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Promoting inclusion: exploring intersections of minority-racialised identity and neurodiversity

11 Feb 2022 | Dave S.P. Thomas Dave Thomas, Senior Adviser for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Advance HE, writes about the needs of neurodiverse students who are minority-racialised.

Increased global attention to racialised inequalities has exposed the permanence and pervasive nature of deep-rooted virulent inequality and discrimination that prevail at structural, interpersonal and personal levels in societies in general and including higher education (HE). This has stimulated and revitalised calls for more equitable, inclusive and welcoming educational environments for all, particularly those who are underserved and disproportionately most affected – people with intersectional minority-racialised identities. 

Definitions of diversity and inclusion as well as expectations for institutional culture across the HE sector is constantly evolving. Research highlights the importance of culturally engaging institutional cultures and climates as key influences on sense of belonging, academic dispositions and performance (Museus 2014). Typically, some define diversity along traditional measures in relation to protected characteristics (eg gender, race, sexual orientation), others in terms of cognitive diversity –  the variety of experiences, differences in perspectives and information processing styles that each individual is able to contribute.

Nascent research offers myriad interpretations and definitions of the nebulous concept of inclusion, which for simplicity relates to the act of embracing all people, making them feel valued and a sense that they belong. Nevertheless, diversity and inclusion remains variously defined, which has meant that neurodiversity and the complex interplay between neurodiversity, racialised status and structural racism remains largely ‘hidden’ and underexplored in much of the current discourses, policies, research and scholarship relating to diversity and inclusion. Additionally, deficit conceptualisations and interpretations of neurodiversity have inadvertently reinforced ableism by framing neurodiversity as a barrier to engagement, performance, success and achievement. However, that complexity in itself presents opportunities for HE institutions to gain a more in-depth and nuanced understandings of their cultures, systems policies, processes and practices and whether or the extent to which they promote and sustain exclusion, specifically for neurominorities with intersectional minority-racialised identities.

Race is a biological fiction which is socially constructed, however, racialised inequality is real (Smedley and Smedley 2005: Smedley 1998). Neurodiversity relates to natural variations in human neurocognitive functioning (the diversity of human minds). Neurotypicals are part of the spectrum of neurodiversity. Unlike race, neurodiversity is a natural form of human diversity, and a biological fact. Neurodiversity covers a range of neurodevelopmental conditions (eg ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia). Importantly, neurodiversity is not a trait that any individual possesses or can possess.

An estimated 15% of the UK’s population (1 in 7) is neurodivergent. The moral and business case for diversity and inclusion has been made. Subsequently, globally, HE institutions are responding with myriad initiatives to create and sustain more inclusive environments to reconcile and redress historic systemic injustices that promote inequality, particularly for people who are racialised as minority. In order to equitably promote and sustain authentic diversity and inclusion as it relates to neurodiverse learners, it is advised that educational institutions depart from the medical model of health which in the case of neurodiversity views neurodivergence as a problem of the person which requires individual treatment.

Understanding and explaining neurodiversity from a biopsychosocial perspective offers the potential of illuminating and illustrating ways in which educators and educational leaders across the sector can develop more inclusive environments, broaden and embed more inclusive practices and policies, as well as provide holistic support that serves the needs of neurominority students who are minority-racialised.


Dave Thomas is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE focusing on EDI and leadership. Dave is an Occupational Scientist and Public Health Specialist, with a remit in social justice. His doctoral research focuses on investigating the impact of Westernised ontologies, epistemologies, and pedagogy on racially minoritised students' interaction with teaching staff and interest, and their effect in shaping the educational trajectories and experiences of racially minoritised students in postsecondary education.


Museus, Samuel D. 2014. “The Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model: A New Theory of College Success among Racually Diverse Student Populations.” Higher Educaton: Handbook of Theory and Research 29. doi: 10.1007/978-94-017-8005-6_5.

Smedley, A., and BD Smedley. 2005. “Race Is a Biological Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real.” American Psychologist 60:16–26.

Smedley, Audrey. 1998. “‘Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity.” American Anthropologist 100(3):690–702.

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Find out more about Equality Diversity and Inclusion Colloquia here. 


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