Making simple assistive technologies widely available could open up untapped talent pool ©Getty Images
Making simple assistive technologies widely available could open up untapped talent pool ©Getty Images

How tech can empower a more inclusive workforce

16 February 2022

Has a move to remote-working presented real opportunities for disabled people?

Organisations are increasingly reliant on technology for competitive advantage and innovation, and when Covid-19 promoted a mass switch to remote-working, it was hoped this could present greater opportunities for the inclusion of disabled workers. But has this potential borne out?

According to a study by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, around 1bn people experience some form of disability – that’s 15% of the world’s population. However, the International Labour Organization’s data shows that disabled people are two times less likely to be employed than non-disabled people.

Up to 70% of those disabilities are deemed ‘invisible’, which presents a unique issue for employers when looking to address inclusion. There can be a huge range of challenges, from office accessibility to difficulties with reading, writing or speech. However, excluding people with disabilities from the workforce could lead to GDP losses of up to 7%, the Independent Labour Organization suggests.

Covid has demonstrated that long-term home-working is possible for more roles than previously thought. And if the willingness to adopt new technology to survive the pandemic could be applied to assistive tools, it could present huge opportunities for a previously untapped workforce.

Assistive tools are out there

Technology for those with disabilities is not about futuristic exoskeletons and smart canes (which detect obstacles up to head height). Assistive technology, such as artificial intelligence to support employees is, already accessible. Software can be used to help visually impaired employees read the content of computer screens or turn visual information into spoken word.

Smartphone apps that transcribe whole conversations can be used to help those with hearing loss to communicate and voice commands can enable those with motor skill impairment to operate computers without a keyboard or mouse.

Lucy Ruck, technology taskforce manager at the Business Disability Forum, told SM for many disabled colleagues, technology removes barriers that could otherwise prevent them from working at all.

“Technology such as speech-to-text can be critical for colleagues that have neurodiverse conditions or those with sight loss. However, making assistive technology available can often benefit the wider workforce,” she said.

“If we think about the use of captions within online meetings, these are essential for colleagues with hearing loss, but they can also be beneficial in a noisy office.

“Many products now come with accessibility features built in. A dictation tool allows you to create documents with your voice rather than by typing. It’s useful if you simply have lots of notes to type up, but also if you have a repetitive strain injury or a disability which prevents you from using a keyboard.”

Identifying barriers and implementation

While assistive technology can be used to benefit whole organisations, its adoption can be challenging when it comes to ensuring compatibility with in-house security systems and software.

Ruck said: “Off-the-shelf solutions can be problematic. They may not be compatible with other in-house systems that the employee needs to carry out their role. And cloud-based assistive technology systems often require regular updates. It’s important to think about whether there is enough flex with in-house security systems to allow for this.”

Despite the benefits of assistive technology for helping disabled colleagues work, it is also important to remember that each individual has their own requirements and what works for one person, may not work for another, she adds.

“Rather than focus on the person’s disability, try and understand what the barriers are to them doing their job, how tech can help remove these barriers and what will work best for them. Try not to make assumptions, as every person is unique and will experience their own challenges.”  

As most disabilities are not immediately visible and are acquired during a person’s working life, it is important to consider making technology readily available to all employees and let them decide whether or not to use it, Ruck said.

“Not everyone will feel comfortable talking about their disability. Therefore, it’s important to build the availability of assistive technology into your standard systems, and not as a standalone or ‘special’ process. This will show your colleagues this is just something they can have, and that they don’t have to jump through hoops for it.

“As an organisation, be proactive and think about how the technology decisions will impact on your disabled colleagues. Would this work for everyone, who might be excluded and what can we do to change the way we deliver this?”

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