Technology Boosts Employment of People With Disabilities

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By Genevieve Douglas

Oct. 21 — Workers with disabilities are an under-tapped labor pool, and technology can play a major role in remedying this situation, according to speakers in an Oct. 21 webinar sponsored by Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

While the technological revolution has raised living standards, it also has eliminated huge numbers of jobs and created income inequality, said Linda Barrington, director of the ILR Institute for Compensation Studies. However, “there are opportunities that are coming from this technological revolution,” such as new jobs in the tech sector, the expansion of employment opportunities via technology, and accommodations that can be provided with new technologies, she said.

Unique Opportunities

The tech sector offers unique opportunities for people with disabilities, especially when it comes to accommodations, Susanne M. Bruyére, professor of disability studies at the ILR School, said. Current estimates show that total employment in hi-tech industries encompasses 28 million workers in the U.S., Bruyére said, meaning approximately a fifth of total U.S. workers.

Barrington noted that these jobs often include wages that are approximately 50 percent higher than the average job.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for people looking for new skills and careers,” Bruyére said.

One barrier to employment for people with disabilities is the way their disabilities might prohibit them from even getting through the initial stage of the hiring process, Annie-Rose Fondaw, communications manager at LaunchCode, a recruiter for technology companies, said during the webinar.

Though employers often say they really only care about the skills and motivation of a potential hire, the formalities of the hiring process don't necessarily contribute to this philosophy when it comes to people with disabilities, Fondaw said.

“Democratizing opportunity” and eliminating these barriers is key to hiring people who haven't come from traditional technology job training but have the necessary talent, Fondaw said.

According to Jenny Lay-Flurrie, senior director of accessibility, online safety and privacy for Microsoft, employee resource groups are another important piece of the puzzle for hiring and onboarding individuals with disabilities. These groups can be a forum for sharing tips and recommendations—anything from better relating to co-workers to better accessibility and communication methods, she told webinar attendees.

Companies should be motivated to have such groups in place because people with disabilities can make “a very large, strategic difference to the company's bottom line,” she said.

Speaking at a July 31 disability employment summit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Tom Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the first recipient of the US Business Leadership Network's global disability leadership award, said there are “too many employers that are unaware of the valuable contributions that workers with disabilities can make to their businesses. They may not know how to reach them, or they may be concerned about the perceived costs and challenge of providing accommodations” (66 BTM 253, 8/11/15). 

Technology as Facilitator

Advances in technology have made an employer's ability to accommodate an individual with a disability even easier, Stephen King, director of the Department of Defense's Computer/Electronic Accommodations program, said during the webinar.

According to King, such technologies can be as simple as a video phone for a deaf individual, or a recording device for a service member who has traumatic brain injury and has a difficult time staying organized and remembering information. However, technology has also evolved to a place where a brain port device helps blind people see through their tongues, he said, or Google Glass provides voice-activated technology, speech-to-text services and facial recognition software all in one device.

“This is a win-win for everyone, and it makes good business sense,” King added.

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