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Different Abilities Pay Off
Aug 30, 2017
Inclusion programs, technology and a “can-do” attitude fuel STEM employment for people with disabilities
By Nancy Henderson
Vincent Martin was 13 years old when he first suspected his vision problem was more than just near-sightedness. Still, despite the fact that he couldn’t see well, the determined young man finished high school as an all-state football player, enrolled in college and continued to drive. Then one day, at 23, he happened to catch a television commercial about retinitis pigmentosa, and suddenly his condition made sense.
“I tell people that going blind was very eye-opening for me,” says Martin, 52, an engineer and research scientist who currently is earning his doctorate in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “My past background is what led me to be able to solve problems.”
Martin, who holds undergraduate degrees in textile engineering technology, industrial engineering technology and psychology, and a master’s in human computer interaction, has been a practicing rehabilitation engineer for more than 20 years and consults with technology and Fortune 500 companies on usability and accessibility issues. He also is a staunch disability advocate, a retired record-setting Paralympic athlete and an expert witness who explains systems and product management data on behalf of plaintiffs filing discrimination lawsuits. After he completes his doctoral program, he hopes to use his engineering skills to integrate people with disabilities into the workplace at a large corporation.
Martin credits his success to strong auditory learning skills, a “phenomenal memory” and the adaptations he has made for himself and others. Early in his career, he found a way to make his computer talk based on the synthetic speech used in the game Battlestar Galactica; he now uses built-in screen readers on his iPhone and Mac computer. “If you want to see someone that can solve problems, go find a person that’s got a disability,” Martin says. “We solve problems every day, continuously. It never stops.”
Research confirms that corporate executives and human resources managers face increasingly stiff competition when it comes to finding highly skilled employees. By 2024, the shortage of U.S. STEM workers will reach 1.1 million, while the demand for computer and IT positions is expected to grow 12 percent by 2024, according to the National Organization on Disability (NOD). Yet four of five working-age Americans with disabilities, many of whom possess in-demand technical skills like hyper-attention to detail, are unemployed.
Advocates are quick to point out that people with disabilities often make exceptional workers despite public assumptions to the contrary. According to a survey published by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, 75 percent of employers ranked their employees with disabilities as “good” or “very good” on work quality, motivation, engagement, integration with co-workers, dependability and attendance.
Carol Glazer, president of the NOD, notes that employers reap unique benefits by hiring this segment of the population. “People with disabilities spend their lives ignoring discouragement, persisting through setbacks, solving problems and finding creative routes around obstacles,” says Glazer, whose son Jacob has cognitive challenges. “They are a rich supply of talent, ready to be tapped, at a time when talent is at a premium.”
Capitalizing on Abilities
At SAP, the world’s third-largest independent software manufacturer, 121 employees in the award-winning Autism at Work program develop software, analyze data, do graphic design and perform human resources services in nine countries. The company has seen a 94-percent retention rate for employees with autism; SAP managers plan to hire 650 employees on the spectrum by 2020.
The corporation also has implemented a number of accessibility initiatives for people with hearing, vision and mobility impairments under its Differently Abled People focus area. “The most important thing employers can do when hiring any employee is to get to know each other and understand the person sitting in front of you,” says Stefanie Nennsteil, SAP’s senior program HR manager. “This includes learning about how they work and looking at their abilities rather than behavior. If someone is behaving differently than you expect, maybe this is because they think differently.”
Global financial company Ernst & Young (EY) modeled its own Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence after the successful SAP program. In 2016, EY launched a pilot center in Philadelphia with four people on the autism spectrum who demonstrated stellar math and technical skills. Neurotypical account support associates (ASAs) and those with autism trained together to learn how to automate certain processes using robotics. The team members performed complex analytics, calculations and quality control functions to track documents and looked for patterns and anomalies in the data.
Nine months later, EY compared the work quality, efficiency and productivity of the neurodiverse and the neurotypical employees and made a startling discovery. “The neurodiverse folks really got it much more quickly and at a deeper level,” says Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader at EY. “What we got that was a huge value-add was innovation [that is] driving productivity throughout the entire ASA program.”
One new hire with autism, Golden recalls, briefly looked at the computer macro training process and said to the team, “I’m not sure we’re doing this in the most logical way. Let me get back to you with some ideas on how we might be able to make it more efficient.” Two hours later, he came up with a concept to streamline the directions and document the processes in a more straightforward manner. “Our key trainer who has been doing this for a few years for hundreds of people took a look at his suggestions and said that he thinks we can save about half our training time if we configure in the way [the employee] suggested,” Golden says. “So now we’re doing that going forward.”
EY now employs 14 individuals with autism at Centers of Excellence in Philadelphia and Dallas and is currently hiring for a third location in San Jose, California. The goal is to add two new centers, each employing 10 to 15 employees with autism, per year through 2020.
The program has resulted in another unexpected plus, Golden says. “It’s also had a tremendous impact on our ability to develop inclusive leadership skills in our people.” Because people on the autism spectrum tend to interpret information literally and aren’t generally adept at picking up subtle nuances in manner and speech, EY supervisors have learned to avoid colloquialisms, communicate more clearly and document information in logical ways. “It’s made them better managers,” says Golden, even with multicultural teams who speak different languages.
Such management training can play a critical role in the success of workers with disabilities. “Disability etiquette and awareness training to all staff, especially managers, leaders and recruiters, is especially useful for team members who may be unsure of how to act around a person with a disability,” Glazer says. “Such training can go a long way to remove the fear and stigma that otherwise might lead to inaction or alienation.”
Path to Employment
In addition to on-site corporate inclusion programs, a growing number of nonprofit groups and education centers offer mentoring and specific job training to prepare STEM students with disabilities for the workforce.
The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has served 2,000 students and recently has been replicated in Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Its signature programs, which include DO-IT Scholars, AccessComputing, AccessSTEM and AccessEngineering, raise awareness among educators and help college students with disabilities break down barriers and earn their degrees in these fields through online tutoring, scholarships for leadership and technical conferences and paid internships. More than 300 high school and college students have completed the AccessComputing program and many have landed jobs as programmers, accessible technology specialists, web developers and database managers. Graduates of AccessSTEM now work at the federal government, biology research labs and other sites.
DO-IT mentors also promote “universal design” for physical spaces and inclusive technology for college courses. It’s all about changing the mindsets of architects, corporate executives and educators, says program manager Scott Bellman. “The basic idea is rather than have someone with a disability show up and need something and ask you for it, you’ve already made the environment as accessible as you possibly can. [If you’re the employee,] you don’t even have to ask anybody for a special entrance or a large print document.”
Able-bodied students also benefit from inclusive design. Closed captioning added to technical classroom videos to accommodate someone with a severe hearing impairment may also help an English as a Second Language student or one who learns best when she views text on a screen.
One advantage of hiring people with access challenges is that they can relate to customers who also have disabilities, which makes good business sense. “They can kind of inform the design process and make your products better and more usable by a wider variety of people,” Bellman says.
DO-IT graduate Sean Marihugh, 25, is a wheelchair user with Becker muscular dystrophy. In his job as an escalation engineer on the corporate accessibility team at Microsoft, he provides technical support for customers with disabilities, many of whom use assisted technology. Before his participation in the DO-IT program, he says, “I don’t think I knew how I should talk about my disability as an asset or a strength to an employer or a professor. I learned a lot about my own needs in a work environment or in a classroom. Most importantly, I learned how to advocate for those things, to be able to articulate clearly what I do or don’t need in a given scenario. That was hugely beneficial.”
David Ross, a rehabilitation research scientist at the VA Medical Center in Atlanta, makes a point to hire veterans with disabilities. Due to the precariousness of government-funded research, the rehab center often serves as a stepping stone for people with disabilities who need a push to continue their education or find more permanent jobs. Ross’s current research assistant is a veteran with a hip injury and one hand.
Giving a person with a disability a chance is, Ross says, “worth it in terms of having someone who is a truly loyal employee. They are grateful for having a job because essentially 80 percent of the people who have a disability are out of work. They’re willing to go through all the hoops they have to go through to get the transportation or whatever. The folks I hire have always been on time, have always been present and they’ve always been eager to do whatever it is they need to do their job well … Anyone who has a disability who has enough gumption to go out and look for a job is someone you want to hire for sure.”
Technology Increases Access and Understanding
While some people with disabilities don’t require adaptive equipment or technology, others do. At Microsoft, Marihugh uses an ergonomic desk that raises up and down automatically to make room for his wheelchair. Most accommodations for people with disabilities, he says, cost little or nothing. “Getting a private office, using headphones to be able to tune out distractions, using a note-taker at a meeting, a lot of these are just easy and fairly common anyway,” he says.
Technology is also helping increase accessibility. Dima Elissa, founded VisMed3D, a Chicago-based prosthetics company that uses 3D design, visualization and printing technology to create customized solutions for patients who need a better fit. Using integrated electronic sensors and data about wear and tear, specialists at VisMed3D produce hands, limbs and other prosthetics made of durable, flexible metals and plastics that can’t be mixed or assembled with traditional manufacturing.
One polio survivor now uses a VisMed3D device to help her walk. When her previous brace maker retired, she ran into problems finding a product that wouldn’t allow her heel to pull out. Even her rehabilitation physician couldn’t come up with the right fit. “When her doctor examined to see where they went wrong, he was shocked as the brace seemed to have theoretically worked on paper,” says Elissa, who also mentors women entrepreneurs in technology. “The problem is that the doctors did not understand the functionality and the day-to-day activities of the patient. This made making a brace for her challenging … 3D printing allows a much better way of analyzing and calculating the body that is more intuitive.”
Another innovative entrepreneur, 12-year-old Alex Knoll, devised an app for people with disabilities after seeing a man in a wheelchair struggling to open the heavy front door at a sporting goods store in his hometown of Post Falls, Idaho. “I wondered if there was a resource where he could look up the different businesses around him in his area and decide which stores had automatic doors so he could actually access the business,” says the young inventor, who is in seventh grade. “So I went home to do some research, but there was nothing, so I created the idea.”
With the help of a few trusted adults, Knoll developed the Ability App, which can be downloaded for free to any mobile device, is searchable by features, disability, services and type of business, and is compatible with eye-tracking software for those without use of their voice or limbs. He also included an employment opportunities section to help people with disabilities find jobs. In addition to winning several state, national and international competitions, Knoll’s invention caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, who invited him to appear on her show and presented him with a $25,000 check to further the project.
Knoll, who hopes to officially launch the app soon, says, “I’ve always loved helping people and animals. But [what I saw at the sporting goods store] kind of opened my eyes to people with disabilities. The big goal is to get it out to as many people as I can, to help them and have it be worldwide in the end.”For people served by these innovations and programs like DO-IT, career success is much more of a reality than simply a dream. “I think a lot of employers now, particularly in the STEM field, are beginning to value diversity and understand that when you have a diverse workforce, you have a diversity of ways of solving problems and a diversity of creativity and coming at things from different angles,” Bellman says. “And what we’re trying to do is add disability to that conversation.”