AXSChat Podcast

Empowering Neurodiversity: A Revolution in Content Creation

October 30, 2023 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken
AXSChat Podcast
Empowering Neurodiversity: A Revolution in Content Creation
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We bring you an uplifting discussion with a change-maker in the neurodivergent community, Gregory White. Founder of 'Drop the Mask CIC', Gregory's personal experience led him to establish this revolutionary enterprise aimed at creating opportunities and accessibility for all, irrespective of age, color or ability. Right before the world was hit by the pandemic, Drop the Mask CIC was born and has been making waves ever since, serving clients from private to public sectors, while maintaining its financial self-sufficiency.

Ever wondered how web design can be a platform to empower the neurodivergent? Drop the Mask CIC has the answer. Gregory and his team have been working tirelessly to equip individuals with communication challenges with a unique tool - the prompting tool. This tool has played an instrumental role in teaching these individuals not just how to create content, but how to bring a distinctive perspective to their work. In doing so, Drop the Mask CIC is making significant strides in reducing the digital divide, with a firm belief in the power of technology and a supportive environment.

Running a small business is not without its challenges, especially within a large bureaucracy. Gregory enlightens us on the importance of prompt payments and how instrumental they are for business sustenance. With a successful venture like Drop the Mask CIC, he emphasizes the value of having a 'float' upfront for long-term sustainability. Join us, as Gregory shares his insights and offers a fresh perspective on navigating a business in a world that often overlooks the neurodivergent community.

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NEIL:

Hello, and welcome to AXSChat. I'm very glad to be able to welcome Gregory White from Drop The Mask today. There's no Deborah, by the way, she's unfortunately had to be elsewhere today, but Antonio and I are very glad able to talk to Gregory. I was introduced to Gregory by one of my colleagues and we had a fascinating conversation offline and I thought the first thing we needed to do was to bring that conversation online. Drop The Mask is a CIC, or Community Interest Company. Gregory, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your journey to create Drop The Mask, CIC?

GREGORY:

Yes, it's quite a long one and quite a short one at the same time. I'm Gregory White, I founded Drop The Mask Productions, CIC, at the end of 2019, four months before the pandemic. And the reason I started it was I started a Masters at Winchester University in the UK. And the reason I started that was because I always had issues trying to fit in everywhere in my life, my whole life. That struggle has been being because I was diagnosed with neurodiversity up to the age of 37/38. I'm dyslexic, ADHD and what was at the time called Asperger's or high functioning autism. I started trying to give myself a chance in my 50s. I really haven't got a really good back history of education or work when I was young or from my 20s or 30s. I have gone through a lot of treatment, support, medically, psychologically. I've been diagnosed when I was younger with paranoid schizophrenia with disassociation and it's that point of never fitting in anywhere. I'm 6ft 5" and 5ft wide as well. I'm 57 now, Drop The Mask has been going nearly four years. I really did it and started it to give myself help with the modules in design and IT, media and also I wanted to look at augmented reality, virtual reality, and how that could be brought on to lower the division within the workforce and create a real low, flat hierarchy. With my autism I will go off and I will have to be brought back to the question, sometimes. But the reason for it is just to level off and give people the same accessibility or chances if they have education, not age, colour, if they sit upside down and a type with one sock off and type a hundred words a minute with their toe, or they can physically just blink, we see no difference. We see everything has to be towards an individual. So that's why it started, really, selflessly but selfishly in a way to see what could be adapted to me, helping me in education as an MA, but also to start a company. And the reason it's a community interest company is because it's the community, the heart of the community with IT and media that don't get the support. They usually get the oversell in the VCE sector, the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise Sector. But there you go, I started four months before the pandemic and it was called Drop The Mask so it wasn't the best name with the pandemic coming up. I hope that's enough for an introduction.

NEIL:

That's super and I think the painful irony that was in the name, and it belies the fact that actually many neurodivergent people spend most their life masking or trying to fit in. It's when we feel comfortable being able to not have to pretend to be someone that we're not, that we can really fulfill our potential. Covid aside, I think that the naming is great. You now are producing materials and you're doing this for paying clients, right? So you're essentially working like an agency, is that correct?

GREGORY:

When I started, December 2019, there was no financial -- a lot of it for myself and a lot of people I know that are neurodiverse, quite a few of them are not great with money, they're not great with possessions and relationships, the whole lot. I'm not talking everybody, but certain people, neurodiverse and some people I know who are not great at what are called normal things, sometimes. It's the adaptability that I started Drop The Mask with, owning about £600 and nothing else in the world and an idea and a really bad laptop. Our first clients, proper clients, were NHS Trust. When Covid hit, they wanted a way to still be able to have conferences but in a way that they could have good bandwidth with training videos and presenters so we used small mini pro-equipment. I borrowed some money to invest in good equipment so we could do that remotely and have four or five hundred people in a disability conference on an NHS Trust. I already don't know what the question was asked, I go off on one. Our clients are private and public so what we've developed is, a lot of it were grants to start with and we a National Lottery grant here in England for a Covid grant and we produced some videos and it was around a lot of other CICs and charities in the local area. From there we've got private clients, paying clients, a lot more NHS Trusts, it's about five or six we've partnered with now. But we partner with a lot of voluntary organisations and umbrella organisations both doing their cyber and stuff. We've realised it's not the best, they don't have the best support or supply and we're not trying to be perfect, but the way we are and the way we look at things differently, as a CIC, we want to go and do what is right for the person or for the business and the money follows. We want to be self-supporting within another year and a half.

NEIL:

Excellent. I really like the CIC model because it's not a charitable model, it's a social good model. And you're making money, you're employing people and then a proportion of the profits goes back into supporting the community. I think this is a really great model for this because often people get giving fatigue in terms of charities. Or, on the other hand, we have had those scandals where you find out that actually a large proportion of the money that you've donated thinking it's going to a good cause actually is going to administration and salaries and everything else. Whereas there's an honesty about CICs that you're a business, you are making money but you have a purpose. And I really like that model because it's a very straightforward model that I think aligns well with people's values. I really support that and I think that, also, we shouldn't be afraid of making good money from doing good things. So this is something I'm passionate about within my organisation that I work for that we ought to be not seeing the work that we do that is inclusive, that's good for society, as charitable or on the periphery or to be core to what we do. And it ought to be generating revenue and benefit to the organisation. Antonio, I think you have a question.

ANTONIO:

I would like to know, considering that you are producing events and considering that we have a lot of updates in technology that you use to make them more accessible, I would like you to give us a brief -- how you're working to make sure when you're producing content and doing events to make sure that everything is successful?

GREGORY:

So I think the most important thing there and a clever way is never to reinvent the wheel, when it's for products or partners that are fully trustworthy like your Arthur Daley that does a good sell and your products are terrible. That's horrible, there's a lot of it out there. I think building trust for your products and services. When I say don't reinvent the wheel, we do web design in the sector and what we do, we go with the fastest web servers, Green Web Server, a company in the UK. We use that model for shared hosting and then we also use a VPS hosting from the same company. On that, we develop a non-backend CRM that we can create databases in under 30 seconds, just from speech, people that can't read or write. And we can build a basic full limited. But the software we use for that is not designed by us, either, it's somebody I've known for 20 years in Italy. And what we try to do with that is the CRMs and the website, especially round the hosting, for us what is important for us is GDPR, what is important for us is cyber safety. Everything they have and are absolutely a 100%, well not a 100%, but where it's as safe as possible, we use those tools and put them together. So in web design we use those tools and plug-ins and word processers on a platform we love, with anybody that we're able to host or design a website for has AI built into those tools for people to be able to describe. We're not scared of AI, one bit. We know it's a prompting tool and that's the best way. And that prompting tool we use to completely reduce the digital divide and the ability of being able to produce digital work, either for us or especially for clients, it's fully supported them. We can teach them without them knowing any back end. The old 'what you see is what you get', that's the type of thing we go to for our clients. So they're then able to use something that's -- and the tools and the plug-ins, the ones we choose, are fully adaptable, you never need to do a redesign. A redesign can be continuous from them or our support. And everything we do, Antonio, along the lines of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, to a point in a very small way for us as a community interest company has to be the latest tech for safety, mainly. But, also, adaptable to make it easy for people that don't have the same technical brain, sometimes, but we like to close that gap to try and make it more accessible for anyone.

NEIL:

Excellent. A quick follow-up question on prompting. It's great that you're in the wave of early adopters and you're using the tools and understanding that prompting is the key to getting results. How are you teaching people to prompt well? Essentially, it's rubbish in, rubbish out. Especially given that amongst the neurodivergent community, you have people that quite often have communication challenges and it's a communication process.

GREGORY:

I'll explain that. Rubbish does go in and come out for the people that struggle. The people that are near to illiterate or illiterate, on a prompting tool for them, if they can put three or four words to type in or speak a sentence which is clearer. When that output comes out for a website or a blog or whatever it needs to be they will sit with one of our directors or one of our volunteers or interns at the moment. There's usually -- and there are other CICs that are in collaboration and are not growing internally but growing as several organisms together as a larger CIC across the Solent area in the south of England. What we do, when we work with people we do a lot of training and a lot around IT training, Word, Excel, all basic stuff. What we do after that prompting is sit with them and develop from what they prompted we, want them to have the first idea. The words, sentences and the structures are not exact but they're quite happy to sit down and hear what changes need to be made. That's the prompting tool for us and it allows them to feel like they can do something without support. And with us being completely flat hierarchy, we don't allow the pointing of fingers here and we don't allow deadlines. The only person with deadlines is me. I'll absorb those deadlines and the people who work with us understand we're completely Drop The Mask is a company with as well as individuals and explain our processes. I don't think we've ever been late on any work at all because there hasn't been a set deadline once people get to know who we are. It seems to work with the prompting and it's just that support to not have the embarrassment, whatever, that empowers.

ANTONIO:

Some people might say that the machines are taking over but, on the other side, there are interesting studies that point out that this technology is opening opportunities for different types of people and is actually helping us to be more in innovative. Do you see that the fact that your colleagues and the people that work with you have that help with the prompting, that helps them to create content and, somehow, bring different perspectives to what you want to achieve.

GREGORY:

Absolutely. For me, which we really loved, it was ideas of wanting to live a different way with myself and others and give that support to be completely who you are in your transparent self. That's why Drop The Mask is -- drop all the masks. We feel we have an open-door policy here, we are sat within a voluntary organisation that covers the whole of Southampton, voluntary services, we have an open door policy. What we try to have is a complete trust issue and that support system. We have a quiet room, a neurodiverse room with a covered light, soft furnishing, on the couch, any time anybody wants it take that break. If we set the right environment and enough desk space and we always talk to an individual if they're a volunteer, or an employee, on internship or work experience, we don't tell them what work we're doing so Antonio so we like to build marketing tools with gains through masks for people who find it hard. We have been working with people, some neurodiverse and some not, to build a code to each and learn. We feel if you create the right environment and don't put things onto people, get to know that individual. What do you like doing? How do you do it? What is your favourite? If we build that small micro environment around for them, for each individual, we've seen some amazing results of just people being as they are, it just drops so many masks for people. I feel that environment and how you are and the hierarchy is so important. All the flatness of the hierarchy helps. Still structured by the way but the hierarchy is something I don't enjoy. Neurodiverse, no.

NEIL:

Antonio and I, both work in a massive multinational. There is hierarchy, aplenty. But I agree with you, I pay not that much heed to whether someone's at the bottom or the top of the hierarchy and I tend to treat them in the same way as a human being. And I believe that people that you pass on your way up are also going to be there when you're on your way down. So you had better be nice to them so you have to stay up all the time. When you're enabling people in this way by asking them what they like and what they're good at, does that enable them to participate in these productions of conferences, websites, blogs, et cetera. Is the aim to keep them on the books of your CIC or are you also building up-skills so people are going out into the wider community and getting themselves involved?

GREGORY:

Shall I give you some examples?

NEIL:

Yes, please.

GREGORY:

Just in the three and a half years, we have had no financial support because who would give a neuro -- I'm not talking about other neurodiverse companies, banks whatever -- but literally, who would give investment to a 54-year old man that has had 30 years of severe mental health and not gone out most of his life. Myself, I've done jobs that are quite, as security, as an engineer, stuff I don't use my brain because my comparison has always been, I am so thick, nobody understands, I'm under everybody else's intelligence. And that with my neurodiversity for most of my life that's what I saw, quite depressing, I suffered from depression. What I realised from that and Drop The Mask is what we have to invest in is the people, first. And to get to know somebody, the best way is not to ask questions too much, it's about what they like. It's not trying to ask questions around family. It's asking what they like and what they're about and patiently, three or four of us, and it breathes into other people, they tell you. So we give that to them, we had one intern on a project who could only work one day a week, that's his capability and we hired him. For the first week he sat here and he doesn't speak many words at all. Very reserved young man. And when he sat down he just wrote'Unity' on a bit of paper so we upload on a double screen, we're Unity and I had to chat really gently and gave him space and said what would you like to do. So he wrote down and said I would like to do a snake game. So at the end of that first day, we just heard the keyboard going faster than we had ever heard, we're surprised his fingers didn't have fiction burns. At the end of the day he had designed a whole game. The second week I came in and I said, would you like to develop it further? That second week he had developed it with walls and a cash shop for getting extra lives. And then the third week I said, would you like to try something else that you're interested? He spoke and said, I would like to do one more, Greg. So, great. So then at the end of the day with about an hour to go somebody said to me I think that young man, Greg, has videoed the snake game on Unity, he is watching it back over. So I went over and said great what have you on done this time? And he went, I just typed in AI so it could learn for itself where food is and how it travels and the other people were like, wow, what did we create? That openness for somebody to show what they do, perhaps, in their own time and to be valued as being good enough. He's gone on to work, we probably have 25 short work experiences from City Council, from links from NHS and people supporting people in addiction, people supporting people with mental health. They come through to us not necessarily stay, sometimes or most of the time it has been their first work experience and I'm talking ages of 17 through to 67. They've gone on to work or to other education and I think it's just a confidence given it in the type of environment it is and that space for them to have that confidence that no one's laughing or saying, I'm better or worse than you. That's what we've seen, so many times.

NEIL:

I think that's fantastic, being able to open up someone's capabilities and their confidence and finding what lights them up. Because we all have something that lights us up in terms of our interests and our engagement. It brings us out of our shell. Each person's particular thing is going to be different. But by focusing on interest and passion you're able to coax out and coach people in a way that I think more traditional methods would probably fail and most of these people, the systems fail neuroatypical people frequently, because the schooling system fails us, because you're expected to behave in a certain way. You said that you felt thick. I certainly didn't understand prior to diagnosis why as someone that was supposed to be intelligent I couldn't do things that my peers could do. Which impacted my own mental health. By focusing on the passion and the things that we are good at, you're starting to help people realise potential that has been untapped for years. So credit to you for that. Antonio, I know that you have another question?

ANTONIO:

How do you, you were talking about one of your colleagues that was developing a game. How do people reach you, how do you reach them? How does that work?

GREGORY:

It was really hard to start with, because my networking was zero people. We did the remote conferencing for a NHS Trust in the south which I thought was absolutely fabulous and they have community partnership, so there's a loads, a couple of hundred people on the trust as community partners. So that's groups, organisations, CIC, small charities, all community-focused. The first few bits of work we did and tried to structure around IT, IT support, hardware and software, remote support and you probably had from my head, somebody said, Greg, can you empty your head from the last 30 years and I did. And they said, is that empty? And I went, I don't need it for everybody to understand and put it on loads of sheets of paper and whiteboards and I said it's about 1% empty but we can take it again in a while. I seriously have all this stuff that I want to get out. We got to know of not ego-driven or nothing about the money, it was how we do things, we do it for the right reasons for the person. As we got the products and people, they had gone to larger profit-driven IT and media companies and they get a really bad service. And there are fire walls that don't work, there are services, we look. I feel embarrassed because I didn't know the sector was like that that or maybe business a bit on its own. That's stuff I've never been around for years. When we've got it working and other organisations, people are saying how is the server these days? Drop The Mask is away from, we're on a 365 platform, we're Cloud based with protection. The last three years I've been developing products that we can properly sell for the right reasons in this sector to support the people that are needed at the right cost. And it's only the last two, three months I've got to a place where I've borrowed from the bank for the first time in my life knowing that I could to invest, my own money, and my partner's done the same. She left a job 20, 30 years of training two or three companies and said I need to come to Drop The Mask and train. I need to be a director. And she has invested money because what we want to do and where we're happy now and it follows on from the question of technical knowledge and making sure it's up-to-date is getting it right for the people we want to support. So we don't care if it's what size company, whatever. Our ethos is we work with people that are not going to be bad for our clients, us as an organisation, that our staff will not be affected by people shouting and screaming from companies. So we've learnt to choose wisely because, otherwise, we have had a couple and our mental health goes really poor. So it's word of mouth I think, Antonio, us trying to do the right thing. People say can you be perfect in what you do? And we think our limit in what we do is about 80% perfect and we laugh. But it is. We usually surpass that but we concentrate on being 80% perfect and it just takes the pressure off everyone not to be perfect. And I think it's just word of mouth and the products we're doing in sector and it's massive to get right and people being oversold and undersupported. I think it's just because we're doing the right thing for people and a different way of working in business.

NEIL:

I think one of the most important concepts I learnt when I was doing my masters in the end was satisfying the idea that actually you don't have to be perfect, that you do just enough to produce a satisfactory result. And if you don't constantly strive for perfection, you don't put yourself under that stress that is actually more likely to trip you up. I know so many people that are perfectionists struggling and failing because they're striving for perfection and, actually, what is need is less and there are times when you want to put in efforts and do something that has all the bells and whistles but it's not all the time. Again it's choosing them and I like the fact that you're choosing your clients based upon how they then impact the community that you've employed, I think that's really smart.

GREGORY:

Yes, can I just speak about another client that we had or clients we have? If that's okay?

NEIL:

Of course.

GREGORY:

I would love to chat about this, so much. The NHS, several we're not picking on one NHS, one department or Trust or anything, but what we found with our ethos and working with Trusts is that for a long time they are set in a way and their own organism and how they work especially with a lot of hierarchy, we're bound in and everything, that's to a point. I'm not talking on the medical side I'm talking more on trusts from the community side or mental health side. Working with those community partners. What we found right from the start is that they really care and do a lot for community. But they celebrate themselves a lot and not people that work in all grants to do for. The worst thing we found out was we got a PO number for a large bit of work, which would make us secure for three or four months and gives a bit of cashflow for a change. We had to wait 13 be months for the payment because the PO was lost four times, this was loss, boss is away, someone is on holiday. It happened three or four times on the trust and I did feel quite suicidal coming into work, driving one day, not that I would and if I've gone too far talking about suicide -- For me, I have to have my true feelings said for what it is, and I phoned the Trust and said, this can't keep happening, why does it happen? And from two or three Trusts they said it's set in stone as red tape, POs can only be raised. And nobody had the idea of what each one and the legal stuff that could be done so I asked for a meeting with a couple of the trust as said how can this be changed around? Let me tell you if nobody else has before, this is really affecting mine and everybody else's mental health, worrying about payments and wages. Because I'm sure none of you, you all get your pay every month. When we looked at it and they gave me the reasons they couldn't do it, with my autism, I can't handle a lot of words so when I read I actually structurally I will read two pages at a time and I see words as objects, mainly. Someone is it the research and came back and said it will take two years to make it change. I went back with the evidence, I've never shouted or screamed, I went back and had a nice conversation with them for over two hours. And from that conversation with two Trusts. There's a MOU in place now, Memorandum of Understanding, anybody within the community, to the trusts themselves, gets paid 50% before starting work within 15 days. There's a scope of work done that we're introducing to other CICs and stuff for the trust to have that shoulder to shoulder fairness and us being treated with responsibly. We were seeing some time so there's an extension to their staff with unexpected work, it's a bit more, that has a deadline we'll wait for this. We had to put this in place really politely. That surprised me but, for me and others, I have to do what I feel is right, not being a hero but being right for everybody, for us, our clients, who they are supporting. And the relationships now are really unbelievable. They don't feel like it's NHS in the community organisation, it feels quite friendly and quite a bit more level, and a bit more respectful.

NEIL:

I think that's brilliant and I think that's massively important. It's unfortunate that Deborah couldn't be with us today because she is the one that runs a small business so she would absolutely empathise with you. Us working in large bureaucracies can tell you how difficult it is to manage the processes and find the people and navigate that with the best will in the world. I don't think there's anyone in these places that intends not to pay small companies. But, it's easy for staff to fall between the gaps and because they don't have that human relationship view of the impact on individuals it continues to happen, it's writ large across that small business, large organisation, relationship over around the world. So the fact that you have now got a flow to help front, means that that's the difference between an organisation surviving and not. That creates that long term sustainability for the work you're doing. Congratulations. I know that we've reached the end of our time. I want to thank you so much for all of the work that you're doing. And for coming on and being our guest today, I look forward to us continuing the conversation on Twitter and I need to thank MyClearText for keeping us captioned and accessible and Amazon for keeping us on air. Thank you very much, Gregory.

GREGORY:

Thank you both for asking me, I really appreciate it, thank you

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