Computer industry offers opportunities for disabled workers
(IDG) -- When San Jose, Calif.-based Internet-commerce start-up StudioFX moved to new offices a year ago, it chose ground-floor offices instead of the second floor to accommodate Michiko Uramoto, a 3-D Web graphics designer who has been confined to a wheelchair since an auto accident 10 years ago. CEO Sean Griffin says he didn't think twice about the decision.
"She's one of the team," Griffin says.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes mental as well as physical disabilities, requires employers to hire and accommodate workers with disabilities. But not all such workers have been able to succeed in the workplace.
To be sure, many U.S. businesses recognize the importance of directing disabled workers into their workforce, including their IT departments.
For the past 18 years, the Denver Community College, in Denver, has been training workers with a broad range of mental and physical handicaps for jobs involving programming or network administration.
Director Kevin Kellerman, who is himself blind, says the program has graduated more than 200 workers. The 13-month program involves small classes, with plenty of one-on-one attention.
The training includes outfitting students with adaptive technology, such as voice-recognition software for the blind to use on PCs.
"It's very intensive," Kellerman says.
According to Kellerman, what makes the program work is the direct involvement of a business council, an advisory board of top Denver-area employers, including First Data, Great Western Life Insurance, and Storage Technology.
Company representatives meet with students four times per year to assess their progress.
With a grant of more than $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) plans to replicate the Denver program in Austin, Texas; Princeton, N.J.; and northern Virginia.
Lauren Brownstein, ITAA workforce education program manager, says her association will work with the local community colleges plus local business advisory councils. Brownstein says the ITAA hopes to train 25 workers at each site, plus an additional 15 at the existing program in Denver. The goal is to place 80 percent of the workers in IT jobs after graduation.
Despite such programs, placing workers with disabilities remains an uphill battle.
Maria Nicolacoudis, director of San Jose-based DPI, which helps to train disabled or permanently injured workers for IT positions in the San Francisco area, says too many employers retain outmoded images of the disabled.
"There is still a lot of stereotyping," Nicolacoudis says.
DPI has placed students with companies such as Bank of America and the California State Fund, which manages the Golden State's multibillion-dollar workers' compensation system.
One fear among employers is the cost of making the necessary accommodations so the disabled can work. But those costs have fallen dramatically.
Nicolacoudis notes that a PC-based voice-recognition software package used by the blind was priced at $10,000 when first introduced seven years ago; the price has since fallen to less than $500.
And StudioFX's Griffin says he hires disabled workers whenever he can, and willingly pays to make the accommodations. In return, he sees the same boost in employee loyalty and productivity that many employers see when they invest in their employees through training or other means.
Underemployed and underrepresented
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