Technology levels the field for people with disabilities
October 28, 1999
October 28, 1999
by Alexandra Krasne
(IDG) -- The biggest obstacles people with disabilities face when trying to get and keep jobs are not the disabilities themselves, but people's attitudes.
"There isn't a whole lot I can do for work because of the severity of my disability, at least that's what I keep hearing," says Doug Kemp, 26, who has a form of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy. Because of this, Kemp can move only a few muscles in his body.
Kemp uses a single microswitch attached to one finger as an input device -- which plugs into an external hardware unit -- and taps out Morse code on his switch. Another adaptive device emulates a mouse and keyboard and sends his commands to his PC, which runs Windows 95.
Kemp plans to become a financial adviser when he graduates from California State University at Fullerton with a degree in Finance. But social attitudes have prompted him to not seek work until he finishes school.
Still, corporate consciousness is being raised. About two dozen tech and nontech companies on Monday formed the Able to Work consortium.
They're turning to technology to help employ the estimated 8.5 million people with disabilities who want to work. More than 70 percent of working-age individuals with disabilities are unemployed, although they'd like to work, according to Bill Gates, Microsoft's chair, who announced the Able to Work consortium. He spoke at the National Business and Disabilities Council's 22nd annual conference, hosted this year on the Microsoft campus.
"We firmly believe that if enough members of the business community step forward, applying positive employment policies in their own workforce and mentoring other companies, that fact will change," Gates says.
Along with NBDC, Microsoft founded the Able to Work effort with the idea of creating new programs and to give people with disabilities more job opportunities. One program is an interactive Web site, abletowork.org, for job-matching and resources. Job hunters can post resumes, and 21 participating companies -- including AT&T, Caterpillar, Ford, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Merrill Lynch -- will post job openings.
Selected for their leadership in hiring employees with disabilities, the 21 companies involved in the consortium will participate in member roundtables and share ideas for accommodating and hiring.
For Meg O'Connell, assistant vice president at Crestar Bank in Richmond, Virginia, Able to Work provides an open forum and an open exchange.
"As we move forward, we'd like to see more and more companies involved to establish change," O'Connell says.
Help in Windows 2000
Aside from cofounding Able to Work, Microsoft builds into its software some functions intended to make the programs easier for people with disabilities to use.
Windows 2000 includes a Magnifier feature that can enlarge a part of the screen. Narrator is a text-to-speech utility that reads what's on the screen. Also, On-Screen Keyboard helps those with limited movement type using a pointing device.
These new features will help not only individuals with disabilities, but also their employers, says Gary Moulton, product manager for Microsoft's accessibility and disabilities group.
Businesses have asked Microsoft to accommodate people with disabilities in its software design and to urge PC vendors to make changes, Moulton says.
Getting jobs for people who have disabilities is another part of the struggle. But, he says, accessibility features open the door.
"Technology levels the playing field," Moulton says.
Technology may help people with disabilities get jobs, but the biggest obstacle is changing employers' attitudes, says Dr. William E. Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion and author of Beyond Demographics: Strategic Responses to a Changing Workforce.
Kemp couldn't agree more.
He doesn't expect employers would have to buy special equipment for him, other than entrance ramps or wider doorways. But he still doesn't think he can get work.
"I think society as a whole discriminates against us," he says. "And while this [Able to Work] council means well, I don't think it will be of much help to people with disabilities until the attitude of society is changed."
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