In the United States alone, 1 in 5 people have thinking differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. For adults, the ratio for having some kind of disability increases to 1 in 4. While many may see these differences as challenges, for the president and CEO of Understood, Fred Poses, there is no less reason for them to thrive and make a major impact on society.
A social impact organization dedicated to serving millions of people who think and learn differently than most, Understood addresses the reality that millions of children and adults with learning and thinking differences struggle to thrive in their everyday lives, whether it be at school or at work. The non-profit is the one of the few organizations of its kind focused on driving behavior change around the millions of individuals with learning and thinking differences. But unlike traditional nonprofits, Understood creates personalized, supportive digital experiences that feature tools and information that are driven by experts, data and firsthand knowledge. Understood works with health care professionals, researchers, human resource professionals and teachers to provide informed expertise and support their community has come to know and trust.
Learning and thinking differences, as explained on Understood’s website, are variations in how the brain absorbs information, affecting daily tasks from reading and writing, to focus and following directions.
The mission is refreshingly simple: shaping the world for difference. Programs are crafted for individuals with learning and thinking differences as well as members of their community – which includes families and educators.
“There is a real demand from the atypical thinker for advice on how to thrive,” Poses said.
According to Poses, since the organization’s founding in 2014, 24 million people have visited Understood.org for its many resources. Most notable, is its Take N.O.T.E. program that helps families identify potential learning and thinking differences in their children and guide them to take action. Done in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and supported with research from YouGov, Take N.O.T.E. reached 26% of U.S. families who had a child with learning and thinking differences.
The need for Understood’s personalized digital experiences was even more heavily relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic. Poses noted that the organization supported parents and teachers by constructively adapting learning and emotional support in the home. Since the start of the pandemic, Understood has created more than 100 pieces of COVID-related content that touched on distance learning, health and safety challenges, mental health, and racial justice.
Beyond its community, companies have also viewed Understood as a valuable resource. In fact, Understood’s programs and partnerships have led to more than 65,000 jobs for people with disabilities. The organization has helped launch inclusion initiatives at Fortune 500 companies such as Pepsi, Berry Global, and UPS. And, Poses notes, many more are on the horizon as Understood’s e-learning program has been completed by more than 2,000 HR professionals at more than 700 companies.
On the other side of supporting thinking differences is the harsh reality of systemic issues like underemployment, high school dropout rates, and the general stigma towards disabilities. Poses understands that building up Understood’s constituents for success also means making the world more accommodating, which includes a combination of understanding, support and embrace of the diverse.
He said: “Four out of five people without differences get a job on the first try. Only 45% of that remaining ‘one’ get a job. Our purpose is to show individuals what they can do despite, or even because of, the differences in their approach.”
Poses has a long history working in corporate America as former CEO and partner of Ascend Performance Materials, and chairman and CEO of Trane Inc. (previously American Standard Companies). From this, he learned lessons that transferred over to his work building Understood.
“Like the corporate world, Understood is results oriented, which is exactly how I would run a for-profit company,” Poses said. “It’s about how good we can get each and every individual in our community to be, and surrounding them with people who can help in their journey to reaching those goals.”
“Think of it this way: If a 60-year-old with differences had been told at age 27, or even earlier at age 12, that the way they interact with the world was an asset, their outlook and way of being would have changed long ago and likely would have impacted their journey for the better.”
As for future steps with Understood, Poses said, “We want to reach more people, as many as possible, and accelerate their progress. It’s not easy, but together we can get there.”
Poses offered advice to other company leaders who, in his view, also have the power to drive societal change. “Understood is challenging the status quo by asking for others to do so, too. To other CEOs, I recommend recruiting neurodiverse talent, letting that effort include people who think differently from you and your colleagues, and redefining accessibility standards. The unexpected edge of those who think differently may be what your mission is missing.”
I believe the great CEOs understand both business success and personal success. My higher purpose is to disseminate CEO wisdom to help elevate business, the economy and