Neurodiversity and design

Conversations with Data: #45

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The call for more inclusive design is everywhere. Countless studies show the indisputable value when we create experiences that reach everyone. But for data journalists, a dearth of information exists on how we design visual experiences for accessibility. That's especially true for neurodivergent audiences.

In this 45th edition, we'll hear from Sean Gilroy, the BBC's cognitive design head and neurodiversity lead, and Leena Haque, senior UX designer and BBC neurodiversity lead. Based on your questions, they talked to us about designing for neurodivergent audiences and why it matters for data storytelling. Wait, 'what's neurodiversity?' you ask. Read on to find out!

What you asked

What is neurodiversity?

The term Neurodiversity was coined by Judy Singer in the 90’s and it references the diversity of human cognition. It is important because it created a paradigm that recognised conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia as part of a naturally occurring variation in cognitive function, providing valuable and positive cognitive skillsets and

How much of the world's population is neurodivergent?

Limited information and statistics exist relating specifically to Neurodiversity as an umbrella reference, but we have seen estimates range from 15% to 30% of the population being Neurodivergent. As the conversation about Neurodiversity grows, we believe that a more positive attitude toward different cognitive styles develops and that the skills and abilities of Neurodivergent people will be increasingly desirable as part of the future of diverse and inclusive organisations and employers.

Tell us about the BBC’s CAPE Project. How did it come about?

We both work in the BBC’s User Experience & Design department, researching a new design framework based around Neurodiversity and Neuroscience called Cognitive Design. Alongside our day jobs however, we created the BBC’s Neurodiversity initiative, BBC CAPE, which stands for Creating a Positive Environment.

We recognised there was a lack of understanding and information relating to Neurodiversity in the workplace, so we decided to do something about it. There is an abundance of talent across the Neurodivergent community that is being missed because traditional methods of identifying and measuring ability, recruitment processes etc, create barriers rather than opportunities and due to the lack of understanding of conditions like Autism or ADHD, people often struggle to access the right support. Through CAPE, we wanted to find solutions that would help remove these barriers to employment for, as we see it, the benefit of both neurodivergent people and the BBC.

Sean Leena

Leena Haque and Sean Gilroy are the BBC's neurodiversity leads.

How can data journalists apply principles of inclusive design for a neurodivergent audience?

Inclusive design is increasingly being recognised for its importance in delivering inclusive experiences for consumers and audiences. It is difficult to identify any one specific example, as experiences of consuming content and information are often specific to an individual.

However, the best way to find out preferences and solutions is to ask and involve those individuals who have personal experiences and stories, in any process to develop more inclusive experiences.

When we design for visualisation the focus can sometimes move toward colour for example. However, we should remember that visual cues also extend to things like size, shapes and patterns. The layout of data can also offer support to the way some neurodivergent people consume information, so leveraging white space for example.

Is it worth creating a version of a visual story for neurodivergent people?

We believe it is important for designers to appreciate an increasingly diverse audience and to move toward offering choices to people, which in other words might be described as personalisation. A one-size-fits-all approach is arguably a position we are increasingly moving away from as we realise there isn’t really such a thing.

If design caters for different user cases and needs, the results often lend themselves to a much wider audience, over and above the original intended user group. Take Voice UX for example, which can be utilised as an inclusive tool for people who are blind or visually impaired, but it might also offer a more inclusive experience for someone who is Dyslexic for example.


Is there any element of Intersectionality when it comes to designing for neurodiversity?

Intersectionality is important in regard to Neurodiversity, but more from the perspective of interconnected social categorisations of race, gender, sexuality etc, as coined by Kimberle Crenshaw. The appreciation of shared traits across different conditions is something separate to Intersectionality, but nevertheless important when designing inclusive and accessible content.

We contributed to an All-Party Parliamentary Group research initiative, Westminster AchieveAbility, whose research a few years ago highlighted that co-occurrence of conditions was typical, with individuals often having a diagnosis of 2 or more conditions. We had also recognised this in our work for BBC Cape, as our research had indicated shared traits and experiences of people across the neurodivergent spectrum, which is why our initiative focuses on the umbrella reference of Neurodiversity rather than any specific, individual condition.

In respect then of making stories or content inclusive, it comes down very much to simply appreciating that people consume information in different ways and have different preferences, so it's important to focus on the individual and to understand and appreciate as many different perspectives as possible, rather than try to cater to any one condition.

How important is it for data journalism teams to be hiring talent with neurodivergent conditions?

It is important to have neurodiverse teams, as it is important to have diverse teams if you want to be sure that your output will be reflective and representative of your audience.

Possibly more appropriate would be to recognise that it is valuable to have Neurodiverse teams because it will add depth and perspective that could offer different insights and approaches that have the potential to provide a creative and competitive advantage to your content.

What one thing do you wish non-neurodivergent designers could understand about you and your condition?

Leena: I would like to think that any Neurotypical (non-neurodivergent) person, designer or otherwise, would take the time to understand and respect who I am, as I would offer them the same courtesy of understanding and respecting who they are. Someone’s condition isn’t really relevant to who they are, any more so than being left or right-handed makes a difference to someone’s identity.

As part of our work, we talk about challenging homogeneity as opposed to promoting diversity. If we turn our focus away from highlighting what makes us different and instead focus on making sure everyone isn’t the same we can begin to move away from seeing people for their differences and instead of appreciating everyone for what they can offer.

ICYMI: other happenings on

Designers often follow a set of strict conventions when creating visualisations. Kaiser Fung, the founder of Junk Charts, examines the fundamental rules of data visualisation, why they are important, and when it is okay to break them.


Our next conversation

It’s time for a Q&A! Joining us in the next edition we have Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed's media editor. As a fake news expert, he's authored and edited a number of books on misinformation, including the European Journalism Centre's latest Verification Handbook. You might’ve also seen Craig in our video course Verification: The Basics. We'll discuss the importance of verification and what it can do for your data journalism stories.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.


Tara from the EJC Data team,

bringing you, supported by Google News Initiative.

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