How can we increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce? How can technology and accessible design help? Two groups at Georgia Tech -- the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) and AMAC Accessibility -- are trying to address these questions by developing resources to make it easier for employers to hire people with disabilities.
According to Jon Sanford, director of CATEA, “Our prior research shows that 75% of employees with disabilities rely on some form of technology, architectural modifications, or policy changes to enable them to perform their job tasks. As a result, these types of workplace accommodations must be effective in meeting the needs of each individual employee.”
Three projects undertaken by CATEA and AMAC have the goal of ensuring that individuals with disabilities have the access to the most effective accommodations to meet their needs.
The newest of these, the Workplace Accommodation Expert Support System (Work ACCESS) project, will develop a resource to help employers and employees make accommodation decisions. The project is being funded by a 5-year, $2.37 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).
Karen Milchus, associate director of CATEA and principle investigator of the project, said employers and employees will be able to use the Work ACCESS website or mobile app to describe the accommodation problem and be presented with solution ideas.
Work ACCESS will help not only people with significant and visible disabilities, such as employees who are blind or use a wheelchair, but also people with conditions such as low-back pain, learning disabilities, and age-related hearing loss.
Carolyn Phillips, interim director of AMAC and co-director of Work ACCESS, points out that “as the system is developed, a ‘nothing about us without us’ philosophy will be integrated into every phase, from surveying people as we develop the site to following up with users to gather information about accommodation and (accessible technology) outcomes.”
This use of extensive crowdsourcing, including feedback from system users, will allow the Work ACCESS team to guide people to accommodations that have been demonstrated to be more effective. Phillips notes that “in moving Work ACCESS from concept to solution, we will be assisting individuals with disabilities in getting into the workforce and growing their careers.”
Developing More Resources
A second, more focused project at the Centers is developing the Assistive Software Knowledgebase, a crowdsourced online resource to help employers make decisions about assistive software and apps.
Milchus explains that “lately, many workplace accommodations are computer or mobile app-based, and it is difficult to keep up with what is available and how to maximize their use. We are developing a resource that people can use to learn about compatibility issues with specific products, customization tips, and to learn from others what works best is different situations.”
A final project is comparing the differences between work environments that employ universal design principles throughout the workplace to those that merely make ADA-mandated accommodations for their employees with disabilities.
Sanford said, “The workplace is more than just doing your job, it is being included in all aspects of the workplace. While, workplace accommodations enable employees with disabilities to perform their job tasks, universal design also promotes inclusion. As a result, we expect to find that employees with disabilities who work in universal design settings will have higher job satisfaction and be more productive.”
CATEA is currently recruiting employees and employers to participate in this paid user design impact study. More information can be found at https://catea.gatech.edu/accessible-workplace-study.
Employment Elusive for Those With Disabilities
2018 marked a year in which the number of available jobs in the United States exceeded the number of job seekers. Unfortunately for people with disabilities, employment remains elusive. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that only one-third of people with disabilities are in the labor force, and those who are seeking employment face unemployment rates of 8.5%, compared to 3.8% for people without disabilities.
Sanford indicates that research has shown that “the vast majority of employees with disabilities either try to figure out their own accommodation needs or seek the help of their employer, neither of whom is an expert in accommodations.”
Milchus said that these three projects will provide information and tools that employers and employees need to make the workplace more accessible and open up employment opportunities for people with disabilities.