Brighton Digital Festival’s annual programme of events, talks, exhibitions and more celebrates the city’s unique relationship with digital media and technology each year. Brighton is known internationally as the home of digital design in the UK. From the early 2000s, start-ups and individuals have built their services and reputations and spawned the country’s leading agencies and thought-leaders on everything from CSS to SEO, tech-ethics to modern consciousness. It is the bedrock of Brighton’s modern economy.
Creating Environments in Digital for Neurodiverse Folk to Thrive invited the neurodiverse and digital communities to gather at Ironworks Studios to discuss the state of play. Inside the New-York-loft style venue, IRL and remote attendees joined panel members to hear how neurodiversities, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourettes, create challenges for individuals. Following an introductory round, four speakers shared their own perspectives on living with neurodiversity from the curse of distractability to virtues of inclusive thinking. James Dempster (digital marketing agency MD – autistic), Katie Donovan-Adekanmbi (DICE strategic consultant – dyslexic), Bianca Faricy (Departmental Head Teacher – ADHD) joined Andrea Anderson (career coach – autistic) on the stage and shared intimate and honest stories of diagnosis, acceptance, frustration and celebration. Actually, James was a head in a monitor but this is the post-COVID world so that’s normal, right?
The session was split in two halves. To begin with the panel discussed the types of issues relating to neurodivergence, providing context to any neurotypicals attending and those with alternate diagnoses. Rightly, there was limited time spent discussing or debating these clinical definitions because this evening was about sharing lived experience. The panel provided qualitative insights into how it is to be neurodivergent. And it was an emotional session, each panel member in turn opening up about how they came to understand their ‘difference’, how it affected their self-image and personal relationships, the highs and the lows of joining a group of disabled individuals in the eyes of wider society, and of course the strengths that set neurodiverse individuals apart from the herd, from creativity to directness of speech.
Once shared and established, the virtual and physical audience took their turn, not just to debate the topics of diversity and inclusion in the digital and wider worlds, but to share their own stories and identify themselves as aligned with those on the stage and with each other. In fact, this is what BDF does so well; programming that seems, on the surface, to perhaps be a little too fringe, events that might seem a little out of centre, but something about the actual happening creates spaces in which people connect, ideas crystallise and inspiration is found.
Creating Environments wasn’t a particularly informative lecture on neurodiversity. Nor was it the broadest representation of atypical individuals. At times it was apparent it was barely ‘digital’ in topic. But it did what it billed it would: created an environment within a digital community in which neurodiverse folk could thrive. By boldly showcasing the intimate experiences of individuals faced with non-typical cognitive processing, discussions about needs, about hopes, about strategies could take place both in the auditorium and in the bar outside.
Speakers made themselves available and mingled with attendees, sparking ideas, sharing experiences on everything from inclusive VR environments to remembering medication, from form buttons to multitasking. Katie had described how she spent additional time on all her work at school, doing it once her own way and then reworking it to fit the requirements of her educational courses. James and Andrea explained the liberation of no longer pretending to be extroverts and finding the courage to set aside time for quiet and solitude. Bianca shared the risk of online interactions with flashing lights and too many clickable links. Stories we all understood, related to, and could contribute our own versions of. At its best the session became a piece of ethnographic evidence for the need for inclusion as a principle and the diversity of diversity.
Overall the session was informative, yes, and enjoyable. But like the best ‘meetings of minds’ it also had an air of collaboration which must be credited to the festival’s events organisers who build a stronger and more (ahem) diverse schedule of sessions every time, ensuring that the back-patting of Brighton’s digital scene is rooted in responsibility and self-awareness around inclusion and social justice and remains in tune with Brighton’s wider city ethos.
Ironworks Studios, Tuesday 2nd November 2021