Disability Works

Going Mainstream: New Technologies for People With Disabilities in the Workplace

Assistive technologies for people with disabilities are proving to be advantageous for all employees. The newest technologies embracing features like artificial intelligence and robotics offer remarkable accessibility.
-By Jeremiah Prince

Many employable people with disabilities have one major goal: Get hired and be as productive as possible. This goal sounds just like the goal of people without disabilities. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to slowly decline, though it still remains twice that for people without disabilities. Technology is playing a large role in making the workplace accessible for people with disabilities and in doing so, is enabling increased productivity among all employees.

New technologies make it possible for people with issues like low vision, speech and communication challenges, mobility difficulties, hearing loss, and cognitive challenges to become high performers. Each year, innovative new technologies are developed that remove employment barriers. They include customized computer hardware, artificial intelligence (AI), and advancements in software tools like computer vision and voice recognition.

Into an Employable Future
Technology is improving the lives of people with disabilities in remarkable ways, and one of the most important is that it makes it possible for people with disabilities to become productive employees.

Technology has already removed many barriers to employment, but the best is yet to come. The new trends in technologies take accommodation to a much higher level, opening up employment opportunities for a larger number of people with disabilities. Large tech companies to innovative startups are developing impressive new tools and resources.

There are two terms used to describe accommodations: Assistive and adaptive.

Assistive technology is anything used to improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. The technology can be a product, system, or other item and could be an off-the-shelf item that is used as-is or modified. Also included are custom-made items.

Adaptive equipment is actually a type of custom-made equipment specifically designed for people with disabilities and not used by people with a disability.

Strides have been made in both categories of technologies and equipment. The range of products and equipment is very large now, and they are being developed and produced by innovative entrepreneurs as well as mega-corporations. There are many technologies and specialized equipment in use, but a new wave of advanced technology innovations enhance the ability of people with disabilities to gain and manage employment.

I Can 'See' and 'Hear' You Now
Some new technologies are already in use, but they are continually updated to reflect new research and developments.

Microsoft has a free Seeing AI app for people with low vision. It uses AI to describe people, objects and text. The user switches between channels for the description of various items. It speaks text, provides audio guidance to capture a printed page, helps locate and then scan barcodes, recognizes friends and describes people around the user, identifies currencies, reads handwriting, and describes perceived colors. Two of the very impressive characteristics of this program is that so many different activities are included, and it is mobile.

In fact, one of the trends is the development of technologies for people with disabilities that are used on the same devices that people without disabilities access.

Apple created hearing aids and sound processors for the iPhone and iPad for people with hearing impairments. There is a variety of remarkable features like settings for particular noise levels in different locations, Live Listen which picks up what a person is saying more clearly and transmits it to iPhone hearing aids, and software that converts phone calls to text, to name a few.

There are also software programs geared toward people with vision and/or vision and hearing impairments. An example is VoiceOver, which enables people to use an iPhone because it describes everything happening on the screen, like the person calling or texting, and tells the user about things like battery level.

Google, Microsoft and Apple are now designing their products with customization features from the get-go, rather than developing separate add-on technologies.

In 2018, TD Bank deployed Microsoft Office 365 and Windows 10 on all employee computers because assistive technologies are embedded in the software. Each user can customize their environment with Narrator and Magnifier in Windows 10. Office 365 works seamlessly with screen readers and keyboards on various devices; it offers features like Office Lens that can convert text on a printed page into digital content and Tell Me that enables accessing software features with voice commands.

Google, Microsoft and Apple are now designing their products with customization features from the get-go, rather than developing separate add-on technologies.
Exciting Options for People With Disabilities Needing Assistive Technologies
New technologies for people with motor functioning impairment are also going to the next level of sophistication. NaturalPoint developed a hands-free mouse that enables people who cannot maneuver a traditional mouse to move a cursor with head movements.

This is an exciting time for new technologies for people with physical disabilities. Those with mobility impairments have used common devices like prosthetic legs and wheelchairs for decades. However, there are numerous R&D projects working on futuristic assistive devices like robotic exoskeletons that use computers and motion sensors to enable people who cannot walk on their own power to walk again. Some people are already using them on a daily basis, but they remain experimental and very costly. This will quickly change in the near future.

The future holds great promise for advanced assistive technologies for people with disabilities. Employers should not wait for the future though. There are many technologies available today. TD discovered that implementing the assistive technologies helped people who had not claimed a disability, likely because of the bias that still exists.

There are also many tools and resources available for employers who want to ensure the workplace is as accessible as possible for job applicants and employees. For example, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) offers assessment guides and the TechCheck Benchmarking Tool.

One of the important perspective changes that have taken place is that employers should provide accessibility tools and resources that accommodate as many people as possible because it increases productivity across the board. Increased productivity flows right to the bottom line.