meeting, Nov. 19, 6–7 pm (check onsite for the room assignment). Anyone interested in this topic is welcome.


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