According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29.3% of working-age disabled people are employed today, compared with 73.5% of those without a disability. What’s more, the unemployment rate for individuals with a disability was 9.2% in 2017, according to the BLS, more than twice that of those with no disability (4.2%). If only there were some tools to bridge this gap …

Ah, but there are. There are lots, actually. The problem is, while everyone is philosophi­cally supportive of an inclusive workplace, putting that belief into practice is disruptive at a business level. For a company to truly put its money where its mouth is, it takes human resources, financial support and a change in mindset from compliance to inclusivity.

Many tools and guidelines are already in place to foster inclusion of the disabled work­force — government policies, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the emergence of a more flexible gig economy and, the most exciting to me, technologies like virtual reality (VR) and facial recognition. But the growth of disabled employment won’t just fall into place naturally. Companies need to cultivate inclusion in order to cap­italize on the massive impact technology could have.

Building Bridges to Inclusion

Discussions of accessibility tend to revolve around physical workspace accommo­dations. Smart cities are focusing on mobility, and autonomous shuttle systems are in development, like Olli (a partnership born of Local Motors and IBM) to help the disabled get around. But once these employees are in the building at work, can they do their jobs productively and comfortably? Cue adaptive technologies and devices that employers can apply to aid workers with visual, auditory, cognitive and mobility impairments.

For the visually impaired, there are application-based innovations like the Be My Eyes app that uses an Uber-like platform to tap sighted human volunteers from around the world to read or describe something. With other emerging apps, you can wave your phone across an object (like a piece of clothing or currency), and it tells you what it is. The OrCam My Eye device attaches to glasses to read text, recognize faces and identify products. Screen magnification programs like ZoomText and the JAWS screen reader provide speech and Braille output, and work with most popular computer applications.

For the workforce with auditory disabilities, hearing aids with Bluetooth connectivity help navigate phone calls. There are also video relay services that employ sign language interpreters for the deaf to communicate on calls or videoconferences. And a smart­phone program called AVA transcribes spoken words as text on a listener’s phone or tablet. Real-time captioning for presentations and meetings could be generated by an AI-powered communication technology like Microsoft Translator — currently being used at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

For those with motor skill impairments, tools range from simple to downright extraor­dinary. At a basic level, using a keyboard or phone pad can be challenging. Advanced speech (like Dragon Naturally Speaking) and facial recognition programs help address those issues. For dexterity and strength issues and for more extreme disabilities, there are exoskeletal devices (like the X-AR arm), gloves and even suits that support and enable natural motion.

Follow the Leaders

But while all of these assistive technologies can enable disabled people to thrive in the workplace, only genuine business commitment can evolve the corporate culture. According to the The World Health Organization, for example, only 1 in 10 people with disabilities around the world has access to assistive technologies and products. Microsoft is a stellar example of commitment with its AI for Accessibility initiatives, which have already made great strides with programs like Translator and Seeing AI. Other compa­nies have established inclusion councils and created executive-level positions to bring these efforts into their corporate culture. Netflix, for example, has hired D&I heavyweight Verna Myers for its newly created Head of Inclusion Strategy role.

Combine the efforts of these corporate frontrunners with public agencies, and you’ll see the groundwork is being laid. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy established PEAT — the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology — in recognition of the critical role that technology will play in widening the talent pool in this digital age. PEAT offers a tremendous amount of thought leadership, best practices and evaluation tools that businesses can use to create a future of genuine inclusion.

Technology Enables and Empowers Human Work

Through my work at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, I talk a lot about how the future is predicated on humans embracing work with machines. Assistive technol­ogies for the disabled is literally the embodiment of just that. Technology is creating and enhancing work for a whole community previously shut out of the workforce. That’s progress. That’s the future. Important, productive, meaningful work is within reach — let’s grab it (with an exoskeletal hand of course).

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We’ve assembled some of Cognizant’s keenest minds to share their thoughts on how businesses can improve diversity and inclusion, both in an e-book, “Making Room: Reflections on Diversity & Inclusion in the Future of Work,” and a blog series.

In addition to our kick-off article on D&I in the tech industry, our upcoming blogs will cover an array of topics, grouped in four categories:

We invite you to read and welcome your comments to continue this vital discussion.

–Blog editors Desmond Dickerson, Senior Consultant, and Caroline Styr, Research Analyst, Cognizant Center for the Future of Work

Karen McCall

Karen McCall

Karen McCall is Associate Director of Marketing, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. She can be reached at Karen.McCall@cognizant.com.