Technology and Employment

Exceptional Parent, November 2000

Can technology help a person with a disability get and keep a job? Chances are, there is a technological innovation out there that can. Technology is no longer just the domain of the elite. These days, assistive technology finds its way into a great many jobs for people with special needs. From electric paper folders to talking wristwatches to computers controlled by head movements, there is a full spectrum of technological offerings that can help a person with a disability hold a job. Across the country, in every state, there are transition specialists, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and prevocational counselors who work with students who have disabilities, the school team, and potential employers to make employment happen. There are rehabilitation agencies and rehabilitation engineers who identify abilities in a potential job candidate and who then figure out strategies with employers to help each client with a disability find work.

Opening the door

In order to understand how people with disabilities can find employment using technology, one must also understand the obstacles to employment that may exist and how to overcome them. Dr. Ellie Emanuel, associate director of the National Transition Network at the University of Minnesota, says that there are some “69 to 71 percent [of people with disabilities] not being hired in this country, which has to do with attitude and not understanding disability.” Part of the misunderstanding feeding these attitudes among employers is the unfounded fear that hiring a person with a disability will result in a substantial cost to their business. The reality is, according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the President’s Commission on the Employment of Adults with Disabilities, “two-thirds of all accommodations cost less than $500 and that more than half of employers surveyed report benefits in excess of $5,000.”

In fact, costs for technical accommodations for employment of people with disabilities can be offset by funding supports in the community. Cost-sharing of technical accommodations and job training is often a possibility, particularly if a school system is involved with the job search. Other incentives to employers exist as well. For example, JAN reports, “employers who hire individuals with mental retardation may be eligible to receive on-the-job training reimbursement from The Arc. Other possible sources of support for employers are their state’s rehabilitation agency, or a local Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) program. Employers may also receive tax credits under the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit provisions of the IRS.”

Technology on the job

Once barriers to employment are broken down, how can technology help a person with a disability do a job? The answer lies in matching the right technology to the person’s abilities and the job’s demands. “It boils down to the one-to-one situation, whether it be the teacher, or the rehab counselor, or the work experience coordinator; who can see what it takes [to get this person a job], and [then] designs something,” says Chris Shoeller. Shoeller is training coordinator for the Social Security Insurance Project in Minnesota, and parent of a successfully employed son with a disability. One man with whom Ms. Shoeller worked started his own business in his home since his fragile health made it difficult for him to work anywhere else. He uses a computer, which he controls by head movements.

Often the technology that makes things happen for employees with disabilities is as simple as one switch. As a rehabilitation engineer, Dianne Goodwin, ME, of Blue Sky Designs, Inc., often works with students with disabilities, their teachers, employers, and vocational rehabilitation counselors to identify jobs and make them accessible, usually by finding or designing the right adaptive equipment. She recently helped identify a home-based job for a young man who is medically fragile and who has significant cognitive and motor impairment. “We looked at tasks within jobs that he could do with the use of a switch. We met with his occupational therapist, his primary care attendant, his vocational rehab counselor, and his aunt. We identified four tasks he could do with a switch. We then improved access to the switch via a powerlink from AbleNet… and hooked up a paper shredder, electric paper folder, and stapler to that.” With this adaptation, Ms. Goodwin’s client could activate all the devices that he needed to do his job with his switch.

High-tech and low-tech solutions that work

If a device can help do the job, it does not matter whether it is state-of-the-art or not. In order to accommodate someone with a visual disability, for example, there are many ways to adapt a work environment, ranging from the more dazzling new inventions to innovative uses of commonly used technical devices. Among the high-tech tools out there for individuals who have visual impairments who are in need of computer access, there are screen readers and screen magnifiers (see sidebar for more information). On the lower-tech side, Ms. Goodwin points to the experience of one client who was blind, deaf, had cerebral palsy, and used a wheelchair. He was able to get a job stamping boxes with a label designating what was inside. She explains, “The unfolded box was positioned by a jig. The stamper came down in the same place every time; the stamper was on a spring-loaded arm.”

Another fairly simple, inexpensive, but very clever technical accommodation is described by Mandy J. Gamble, a human factors consultant with JAN: “An individual with no vision was placed in a switchboard operator position for a large service complex building. The individual needed to be aware of which telephone lines were on hold, in use, or ringing. She was provided with a light probe to assist in determining which console buttons were lit up, blinking and/or steady.” The light probe is a sensor that makes a sound whenever it detects a light and the operator passes over the switchboard, listening for any sounds. Ms. Gamble also points out that, “The telephone console was modified to provide the employee audible differentiation for incoming versus internal calls.”

Attila Kutashy, employment coordinator for the Parents’ Alliance Project in Chicago, attests that often the simplest innovations can help the most. Mr. Kutashy remarks that a simple bungee cord has aided at least six of his clients with disabilities, who work for supermarkets, collecting carts. He instructs clients telling them, “Hook up the first cart, then two to five more using the bungee cord to control the carts and group them together.” He points out that this method prevents shopping cart accidents and the employers are happy with it. Mr. Kutashy also recommends that clients try wearing digital wristwatches or talking wristwatches if they need help telling time or to remind them to get a job done in a certain amount of time. He says, “This enables them to maintain independence and meet deadlines.”

Technology helping the work experience

Problems on the job can always arise, but for an individual who has a disability in which behavior is an issue, stressful situations can be exacerbated. There is a solution, however. For someone who faces that difficulty, a technological device as simple as a pager can be very reassuring. Ms. Goodwin explains that a pager or cell phone can allow an individual to reach out to job support team members. She says, “If they are able to have something in front of them that they can use to call the supervisor or job coach, that can reduce behavior issues.”

Technology can also help an individual whose disability may make interpersonal communication difficult. James Stinespring says that an augmentative communication device helps his son, Patrick, who has autism, at his job at a Chicago-area food store. The egg-shaped device clips onto a belt and is capable of sending out eight different messages. By using the communication device, Patrick, 30, does not have to focus too much on social interaction while he does his job bagging groceries. Mr. Stinespring explains, “The important thing is when he works with the public, he needs something for the communication…[because] when he does try to talk, he goes so fast.” The augmentative device is a useful innovation that helps keep things smooth for Patrick while he is interacting with his coworkers and the customers.

Something for everyone

Technical accommodations are finally catching up to human abilities and are being harnessed to facilitate employment. The key is hooking up with a vocational rehabilitation counselor who can identify a person’s abilities and work with that person’s goals. By using the Web (see Web sites below), it is now possible to find out about the latest innovations within seconds and some of the organizations that link up people, accommodations, and employers with funding information. People with disabilities and their families should remember that the law (ADA) is on their side and feel empowered by the significant progress that has taken place in the last ten years. The healthy economy has also created a need for workers. Parents can encourage their children, long before transition to employment is upon them, that they have a place in the workforce. It may not be a perfect world, and may be even less so for our children with special needs; yet there is more within their grasp these days than ever before. We just have to give them the tools to help them do what they can.