Technology can make the workplace more accessible to the disabled

September 16, 2012 - by: Diversity Insight 0 COMMENTS

by Tammy Binford

It’s natural to question what the future will bring to the workplace. How many more resources will the Internet make available? What new apps have the potential to revolutionize the world of work? How will technology enable employees to overcome disabilities?

The questions – and answers – seem limitless as technology advances at a dizzying pace. Those in the workforce for even a short time have seen innovations bring groundbreaking change. And change isn’t likely to slow.

Role of technology

More and more employers are being called on to use technology to make the workplace accessible to employees and applicants with disabilities. The federal government continues to encourage – some would say force – employers to reach out to people with disabilities.

In July, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that in fiscal year 2011, employees with disabilities represented 7.41 percent of the overall federal government workforce and 11 percent when the figures included veterans who are 30 percent or more disabled.

The announcement also reported that in 2011, people with disabilities represented 7.96 percent of new federal hires. The figure rises to 14.7 percent when veterans who are 30 percent or more disabled are included. OPM said in total, more than 200,000 people with disabilities are now working for the federal government.

In addition to setting an example with its own hiring efforts, the federal government has proposed regulations that would set a goal for private-sector employers who are federal contractors to have seven percent of their workforce be made up of people with disabilities. But employers wonder how to meet such a goal and how technology can help?

What are the gaps?

The role technology plays in getting people with disabilities into the workplace was examined in a recent webcast that featured government, industry and advocacy representatives. During the program, Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, spoke of the differences she sees in how people with disabilities and those without disabilities manage in the workplace.

Martinez, who is blind, has years of experience in the workplace as a person with a disability, and she’s concerned that many people with disabilities can’t access the tools and information that can make them successful.

She noted that as a child she used tape recordings and Braille to get by, but now she’s able to use updated technology such as screen readers, mobile devices, GPS systems designed for people with vision impairments, and “anything that can make me more competitive and productive in the workplace.” But she says more progress needs to be made.

“I do see some gaps,” Martinez said. “Yes, some folks with disabilities are employed, but many of us still can’t access online application systems. We sometimes can’t access our own time sheets, for example, … or online training [and] e-learning. There’re so many things that would allow us to advance in our workplace and actually become more productive if these different types of technologies were accessible.”

Technology may provide some of the answers to the accessibility problems, but it’s going to take effort and understanding of the needs for developers to come up with useful products.

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, also spoke on the webcast. “We have not found a way to regularly create accessibility on every application from the beginning,” Cerf said. “And it’s not easy to do that.” He added that developers need standards and “people who appreciate and understand the diversity of need that people have. And I think we’re not there yet.”

Another webcast participant, Jim Tobias, president of Inclusive Technologies, an organization offering consulting services on how technology can better meet the needs of users, spoke of the goal of “universal design,” a way of designing technology so that as many people as possible, including people with disabilities, can use it.

Martinez predicted that the aging baby boomer generation will increase the need for such technology to help people work in spite of disabilities.

Employer tip sheet

If employers are to increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce, they need to know how to recruit them. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has compiled a list of ways to recruit workers with disabilities. Those suggestions include:

  • Posting positions at job service or workforce employment centers.
  • Contacting college and university career centers.
  • Partnering with disability-related advocacy organizations.
  • Including people with disabilities in diversity recruitment goals.
  • Posting jobs in disability-related publications and websites and with vocational rehabilitation programs and independent living centers.
  • Participating in disability-related job fairs.

More help

Here are a few organizations employers can turn to for help in employing people with disabilities:

 

  • The Employer Assistance and Resource Network based at Cornell University and funded by ODEP, supports employers in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing employees with disabilities through technical assistance, consultation, training, and updates on disability employment news.

 

  • The U.S. Business Leadership Network is a business-to-business network promoting businesses where people with disabilities are included. Activities include career fairs, disability mentoring and internship programs, and training.

 

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