As National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) draws to a close, we reflect on the role that employment can play in community inclusion for people with disabilities. NDEAM is observed each October to celebrate the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities and to showcase supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices that benefit employers and employees. This year’s NDEAM theme, “Advancing Access and Equity,” speaks to the importance of breaking down barriers and creating opportunities that make employment inclusive of people with disabilities.
Ensuring that people with disabilities have equal opportunity to prepare for and succeed in employment requires a multi-faceted approach. Such an approach must include a real effort to change expectations — replacing the misconception that people with disabilities can’t work with the reality that highlights the critical skills, abilities, and value they bring to the workplace and to their employers’ bottom lines. Children with disabilities should grow up with the same expectations as those without disabilities. Their educations should help prepare them for competitive, integrated employment — meaningful jobs working alongside people without disabilities in careers that fit their individual interests and abilities, earning competitive wages.
Employment is a critical component of community living. Increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities is an important focus in a number of ACL’s programs. Our University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and National Institute for Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research conduct research and provide technical assistance on how to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Protection & Advocacy agencies (P&As) in every state provide legal assistance to help people with disabilities fight employment discrimination, work with employers to help them make their workplaces fully accessible, and more. The ADA National Network similarly helps employers understand and meet their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Centers for Independent Living help people understand their employment options and provide a variety of supports to help them secure — and succeed — in jobs. State Councils on Developmental Disabilities are successfully advocating for Employment First policies in their states. And our Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center supports the disability networks in doing all these things and more. The State Assistive Technology Act programs help people of any age with a short-term or long-term disability learn about and use assistive technology (AT) to engage in all aspects of life including work, education, community living, housing, transportation, social connections, and health care.
To have equitable access to employment and career opportunities, people with disabilities must also have the tools they need to perform the tasks of their jobs. That’s one of the reasons ACL also works with states to connect people with disabilities with AT.
For many people, AT can be the difference between equal access and exclusion from the employment sphere altogether.
AT is defined as any item, device, or piece of equipment used to maintain or improve the independence and function of people with disabilities. It is crucial to making workplaces more accessible — and for many people, it can be the difference between equal access and total exclusion from the work world.
For example, tools like screen readers, voice recognition software, and alternative keyboards make it possible for people with disabilities to use computers and other typical workplace systems. But AT is more than just making technology accessible; there is broad diversity in the experiences of people who use AT, and an even broader array of tools to help all employees succeed at work.
Many AT solutions are decidedly "low tech." For example, a simple seat cushion can make all the difference for an employee whose job requires hours of sitting. Other AT devices are taking full advantage of the latest advances in technology including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and speech recognition.
ACL’s State Assistive Technology Program provides funding to grantees in every state and U.S. territory to ensure that people with disabilities know about options for AT and can access the tools they need to fulfill their goals for independence, community living, and employment. Oftentimes, individuals are not aware of or do not have access to the sheer number of options of AT that exist; other times, AT may be too costly for an individual to purchase without financing. The AT program works directly with individuals, providing demonstrations of AT devices to address functional needs and loan equipment so they can “test drive” options.
AT programs partner with other state agencies to provide a set of integrated activities and services that directly benefit individuals with disabilities, older adults, veterans, caregivers, professionals, schools, vocational rehabilitation agencies, health care providers and agencies, and transportation providers by providing unique access to, and acquisition of, AT devices including durable medical equipment. For example, the Nebraska AT program partners with Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) to provide AT assessments to people who are receiving VR employment services. The AT program works with the individual, providing demonstrations and loans of equipment to find the best fit.
The demand for AT is only continuing to grow, and ACL and its partners will need to forge innovative partnerships both within and outside of government to develop creative solutions to keep up with the demand. Kansas Rehabilitation Services experienced a 30% increase in requests for AT in the past year. They partnered with Assistive Technology for Kansans to provide these individuals with the technology they needed for employment or retraining.
ACL’s AT program is making a huge difference in the lives of the people we serve — and it is playing an important role in helping people with disabilities succeed at work. Here are some examples of the direct impact of our programs:
- A nurse with 47 years of experience had a total laryngectomy and wondered how she could return to work without her voice. The Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation referred her to the Colorado AT Act Program, where she tried out speech-generating devices with recommendations made by a speech-language pathologist. Once she found the speech device that worked for her, she reported to clinic staff that, “I can do everything I used to be able to do, except talk. I can do my job with this device.” In July, after a successful interview using her pre-programmed device, she was offered and accepted a full-time position at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver.
- The Kansas Telework Program financed a vehicle for a young man who had three part-time jobs, one of which was as a volunteer firefighter. It was important that he have a reliable vehicle to respond to calls. Given that he had a head injury, this vehicle was outfitted with a navigation system that provided the supports he needed — detailed onscreen and verbal directions to allow him to navigate from any location in response to an emergency call. The reliability of this new vehicle also allowed him to maintain part-time employment at a youth crisis home and occasional use of his vehicle for a non-emergency medical transport service. He was confident in the knowledge that he would be on time and available for all three employers.
- State financing activities in Connecticut allowed an AT loan borrower to receive funding for an accessible vehicle and the requisite vehicle modifications through a collaboration among the Connecticut Bureau of Rehabilitation, the Connecticut Tech Act Project (which provided a low interest loan for an extended period so that a man was able to purchase the vehicle), and grants from several other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. The new modified accessible vehicle allowed the man to drive directly from his wheelchair to maintain his independence and commute to work.
As technology continues to evolve, new tools will make the AT program even more critical. This technological advancement creates additional opportunity for ACL’s AT programs to help more people find and succeed in employment, advancing our mission of independence, integration, and inclusion throughout life.
NDEAM may be wrapping up, but our commitment to expanding access and equity is not. ACL’s focus on advancing independence, integration, and inclusion throughout life will continue until every person has the opportunity to fully participate in their community.