Talking Point is back for 2023! Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
We are delighted to introduce our first guest author of the year during Neurodiversity Celebration Week. In this piece, NeurodiversAtSea.org founder Daniel Smith highlights why neurodivergent seafarers are valuable to the maritime industry and discusses how everyone, not just companies, can create a supportive environment for all.
Daniel Smith is an Autistic Seafarer and advocate for neurodivergence. Currently working as a Mate on harbour tugs with a background in the offshore and dredging sectors, they are the founder, chairperson and a trustee of NeurodiversAtSea.org, a charitable organisation which champions the benefits of neurodivergence to the maritime industry.
Seafarers are an unusual bunch. We come from completely different backgrounds, with completely different skillsets and specialities. Trained, devoted, and often considered to be the cog in the global machine, we pride ourselves on being open, inclusive, friendly, and accepting of everyone no matter their differences... Or do we?
Neurodiversity is one of those words that has seemingly taken the world by storm as of late, going from an obscure word that was known only by a select few to a buzzword that’s all over the media – a little like one of those secret societies that everyone is told not to talk about, but end up talking about anyway.
Like most buzzwords, it’s unfortunately often misunderstood, although in reality it’s a really simple thing – the difference in how we all interact with and process the world around us. In reality though, we split everyone into one of two groups: those who are neurotypical, and those who are neurodivergent.
If someone interacts with the world around them in the way society expects, and thinks how the rest of society thinks, they are what’s called ‘neurotypical’.
However, if someone thinks differently, or interacts with the world differently because their brain is wired differently, they are ‘neurodivergent’. This includes:
- ADHDers (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- Dyslexics (trouble with reading or writing)
- Dyspraxics (trouble with large movements like using a knife and fork)
- Dyscalculics (trouble with maths)
- Dysgraphics (Trouble with small movements, especially handwriting)
Why ‘autistics’ instead of ‘someone with autism’, etc.? This is because of a change to something called ‘identity first’ language – where we as a society acknowledge that the condition isn’t something that can be changed, cured or removed, but is instead a key part of that person’s identity, which should be respected.
Even though we’re different, we shouldn’t be excluded. Unusually for an inclusivity movement though, I’m not going to tell you we belong just because we’re human beings with as much of a right to be in the industry as you, or because being an inclusive industry is the socially and morally acceptable thing to do, or even because bringing different voices to the table can add insight – all of which are completely justifiable reasons – but because our differences make us valuable.
An autistic person may sometimes struggle to have a conversation, but they may also have an innate, almost scary ability to focus for extremely long periods of time – ideal for watchkeeping both at sea and ashore, especially with the rise of USVs (unmanned surface vehicles). An ADHDer (someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) may sometimes struggle to focus on a single thing, but they’ll likely thrive in environments where the ability to rapidly adjust to change is key. A dyslexic person may struggle to read something, but their ability to imagine and problem solve could be almost unmatched.
The maritime industry completely fails to realise these and the countless other benefits the neurodivergent community can bring despite them being well studied, well understood and well documented in various other sectors.
Instead, we actively put barriers in the way of the neurodivergent community at every stage. Hostile recruitment practices like psychometric testing or automated CV screening stop neurodivergent people entering the industry. Oral exams and a failure to recognise learning differences hinder professional career progression. A lack of understanding and sympathy effects appraisals, hindering promotion. Old-fashioned and outdated mindsets, a lack of empathy and knowledge, and a generally hostile work environment stop neurodivergent people asking for help, or being themselves.
This needs to change. This HAS to change. Not just for the neurodivergent community, or the industry as a whole, but for the world that relies on us to keep humanity alive – to deliver the supplies so essential to our modern way of living.
It’ll require work at all levels, from the boardroom to the bottom plates and everywhere in between. A lot of this will be high level things, like adapting the way we train, educate and assess, or the way we recruit...things that will take time.
There’s one thing we can all do now, though. One thing which will arguably have the biggest impact of all.
Be understanding that the person who’s not making eye contact with you isn’t doing out of disrespect or shame, but because making eye contact is difficult for them. Be understanding that the person who struggles to read without moving their finger along the page isn’t doing it because they’re stupid, they just get lost on the page.
If we all support each other, no matter our differences, the maritime industry will become a place for the many, not just the few. It will become something we can all be proud of.
To read more about neurodiversity, to seek advice or support on how to make the transition to a neurodiverse workforce, or to share your neurodivergent story, visit www.NeurodiversAtSea.org.