Digitalisation is an opportunity to unlock the potential of "cognitive minorities"

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At the January meeting of the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN), the members of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) discussed how to tap into the potential of "neurodiversity", which could also help people within these so-called cognitive minorities to integrate socially.

The digital revolution offers an opportunity to unlock the potential of people considered to belong to cognitive minorities and help them better integrate into society. People with autism, a high IQ, hyperactivity, dyslexia and dyspraxia find it difficult to fit into society due, mainly, to general prejudices and their particular verbal communication difficulties. Nevertheless, although they may not have standard social skills, they are able to acquire highly technical skills. This could undoubtedly help many European companies bridge the technological gap, providing at the same time an opportunity for social integration.

At its January meeting, the EESC's TEN section hosted a roundtable on neurodiversity and digitalisation. Hugo Horiot, author of the book Autisme, j'accuse! and autistic himself, set the tone of the debate and referred to the potential that the digital revolution holds for "unusually skilled" people. Neurodiversity is a generic term covering all cognitive specificities of the human species, the so‑called neurofamily, he said. There are many niche areas where certain highly technical skills are necessary but very hard to find, because the system rejects the cognitive group that provides those skills. An example is hacking. We need good hackers to counter cybersecurity issues. We see 18‑20‑year-olds who have excellent skills in this field, but at the same time have not managed to get a diploma or another official recognition. We need to encourage business and institutions to set other recruitment and evaluation methods than the standard models that are based on social skills.

The recognition that all human beings are complementary and able to contribute to our society in multiple ways is fundamental. We are all different to each other, declared the president of the TEN section, Pierre Jean Coulon. However, there are differences that are considered to be acceptable because they do not bother and affect anyone and, on the other hand, there are differences that we do not accept, such is the case of neurodiversity,he continued.

Awareness-raising is essential, otherwise there is no recognition and visibility for people belonging to these cognitive groups. Ariane Rodert, president of the EESC's INT section, stressed that we must aim at a more inclusive society, with diverse forms of businesses and companies in the EU. We are facing enormous societal challenges, she maintained. It is crucial to pull together all resources in our society to make sure that we come up with the right solutions.

The very specialised skills that people belonging to atypical cognitive groups may develop are key in the field of artificial intelligence, where challenges are both social and ethical, but also very technical, highlighted Catelijne Muller, president of the EESC's Temporary Study Group on artificial intelligence. It is my strong belief that people with disabilities are people with extraordinary abilities,she pointed out. The skills gap is now one of the pressing issues we are facing and abilities like higher intelligence, stronger concentration and attention to detail, and greater resilience to working long hours without being distracted are all fundamental when it comes to artificial intelligence.

People must remain at the centre of digital development, added Ulrich Samm, president of the EESC's Permanent Study Group on the Digital Agenda, but we must assess how new technologies can help. The idea of positive discrimination is something that we have to keep in mind, he said. We need to capitalise on highly-skilled people and use new technologies to cater for what is missing.

It is important to bear in mind that, according to a number of estimations, approximately 65% of today's school pupils will be called upon to perform jobs that do not currently exist and that companies will find it increasingly difficult to find the skills they need in schools. Tapping into the potential of cognitive minorities would not only provide a vital contribution to our society, but would also represent an opportunity for social integration for people who have an intelligence that is different in nature. A group in society that is deprived of any prospects would be offered the opportunity to contribute to our society in innovative ways, concluded Mr Horiot.

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Neurodiversity and digitalisation