IT and disability: A symbiotic pair
I graduated with honors from the George Washington University in 2012. My internships at places like McClatchy Newspapers and Voice of America backed up my academic hard work and commitment to my major in journalism.
But I don’t say this to gloat. Instead, it’s to illustrate the juxtaposition between what I had accomplished as an undergraduate and my ensuing 12 months of unemployment.
Cerebral palsy is something I have lived with all of my life, but there may not have been a time in my 22 years when I felt more disabled than that year after graduation. Encountering small-mindedness and hesitancy is inevitable with a visible disability, but I never thought it would completely turn off so many potential employers.
More than eight in 10 people with disabilities were unemployed in 2012, according to the Department of Labor, about the same as in the years before the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Even though I was eventually hired by FCW in 2013, many people with disabilities never find themselves on the trajectory that has brought me from high school to college to employment (albeit with a disconcerting hiatus between the latter two). Why? Because they haven’t been afforded the technology that would enable them to succeed as a student or a professional.
I’ve developed a deep appreciation for nuance as a journalist, especially in the realm of politics and technology policy. Yet I fully and unapologetically subscribe to the notion that technology and technological awareness can singlehandedly solve this particular employment crisis.
One Step Up
The theory of one step up is rooted in my experience that the majority of inaccessible places -- like restaurants and stores -- are exclusive of people who use wheelchairs because of merely one or two steps. It’s not a flight of stairs or a renovation that would costs thousands of dollars. It’s just one or two steps.
The main reason employers are initially turned off by candidates with disabilities, I believe, is the question of accommodation: What are we going to have to do to enable this person to do their job?
Still, the problem may stretch back even further, to that person never having gotten the accommodations to perform in school or in life. My one step up was eliminated in grade school when I was given an adaptive keyboard, with which I write this very article. This keyboard has made opportunities like graduating college much more achievable.
The one step up theory identifies two voids that, if filled, will have immeasurable impacts for the employment of people with disabilities.
First, there must be a more concerted effort by governments at all levels to ensure that students with disabilities have the appropriate assistive technology. Doing so isn’t about money or more government red tape, but rather having faculty who are competent in assistive technology and can ride through the trial-and-error process for students with disabilities. Whether the solution is amending the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to include performance-based metrics for students using assistive technology or an entirely new piece of federal legislation, the gap between available technology and students with disabilities must be closed in order to increase the employment of people with disabilities.
We now have cars that drive themselves, phones that respond to our voice and increasing chatter around the Internet of things. But for people with disabilities, the exponential growth in technology doesn’t represent merely new conveniences, but necessities that can make the education and employment gap obsolete. The technology is out there; it just needs to be harnessed.
Secondly, employers must understand that implementing assistive technology for people with disabilities is not going to break the bank. According to a 2013 survey by the Jobs Accommodation Network, more than half of the employers who provided cost information related to accommodations said that the necessary accommodations cost nothing.
In my case and many others, it’s as simple as downloading a patch for necessary hardware or software that the individual already owns. An adaptive bring-your-own-device policy, if you will.
When I interviewed for an editorial fellowship at FCW, I was asked why I had an interest in technology. The simple answer was that I needed to. Everything from my adaptive keyboard to the app that records my phone interviews allows me to survive both as a person and a journalist.
Many people with disabilities not only use technology more extensively than their able-bodied counterparts, but are also forced to be creative in order to live their lives. This predisposition could make for excellent IT employees, both in the public and private sectors.
Much as veterans come out of military service with undeniable abilities -- from practical STEM proficiencies to intangible leadership skills -- there is a potential wealth of technological knowledge in people with disabilities. It remains largely untapped.
Reid Davenport is an FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him on Twitter: @ReidDavenport.