Generations of people with disabilities have faced a similar challenge: how to contribute their skills and talents in work environments that are not always designed with their bodies and abilities in mind. Today, rapid advances in technology are leading to new tools that can help people with disabilities thrive in the workplace and an inclusive approach to design is reimagining work environments to the benefit of people with all abilities.
New Tools to Tackle Old Employment Barriers
Assistive technology is any software, device, or equipment that can help a person with a disability perform a function that might otherwise be difficult.
Carolyn Phillips leads Tools for Life, an Assistive Technology Act program funded by ACL and based out of Georgia Tech. She believes that the effective use of assistive technology by employees with disabilities "is undeniably linked to their long term success in the workplace."
Phillips says that over nearly three decades in the field, “I have seen the assistive technology community time and time again step up to a barrier that exists in the workplace and be able to bridge over that barrier - even knock down that barrier - for future generations, with an assistive technology solution or strategy."
Many assistive technology 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 assistive technology devices are taking full advantage of the latest advances in technology including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and speech recognition.
For example, virtual or augmented reality technology is being explored to help individuals return to employment after a stroke or injury. Earlier this month, ACL's National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) awarded a grant to the Kessler Foundation to develop a Virtual Reality Job Interview Program to help individuals looking to re-enter the workforce after a traumatic brain injury with the social competency skills needed for a successful job interview.
Advances in optical character recognition, object recognition, facial recognition, and text-to-speech are being used to develop new tools that seek to help convey visual information through audio, while artificial intelligence is being used to determine which of the many bits of visual information in a given environment are worth relaying.
Artificial intelligence is being incorporated into a variety of other devices as well including software that provides context-specific cues to people with cognitive disabilities and augmented and alternative communication (AAC) devices that help people with communication disabilities express themselves and interact with others.
From Specialized Tools to Universal Design
From offices to warehouses to farms, technology is everywhere in today's workplaces. Yet many people with disabilities cannot use the keyboards or touchscreens required to use much of this technology.
One way to resolve this problem is to create new "add-ons" that enable people with specific disabilities to interact with technology. Assistive devices now make it possible for people with disabilities to interact with technology using our voices, switches, foot pedals, eye movements, subtle muscle movements, and even our brains. For example, NIDILRR's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on AAC is exploring the use of a brain-computer interface communication system that would allow people with limited movement to select letters using brain waves.
In the late 1980s, Phillips remembers introducing people with spinal cord injuries to early speech dictation software.
"As I was assisting individuals with spinal cord injuries … I kept thinking about how much this solution would help me, a person with specific learning disabilities, and millions of others around the world be successful in the workplace," Phillips recalls. "It gave me tangible hope."
The commercial speech recognition technology that was once only available as expensive add-on software is now a standard feature on virtually all new computers and smartphones.
"It's been exciting to see this very specialized assistive technology solution become a mainstream solution embraced by individuals from all walks of life," Phillips says.
This evolution reflects the promise of "universal design." Ronald L. Mace, who coined the phrase, describes it as “the design of products and environments to be usable to the greatest extent possible, by all people throughout their lifespan, without adaptation or specialized design.“
As an example, smart phones with speech recognition and voice-activated assistants reimagine the way we interact with our phones in a way that allows more people with disabilities to use the phone, but also, improves the experience for users without disabilities.
"Technology, and particularly software interfaces, enable multiple or customizable interfaces, each usable by people with different abilities, and each designed to achieve the same end, to reside in the same piece of hardware," notes Professor Jon A. Sanford. Sanford is the director of NIDILRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technologies for Successful Aging at Georgia Tech and led a NIDILRR-funded research project on universal design practices to enhance work outcomes for people with disabilities.
Other common examples of universal design in the workplace include lights that automatically turn on when you enter the room, doors that open automatically, thermostats that can be controlled with your voice, and desks that can easily be adjusted.
Sanford believes that while assistive technology devices can "make an incredible difference" with specific job tasks, "work is more than just performing one's tasks."
"The workplace itself is a social milieu that creates a sense of participation and belonging," Sanford says. "If someone is able to do their work tasks, but is isolated from, or does not have the opportunity to engage in, the social aspects of the workplace, the result can be poor job performance and satisfaction."
Sanford argues that universal design's strength is that it "addresses both one's essential job tasks and inclusion in the workplace."
"Universal design makes sense - logically and fiscally," Phillips notes. "There's a cost savings, without a doubt, when you design for the whole community as opposed to just 50 to 75 percent of the perceived able-bodied community."
Phillips is especially excited about how advances in technology and design are shaping the way youth with disabilities think about their futures. Younger generations "have been raised with the truth that they have something valuable to contribute to the workforce."
"I look at my daughter, Meera, who uses an AAC device to communicate, to complete her schoolwork, to navigate the world, as a memory aid, to read, and to write," she says. "When you talk with her about her future, one of the first things she will mention are her employment goals."
Assistive Technology Act programs like Tools for Life exist in every state and territory and can help older adults and people with disabilities identify, try, finance, and reuse assistive technology devices.