Disabled staff add IT diversity, innovation

Tech companies gain innovative products and motivated staff by making office conducive for disabled employees as well as demonstrate potential of assistive IT tools.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

By using accessibility technologies to make workplaces conducive, and inclusive, for disabled employees, IT companies can reap rewards such as innovative products and improved efficiency of having a diverse workforce, as well as demonstrate the potential of technology as an enabler and equalizer.

Physical and mental impairments should not be perceived completely as disabilities, said Debra Ruh, founder and CEO of TecAccess, a U.S.-based company that provides accessibility technology programs and consulting.

She told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that people often think of disabilities in "extreme terms" such as total blindness and deafness when they also include other forms such as visual or hearing impairments, and challenges such as motor and cognitive impairment. All of these are increasingly common in today's aging population, Ruh added.

"These numbers are staggeringly large so many people are impacted," she noted. "And this impact continues to grow as countries age… Can you afford to lose this audience?"

Hence, there are opportunities for IT companies to make accessibility a priority--whether in hiring practices, workplace accommodation or products--and reap the rewards from such efforts, she said.

For instance, a company will gain loyal, motivated staff as well as appeal to consumers or clients who have spending power and are "fiercely loyal to socially conscious" organizations that include employees with disabilities, Ruh said.

Chia Woon Yee, director of technology for Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) in Singapore, observed that companies generally are willing to consider hiring people with disabilities if they have a better understanding about this untapped talent pool.

Misconceptions that people with disabilities have limitations such as low mental capacity, sickliness and inability to handle stress, are barriers that have made businesses hesitant to hire them, Chia said.

So, when IT companies hire staff with disabilities and offer assistive technologies to enhance their work performance, these organizations are providing equal opportunities and expecting them to produce work of equal quality as their able-bodied colleagues.

At the same time, these companies are also demonstrating that technology, used as a tool and enabler, is critical in improving business efficiency and productivity, she pointed out.

Making workplaces digitally accessible, diverse
Creating an accessible workplace goes beyond physical accommodation, such as rearranging a workstation to allow more room for wheelchair maneuvers or using enlarged keyboards. It extends into the digital realm, Chia said.

She highlighted the use of assistive technologies, such as installing screen-magnification software on a computer for a person with visual difficulties.

Ruh concurred: "Technology can level the playing field, allowing people with disabilities to perform most job functions as effectively as their non-disabled peers."

Accessibility must be part of a company's tenets, not just technologies, she added. For instance, ICT touchpoints such as online documents collaboration, Web sites, the intranet and IT helpdesks, should be accessible to all members of staff including those with visual or hearing disabilities. These systems should be tested by people with disabilities as well, Ruh suggested.

Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, a Danish IT company that hires individuals with high-functioning autism, said IT is an area where such individuals can have "meaningful and productive jobs". The company has 35 employees with ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

In his e-mail, Sonne told ZDNet Asia that Specialisterne uses IT just like any other consultancy would to carry out tasks. The only difference is that the company adopts a management model which makes it possible for "people who do not fit in elsewhere, to feel wanted and be able to excel".

He also noted that "winning companies"--that is, organizations with an innovative profile and that perform well in today's marketplace--excel in managing diversity among employees because "most innovation [today] comes from edges of normality".

Benefits of diversity
At Google, the company aims to make the world's information more accessible to users, including its employees, with disabilities--from visual or hearing impairments, to color deficiency and limited dexterity, said Keerthana Mohan, Google's diversity and talent inclusion manager for Asia-Pacific.

Asked why Google is open to hiring staff with disabilities, Mohan, who is based in Bangalore, India, replied that in addition to hiring the best talent, the "diversity of perspectives, ideas, abilities and cultures leads to the creation of better products and services".

Furthermore, incorporating accessibility into Google's products and services opens up these products and services to a greater proportion of the population, not just employees with disabilities, she reasoned.

For instance, the Android mobile platform includes a built-in text-to-speech engine and screen reader so handset makers can produce accessible smartphones, Mohan said. She added that the Chrome browser also supports assistive technology such as screen readers and magnifiers, as well as full-page zoom and high-contrast color.

Cisco Systems also recruits people with disabilities, and aims to provide an "adaptable work environment" by ensuring accessibility is integrated into its business processes, operations and products, said Greg Grimes, the networking giant's senior HR director for Asia-Pacific and Japan.

The more inclusive and diverse a working environment is, the better an organization can attract, retain and engage top talent, he said, noting that a culture of inclusion is "critical to our success".

"Study after study has shown that highly diverse companies financially outperform less diverse companies," Grimes explained. "Thus, we feel that innovation is best achieved in an environment where there is a collective mix of diverse ideas and a willingness to be open to them."

Cisco also conducts focus groups and usability studies with disabled people, so it can also better understand these individuals' needs and concerns to validate its product designs, he added.

Many of their suggestions have ended up as standard features in the vendor's unified communications products such as standard hearing-aid compatibility, and audio and visual alerts of phones status, he noted.

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