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Disabled IT pros are better equipped yet shortchanged

September 12, 1998
Web posted at: 9:58 a.m. EDT (1358 GMT)

by Gary H. Anthes

(IDG) -- Information technology that helps people with disabilities succeed on the job has made huge advances in recent years.

Fortunately, employers generally are willing to make it available to their workers. Unfortunately, the hiring of people with visual, hearing, mental and motor impairments hasn't kept pace with the march of technology. In fact, a recent study suggests that employers are increasingly ignoring that huge pool of job seekers -- people who could help ease the IT skills shortage.

And employers often underestimate the capacity and competence of IT employees with disabilities. As a result, employers fail to nurture their careers.

"There's a tendency to not think of the person with a disability as promotable in the same sense as someone without a disability," says Jamal Mazrui, a legislation specialist at the Washington-based National Council on Disability. "It's like, 'Oh, we figured out a way for this person to do this job, so why complicate the picture by talking about other things?'"

Mazrui, who is blind, knows from experience. Formerly a database administrator at Harvard University, Mazrui says, "I found that when there were new projects that came up, I just wouldn't be someone that was thought of." He should have been more aggressive in demanding new responsibilities, he says.

Wade Churchfield lost the use of his legs in an accident 13 years ago, when he was a systems analyst at Duquesne Light Co. in Pittsburgh. He became the company's first IT employee with a disability, and his use of a wheelchair was career-inhibiting at first, he says.

Duquesne was "very willing to make whatever accommodations I could identify," he says. "The problem was, I was reluctant to identify them; I was just so happy to have a job.

"I let them make decisions for me that really were not good for me," Churchfield says. "They overprotected me." For example, he wasn't allowed to go to computer conferences in other cities because it was deemed unsafe and too difficult.

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More independent

"Everyone can benefit from IT, but people with disabilities have benefited more than any other group because of the increased independence and improved quality of life it gives them," says Larry Scadden, director of programs for persons with disabilities at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Scadden, who is blind, cites several breakthroughs that revolutionized his use of computers. He uses speech synthesis and output for some applications and a braille output device for others. He also listens to paper mail and documents after reading them into his PC via a desktop scanner. Scadden hails recent developments in graphical user interfaces, which are becoming accessible to the visually impaired via speech synthesis and braille. He also cites major progress in the accuracy of speech recognition -- at very affordable prices -- as a boon to people who are unable to use a keyboard for input.

Speech recognition has made the workplace fully accessible to Mark Harmon, who was paralyzed below the neck when his motorcycle struck a tree in 1975.

An independent living specialist at Unum Corp., a Portland, Maine-based insurance conglomerate, Harmon runs a service that offers advice to people with disabilities via E-mail, telephone and the World Wide Web.

Harmon uses the accessibility options in Windows 95 plus the voice-activated DragonDictate from Dragon Systems, Inc. in Newton, Mass., to control his PC and navigate among his applications. He uses Dragon's NaturallySpeaking to create E-mail and documents. "There's incredible technology out there now," Harmon says. "I stopped writing in 1975. Last October, I got DragonDictate and started writing again."

Mazrui uses screen-reader and speech-synthesis software as his interface to word processing, E-mail and various online services. He says employers today generally are willing to make the investments in those IT tools for people already on the payroll.

But he says employers are much less inclined to seek out and hire people with disabilities.

"The employer often will assume the person couldn't possibly do the job because [employers] don't know what technological solutions exist," he says. "Or they may say, 'If I hired this person, I'd have a start-up cost buying this equipment of $1,000 or $2,000.'"

According to a 1995 Harris Poll, 81% of employers said they had made accommodations for employees with disabilities, up from 51% in 1986. But in a Harris Poll published in July, the National Organization on Disability reported that although 79% of nondisabled adults of working age are employed, only 29% of those with disabilities have full- or part-time jobs. The trend is troubling; a similar survey in 1986 showed a 34% employment rate for people with disabilities, or 17% more than are working now. There are an estimated 54 million Americans of all ages with disabilities.

People with disabilities say companies are doing better in providing for their needs, possibly because of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The July Harris Poll showed a decline from 49% in 1994 to 40% today in the number of disabled workers who say employers are insensitive to their needs. Still, four in 10 said in the most recent poll that they have encountered job discrimination. One-third said they have encountered "unfavorable attitudes" toward their disabilities on the job, virtually unchanged from 1994.

"In general, expectations are not as high as for a nondisabled employee, so employers may not challenge the [disabled] person," Churchfield says. "If you are not happy with what you are doing, you have to speak up."

Seeing his career stall after his accident in 1985, Churchfield finally did speak up. "Once we came to an understanding that I needed to make the decisions on what I could and couldn't do, I got promoted three more times," he says. "In fact, they actually created a senior-level technical position just so I'd have a career path."

A lack of career development for people with disabilities may be reflected in figures from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, which reported in 1995 that men without disabilities made on average 21% more than disabled male workers. That gap had widened since passage of the ADA. For women, the disparity was 16%.

Employer resistance

Employers sometimes resist hiring people with disabilities out of fear they won't be able to do the job yet will be impossible to fire, Scadden says. "There's this tremendous shortage of IT professionals. But the IT managers are afraid the head of human resources or an insurance company will object to hiring someone with a disability," he says. "It's much easier to just hire someone else."

But some employers don't see it that way. Three years ago, Joyce Bender started Bender Consulting Services, Inc., a for-profit outfit in Pittsburgh, with 30 employees, 28 of whom are programmers or network engineers with disabilities. Churchfield now manages a staff of seven in Bender's company.

What's needed in the workplace, Bender says, is education for the nondisabled. "Sometimes people with disabilities are excluded out of fear or ignorance," she says. She also advises employers to establish mentoring programs for entry-level employees with disabilities.

For the disabled job seeker, Bender advises surfing the 'net. In particular, she recommends the Web site of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, which has links to some 60 large organizations that have expressed interest in hiring people with disabilities.

Scadden advises employees with disabilities to stay abreast of the fast-changing marketplace of accessibility tools. And he stresses not to hesitate to demand them from employers. "I put the burden on the employee as much as the employer to know what to buy," he says.

Gregg Vanderheiden is the director of the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research and Development Center, which is exploring ways to make computing/communications technology accessible to all. He acknowledges that people with some disabilities can't physically work as fast as those without disabilities. "The thing to do is not to compete with quantity, but with quality," he says. "Quality and reliability are so valuable that [employers] will be less concerned with volume. I expect to work a little harder than anyone else, but I don't begrudge that," Harmon says.

"I'm glad I have the opportunity to do it and a company that gives me the opportunity to do it," he says.

Anthes is Computerworld's editor-at-large.

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