“I was told once, when I mentioned having ADHD, ‘You aren’t going to get special treatment just because you can’t concentrate well. All that matters during tax season is if you can do the work. If you can’t, this career isn’t for you.’ I hadn’t asked for special treatment.”
—L. Jiles et al.

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I came across the above quote while reading some recent research (L. Jiles, Q. Duong, and R. Venkatesh, “Perceived Organizational Inclusion: Evidence from Neurodivergent Accountants in the U.S.,” Accounting Horizons, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 95–110, 2024), and what really struck me was the dismissive nature of the Othering of this neurodivergent accountant. No empathy exists from this neurotypical colleague, which leads to the idea that no connection can be made with this disabled Other. From the respondents’ perspective, most can only imagine the level of isolation and frustration that they must feel at this moment. But in truth, as an accounting professional who is Black, I know exactly what this feeling is like. But then do I? What Jiles et al. reveal is that we know very little about the neurodiverse experience in accounting. Save for a few statements about the value of neurodiversity from the majority of mid-tier accounting firms, and real progress from a couple of the Big Four, what can we really glean about the experience of our neurodiverse brothers and sisters in our field? Better yet, what does it truly mean to be disabled in accounting?

Skin in the Game

And yet I have “skin in the game,” if you will forgive the pun. I want to know more about this simply because it is my experience. I am a Black British neurodiverse accounting professor. I have historically suffered discrimination in the accounting workplace that was racially biased, and now on reflection, perhaps turbocharged by my own neurology. Having been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), inattentive type, much later in life explains why my attention to detail often floundered when it came to long, dull, repetitive jobs, typical but necessary of some accounting tasks. [People with inattentive ADHD usually do not often show lots of hyperactivity, but instead struggle with organization problems, paying attention to details (leading to careless mistakes), finishing tasks, and missing deadlines.] It explained my uncanny ability to miss meetings with clients, despite finding the right zip code, but inexplicably missing their premises. Such “time blindness” is a typical ADHD trait. [Time blindness refers to the incapability to gauge the passing of time. This is not deliberate, but a feature of neurology, leading to an interrupted perception of time. An intuitive sense of time is disrupted (A. Tuckman, More Attention, Less Deficit. Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD, Specialty Press, Inc., 2009, pp. 248–250).] Zoning out of a work meeting or making one too many restroom trips to alleviate boredom was another. I could go on, but let’s instead wrap this all up in the bow of racial as well ableist stereotyping. (Ableism can be defined as bias against people with disabilities. It represents negative societal behaviors and practices which demean and disregard individuals due to their physical or mental impairments.) What we have now produced is a tale that is demonstrable “proof” of Black neurodiverse unsuitability to the field. And here’s the rub—undiagnosed, although I know this to be racist/ablest nonsense, I couldn’t escape the undeniable fact of my subpar performance in certain areas. Pre-diagnosis, late in my adult life, I was led to believe that somewhere in this horror of a narrative lay a kernel of truth.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of conditions such as ADHD is that they are often accompanied by companions (or comorbidities), such as learning disorders. Think here of ADHD and dyslexia as a squabbling couple, where presenting at a meeting, keeping focus, organizing the presentation, and reading the PowerPoint or report becomes a special sort of nightmare all its own. But true to form, my particular ADHD companion is dyscalculia. That’s right, it’s a kind of math dyslexia (P. Moorcraft, It Just Doesn’t Add Up. Explaining Dyscalculia and Overcoming Number Problems for Children and Adults, Tarquin, 2014). I can hear readers saying, “Wait, so you worked in industry for the longest time, worked as a tenured accounting professor for years, and you can’t count!” Believe me when I say it isn’t worth thinking about. But again, actually it is—and that’s why I’m talking about this right here and right now. To be fair, it’s not all bad, and advantages really do exist, as we shall see soon (Tuckman, 2009). For example, Ernst & Young (EY) has a very positive take on the potential contributions that the neurodiverse might make to the profession that is “more than meets the eye” (to borrow from the Transformers-fixated days of my youth).

But I won’t lie and say that it is not difficult to admit my neurological vulnerabilities so publicly. It has been a painful journey, but it has had unique benefits and advantages. I have a perspective few in our profession possess, one that I hope is of benefit to others. It also pushes me to want to know more about the experience of others like me. Do they know they are neurodiverse? Or are they diagnosed but masking, in fear of reprisal if their neurological difficulties are discovered—something that studies have shown is a reality for many. Perhaps they are reading this column right now feeling relief that they are not the only ones. I ask these questions because they must be asked if we ever wish to find answers. I ask these questions to hold everyone accountable for making equity a priority for all. But first things first: What exactly do we mean by “neurodiversity?”

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a catch-all term encapsulating a variety of neurological conditions, differential brain function, and behaviors, (P. Hutson and J. Hutson, “Neurodiversity and Inclusivity in the Workplace: Biopsychosocial Interventions for Promoting Competitive advantage,” Journal of Organizational Psychology, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 1-16, 2023), such as ADHD (i.e., that hyper-active kid we all remember rushing around the classroom). It means being on the autism spectrum, where social interaction is extremely difficult to perform because of constrained and recurrent mannerisms, activities that make one a social pariah. It means dyslexia—where one’s own neurology makes reading a herculean effort—and its less known, less understood twin, dyscalculia (as mentioned above), where basic arithmetic is a Sisyphean effort. All of this potentially marks one as deficient and downright incapable of being a professional according to the traditional status quo. This is not vindictive, as the neurotypical narrative goes; it is just medical fact, the result of having a disability. Neurodiversity as a concept turns this on its head, however. With its origin in the 1990s, this movement sought to increase notions of belonging and acceptance of all, emphasizing the idea of rejoicing different perceptions of the world.

I won’t lie and say that it is not difficult to admit my neurological vulnerabilities so publicly. It has been a painful journey, but it has had unique benefits and advantages.

Yet we must put this in context of the dearth of research and in-depth investigation into the U.S. accounting profession and its relationship with disability (Jiles, Duong, and Venkatesh, 2024). We simply do not know enough, which to my mind suggests that we in accounting do not care enough. Investigations by Angus Duff and John Ferguson in the context of U.K. accounting and disability mirrors the notion that the disabled accountant has been very much disregarded (A. Duff and J. Ferguson, “Disability and Accounting Firms: Evidence from the UK,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, vol. 18, pp. 139–157, 2007; Duff and Ferguson, “Disability and the Socialization of Accounting Professionals,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, vol. 22, pp. 351–364, 2011; Duff and Ferguson, “Disability and the Professional Accountant: Insights from Oral Histories,” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 71–101, 2012). They point to the prevalence of the “Medical Model” adopted by an accounting profession that can only see disability as irrefutable impairment. This leads to the question of, “what will it cost to deal with this personal misfortune and restore you to professional functionality?” But it is an oppositional stance that is needed, represented by the “Social Model,” which enquires, “Why do barriers exist for those positioned ‘disabled?’ Why isn’t more accommodation provided to make this an empty social category, leveling the professional playing field for all?” Failure of accommodation creates the classification of disability in the first place, and it is within this arc that neurodiversity sits, promoting the benefit of difference and what it can positively offer professions like accounting (Duff and Ferguson, 2007).

Neurological ‘Oppression Olympics’

A cursory look at the actions of the Big Four, as evidenced by what is presented on their websites, shows at best stratified progress on the implementation of neurodiversity. As a whole, it’s almost as if an oppression Olympics has taken place where PricewaterhouseCoopers leads the pack in the race for racial equity in accounting and elsewhere. Meanwhile the clear leader in the neurodiversity category seems to be EY. It boasts about the application of the Social Model, culminating in the creation of its Boston-based Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence (NCoE). More impressively, this is only the latest addition, one of six, with the first center for neurodiversity having opened in Philadelphia and others situated elsewhere in the United States, as well as Canada and India. To be clear, this is quite impressive. The NCoE revolves around a “crack” group of neurodiverse EY consultants, touting an ability to give true “out of the box” consulting solutions drawing on neurodiverse talents (“EY US Launches first Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence in Boston,” 2021, http://tinyurl.com/hkkya29v).

This in fact is quite a hot area of research, which suggests that indeed EY is on the right track with this sort of thinking. For example, Gail Saltz’s book, The Power of Different (Flatiron Books, 2017), hypothesizes a link between disorder and genius, while Hutson and Hutson point out that “studies show neurodiverse employees were found to be more motivated and more productive than neurotypical employees under specific conditions” (p. 2). EY deserves a gold medal for creating such conditions.

Meanwhile, Deloitte is seemingly in second place, as it acknowledges the importance of neurodiversity but has been sporadic in its implementation. Deloitte UK publishes a “Neurodiversity Learning Guide” for recruiters, and Deloitte US implements its Neurodiversity@Deloitte program, a three-month apprenticeship with an opportunity for full-time employment. These efforts are to be applauded; but despite the rhetoric, an overarching robust commitment is missing from the outset in my opinion. KPMG has engaged in a neurodiversity celebration week, training new hires on the advantages of neurodiversity in the work-place (https://tinyurl.com/ymdbdu72) as well as neurodiversity employee networks (http://tinyurl.com/5ymcwdk9). Again, this is a good start, but is it a top-to-bottom concerted effort to embed the neurodiverse experience within the heart of this organization? I suggest not.

The Distraught Accountant

My own personal tale presented above points to a disconnect between what I and other neurodiverse professionals have experienced and the bombast emanating from some large firms with respect to neurodiversity in accounting. Despite the rhetoric of some Big Four firms, the lot of the disabled accountant is a sorry one for many (Duff and Ferguson, 2012; Jiles et al., 2024). From the scant research we have on this subject, it seems isolation is common, and that while accommodations are provided, they are implemented in accordance with the letter of the law rather than the spirit (Duff and Ferguson, 2011).

Still, an important question remains: what about the neurodivergent accountant of color? What is their experience at the nexus of race and neurodivergence? As I alluded to above, my personal accounting journey has been both racist and ableist, but I want to know why the profession is not asking such questions. What is the view of the AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) on race and neurodiversity? I cannot find any pronouncements of substance on the issue. Could it be that they have not considered this? A troubling thought, indeed.

Still, an important question remains: what about the neurodivergent accountant of color? What is their experience at the nexus of race and neurodivergence?

Yet why, you might ask, should we assume the Black or raced neurodiverse experience is any different from that of white colleagues in the first place? Well, it might not be, or it could be really different and much worse. The sad fact is that, as usual, we simply don’t know, because we do not have the data. But I suggest the signs don’t look good. I have previously cited that what little research exists on the neurodivergent accounting experience, is one of isolation and subjugation for many. But when we overlay race, say the historically raced experience of Black accountants, we get the potential for accounting to be a very unforgiving space for the racially neurodiverse (T. Hammond, A White-Collar Profession, University Of North Carolina Press, 2002; A. Lewis, Counting Black and White Beans: Critical Race Theory in Accounting, Emerald Publishing Limited, 2020).

Being Seen and Heard

It’s not often one gets to unmask neurodiversity in such a way, but I think it is worth letting other neurodivergent accountants know that they are seen and are not alone by championing their seldom-heard voice. Furthermore, it is worth letting racially neurodiverse accountants know that their intersecting identities are recognized and their unique perception of the world celebrated; also, recognizing that steps are being taken to support and include in ways that reject racist and ableist norms as de rigueur of our profession. Lastly, and perhaps most pragmatically, accounting needs to grow its dwindling talent pipeline, now more than ever. The neurodiverse represent an eager pool of potential talent that could flow into accounting’s shallow personnel base. But only if the profession chooses to remove existing barriers, and not, as is currently the case, allow their continuance, to the detriment of fellow neurodiverse colleagues and others with disabilities, hidden or otherwise.

Anton Lewis, PhD, is an associate accounting professor in the college of business at Governors State University, University Park, Ill.