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Neurodiversity and the University

Associate Professor of Communications Jim Cherney, Ph.D. discusses neurodiversity, what it is and what it means to the Wolf Pack community, as well as a new University alliance

Neurodiversity is the idea that people with neurological and/or psychological conditions deserve respect, should not be pathologized, and are entitled to live full and satisfying lives. Those who identify as neurodivergent consider their conditions as an important aspect of who they are and the neurodiversity movement affirms their right to live without discrimination and as complete persons. The neurodivergent do not consider themselves “broken,” and while many do seek treatments and accommodations to improve their lives, they do not view their conditions as illnesses that need to be cured.

A common misconception is that neurodiverse is a synonym of “autistic,” but as used here the neurodiverse population also includes those with a wide variety of conditions including and certainly not limited to Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, dyslexia, dyspraxia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and Tourette’s. The range of neurodiverse conditions is so large that some consider it easier to understand neurodiverse as meaning anyone who is not “neurotypical.”

Even in an academic setting, neurodiversity matters because of the ways that it shapes how we behave, work and socialize, as well as how it impacts thinking and learning. As in most places, however, the neurodivergent have faced a history of ableist discrimination, institutional barriers and unintentional injustices that rise from ignorance. Recognizing this pattern of discrimination, advocates for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs have begun to include neurodiversity as part of their project of social justice. In some cases, this emphasis on providing access has added Accessibility to the acronym and renamed it IDEA (not to be confused with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Many members of the Wolf Pack community (faculty, staff and students) have conditions that qualify them as neurodivergent, which often means that they struggle for social acceptance, fair treatment and accessibility. For years, the Disability Resource Center has arranged reasonable accommodations to allow all students to have an equal opportunity for a great education. But the DRC points out that engaging the issue does not end with providing eligible students extra time on exams. As Assistant Director Mary Anne Christensen puts it, “Neurodiversity affects far more than the neurodiverse population; it impacts the entire university.”

This year the Faculty Diversity Committee at the University took an important step to addressing this situation by creating the Neurodiversity Alliance. The Neurodiversity Alliance’s mission is to raise awareness, promote access, and ensure equity for the neurodiverse population at the University of Nevada, Reno. The Neurodiversity Alliance advocates Universal Design for Learning, an approach to learning that recognizes variation in human cognition and neurological conditions as natural, to afford every student an equal opportunity to succeed. It works to reveal institutional barriers that disadvantage neurodiverse people, and to develop alternative practices that do not discriminate. It also works to coordinate faculty efforts with the Student Working Group for Neurodiversity and form an alliance to meet the different needs of every neurodiverse person at the University.

On April 8, as part of the 2021 Northern Nevada Diversity Summit, the Neurodiversity Alliance will take its first official action by publicly announcing its formation, presenting its goals and activities, and discussing the way it can best serve the UNR community. Participation in the NNDS is free but requires registration.

Learn more about and register for the Northern Nevada Diversity Summit


James L. Cherney (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2003) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. His primary area of research is the rhetoric of ableism, particularly as it operates around sport and visibility. He has published articles in such outlets as the Western Journal of Communication, Disability Studies Quarterly, and Argumentation and Advocacy. He frequently co-authors work on disability and sport with Kurt Lindemann of San Diego State University and he has been highly active in the Disability Issues Caucus in the National Communication Association (NCA). His book Ableist Rhetoric: How We Know, Value, and See Disability, will be published by Penn State University Press in 2019.

James Cherney
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