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Generations of people with disabilities have faced a similar challenge: how to contribute their skills and talents in work environments that are not always designed with their bodies and abilities in mind. Today, rapid advances in technology are leading to new tools that can help people with disabilities thrive in the workplace and an inclusive approach to design is reimagining work environments to the benefit of people with all abilities.
New Tools to Tackle Old Employment Barriers
Assistive technology is any software, device, or equipment that can help a person with a disability perform a function that might otherwise be difficult.
Carolyn Phillips leads Tools for Life, an Assistive Technology Act program funded by ACL and based out of Georgia Tech. She believes that the effective use of assistive technology by employees with disabilities “is undeniably linked to their long term success in the workplace.”
Phillips says that over nearly three decades in the field, “I have seen the assistive technology community time and time again step up to a barrier that exists in the workplace and be able to bridge over that barrier – even knock down that barrier – for future generations, with an assistive technology solution or strategy.”
Many assistive technology solutions are decidedly “low tech.” For example, a simple seat cushion can make all the difference for an employee whose job requires hours of sitting. Other assistive technology devices are taking full advantage of the latest advances in technology including virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and speech recognition.
For example, virtual or augmented reality technology is being explored to help individuals return to employment after a stroke or injury. Earlier this month, ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) awarded a grant to the Kessler Foundation to develop a Virtual Reality Job Interview Program to help individuals looking to re-enter the workforce after a traumatic brain injury with the social competency skills needed for a successful job interview.
Advances in optical character recognition, object recognition, facial recognition, and text-to-speech are being used to develop new tools that seek to help convey visual information through audio, while artificial intelligence is being used to determine which of the many bits of visual information in a given environment are worth relaying.
Artificial intelligence is being incorporated into a variety of other devices as well including software that provides context-specific cues to people with cognitive disabilities and augmented and alternative communication (AAC) devices that help people with communication disabilities express themselves and interact with others.
From Specialized Tools to Universal Design
From offices to warehouses to farms, technology is everywhere in today’s workplaces. Yet many people with disabilities cannot use the keyboards or touchscreens required to use much of this technology.
One way to resolve this problem is to create new “add-ons” that enable people with specific disabilities to interact with technology. Assistive devices now make it possible for people with disabilities to interact with technology using our voices, switches, foot pedals, eye movements, subtle muscle movements, and even our brains. For example, NIDILRR’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on AAC is exploring the use of a brain-computer interface communication system that would allow people with limited movement to select letters using brain waves.