How Technology Supports People With Disabilities

Computer-Access

The high global unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to be a major problem.  Even before the economic downturn took hold in 2007, disabled persons were still the most vulnerable to not finding gainful employment.  According to UN statistics from 2005, “in developing countries, 80 percent to 90 percent of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50 percent and 70 percent…In most developed countries the official unemployment rate for persons with disabilities of working age is at least twice that for those who have no disability.”  There are approximately one billion people living with some form of disability worldwide.

There are many stereotypes about hiring disabled workers, including its too expensive to hire them and they need special treatment.  This is far from the truth.  There are many tech firms today hiring people with disabilities that focus on job-related strengths and accommodate special needs.  These firms include Apple, Microsoft, Google and IBM.

In addition, many of these firms have created products that have made the working and personal lives of disable persons easier.  Apple has led the pack with multiple accessibility tools recently, with “inventions such as Braille mirroring, which enables deaf and blind kids to work together on the same computer at the same time; the world’s first screen reader that can be controlled using gestures; and captioning of downloadable digital movies.”

In many developing countries, only five percent to 15 percent of people who require assistive devices and technologies have access to them.  This is because the production of accessible technology products are limited and sometime very expensive.  There are now many entrepreneurs making assistive technology products that are affordable, like TED Fellow Sumit Dagar, who is in the process of building the world’s first Braille smartphone.  Dagar says that he wants to make it as affordable as possible without compromising on design and quality.  He also says that it will take “at least 18 months time before we are close to a production ready product. This product will still take significant time to come to market. This estimation is however based on using the commercially available Braille Cell, and that we are able to raise sufficient funding.”

Of course with the ever growing amount of technological accessibility, many people with disabilities have become entrepreneurs themselves, using the same tools older workers are using.

However more education is needed on how to increase hiring of people with disabilities:

  • Document Inclusion – Generally most firms have hiring policies on the books for women and ethnic minorities only.  HR departments should include specific wording in all employment policies and other documents that includes that they hire people with disabilities as well.
  • Make Accommodations Public – Not only should firms’ hiring polices be more inclusive, they should also make it public on their online presence what specific adjustments are being made to accommodate employees with disabilities.
  • Sensitivity Training – Many people are fearful of saying or doing something that could offend disabled co-workers, which can cause tension and barriers in the long run.  To avoid this, it might be a good idea to host regular diversity training workshops to air out these concerns.
  • Get Outside Support – Many government agencies assign consultants to firms to act as mediators and to make sure disabled employees and their employers are working soundly and to help avoid any potential employment discrimination claims.

To find out more information on persons with disabilities in the workplace, visit ILO’s Global Business and Disability Network.  The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will also be hosting a high level meeting during UN Week on improving the needs of disabled people through development.

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