When inclusion becomes exclusion: The problems of the label ‘disability networks’

In this reflective this blog post I aim to start the conversation of how ‘disability networks’ are labelled in universities. I am drawing on Armstrong’s (2010) book ‘the power of Neurodiversity’, which focuses on seven conditions: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia. Armstrong (2010) defines neurodiversity as a world comprising forms of natural human differences, which were previously referred to as mental disorders of neurological origin.

I am a neurodivergent female academic who is twice exceptional (profoundly gifted and autistic). While I am aware that some of my traits pose challenges for my interaction in the social world, I do not feel or label myself as disabled, because thus far I have been able to navigate my journey successfully. Nevertheless, I am aware of my traits and personal and professional needs and would be happy to be able to share these with similar or like-minded academic colleagues. Therefore, during my academic life, I have been trying to find opportunities to network with neurodivergent colleagues. But this has left me standing outside open doors.

Over the past three years I have learned that universities are increasingly focusing on the positive dimensions of neurodivergent staff and students. I had an excellent experience when joining my current School of Management & Marketing at the University of Westminster. It is one of the most inclusive academic cultures I have experienced so far. However, the issue I have been experiencing, both as a student and as ECR, is that I am unable to join existing networks that comprise neurodivergent staff because the networks are labelled as ‘disability networks’. Of course, I can join these networks, but I do not want to carry the ‘disability’ label as it is not how I self-identify. During my professional induction, I raised this issue with one of the ‘disability network’ leads and explained my position. It was brought to my attention that I am not the only academic who feels this way. This shows that despite the increasing inclusion of neurodiversity in universities some academics can feel excluded.


While a growing body of literature discusses the impact of disability labels in the context of work and education (such as Barnes, 2012; Brzykcy and Boehm, 2022; Ho, 2004), literature on labeling networks in the context of academics appears scant. Therefore, I would like to share how the ‘disability’ label affects me. I feel anxious and worried about being labelled as ‘disabled’ because, as a profoundly gifted and autistic academic, it would mean my strengths and abilities will be de-emphasised. In addition, it will likely negatively affect my self-esteem and lower my self-confidence, which will lead to negative consequences for my mental and physical well-being. Although many universities are working towards inclusive and sustainable cultures it is important not to forget that stigmatisation of neurodivergent academics is ‘real’. I am still finding myself in such situations occasionally. In these cases, it can be helpful to find support and comfort among like-minded colleagues without there being a need to label oneself as ‘disabled’. It is, therefore, important to create inclusive neurodiverse spaces within which we can welcome staff who either self-identify or do not self-identify as disabled.

Additionally, building inclusive ‘neurodiversity networks’ can act as drivers to combat ableism and stigmatisation through the creation of awareness and emphasising that we are all different (Armstrong, 2010). Indeed, as stated by Armstrong (2010, p.212) ‘the truth is that there are no neurotypical (normal) people’.  Even so, in the real-world neurodivergent academics like me can face prejudice and ableism, and are frequently exposed as different. The ‘disability’ label shows a tendency to emphasise difficulties and deficits, while de-emphasising the positive dimensions of neurodiversity (Armstrong, 2010). Although the choice of labeling a network as ‘disability’ may be based on socio-political and financial reasons, adopting the label of ‘neurodiversity’ would lead to a more nuanced and balanced perspective (Armstrong, 2010). Therefore, I argue that it is time for universities to not just promote the idea of inclusion, but also act and craft and cultivate positive academic cultures, which emphasise neurodiversity’s positive dimensions.

I was told that it is difficult to rename the ‘disability network’ and I agree that retention of these spaces is crucial. Therefore, I am suggesting, instead of changing existing networks, universities should consider extending the scope of inclusion through the addition of a ‘neurodiversity network’. This network would welcome all academics’ who are diagnosed or un-diagnosed neurodivergent and do not self-identify as disabled. This does not exclude ‘disabled’ academics and they may still be allies with the ‘neurodiversity network’. Providing ‘neurodiversity networks’ is important and would include the so far often excluded neurodiversgent academics’ who feel different, think differently and have different needs but do not feel disabled. We need to avoid excluding some neurodivergent academics by including others and, therefore, it’s time to holistically understand the uncommonness of humanity and emphasise strengths while providing support to overcome weaknesses. 

In sum

I am calling on universities to develop positive academic cultures by emphasising the positive dimensions of neurodiversity. Based on my own experience as a student and ECR in UK universities, I recommend universities to consider the following six points.

 Creating awareness of what ‘neurodiversity’ means.

  1. Integrating neurodiversity training as a component of staff inductions and CPD.
  2. Focusing on the positive dimensions of neurodiversity and using the differences/strengths as competitive advantages.
  3. Providing support for those who identify as disabled.
  4. Providing support for those who are self-identifying as non-disabled but still have specific needs.
  5. Developing neurodiversity networks that include both disabled and self-identified non-disabled academics.

 In closing, this blog post comprises my own experiences and I hope to trigger this important conversation, leading to actions to craft and cultivate positive academia.


Armstrong, T. (2010) The Power of Neurodiversity. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press

Barnes, C. (2012), Re-thinking Disability, Work and Welfare. Sociology Compass, 6: 472-484. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2012.00464.x

Brzykcy, A., & Boehm, S. (2022). No such thing as a free ride: The impact of disability labels on relationship building at work. Human Relations75(4), 734-763.

Ho, Anita. (2004). To be labelled, or not to be labelled: That is the question. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 32. 86 – 92. 10.1111/j.1468-3156.2004.00284.x.