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Assistive Tech Helps Soften a Harsh Job Market

June 2 2009 | by

Wheelchair user with laptop

This is a question I am often asked: Does the shaky economy make it harder for people with disabilities to find a job? Undoubtedly, yes. The job marketplace is more competitive, and frankly, it’s easier for an employer to hire someone who doesn’t need an accommodation.

Though the American with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination of the disabled, it still happens indirectly — and more so when the hiring pool is larger. Just look at U.S. employment rates from the past year. Only 46 percent of working-age people with disabilities held jobs, vs. 84 percent of non-disabled people. The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.9 percent in April 2009, compared to 8.6 percent for non-disabled Americans.

And here’s a little-known fact: It takes someone with a disability 10 times longer to land a job than the average person. “Employers want to hire people with disabilities but they’re often not trained on how to find, interview or manage this group,” says Sheridan Walker, founder of consulting firm HirePotential.

The good news is assistive technologies can level the playing field. Many of these accommodations are already in use in the workplace, and most cost less than $500 or are free to use. For instance, a screen reader for the blind is built into both Windows and Mac computers. Speech-recognition software, around $200, is used by both busy CEOs and workers who are dyslexic. Instant messaging programs, free and used in offices everywhere, are also very useful for the deaf and hard or hearing.

One of the coolest technologies today that is incredibly beneficial for the deaf is the universal mobile communications in-box. For a small fee, this service will transcribe voice mails into text. It’s available on the the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm as applications. Google is also planning a similar service called Google Voice.

I’m also continuously amazed at accessible PDAs that people who are blind can use to surf the web, send emails, read books, and write documents. You can choose Braille or audio versions; both will connect to a computer and synchronize information. Some models, like HumanWare’s Braille Note, include GPS receivers.

And you’ve heard of video conferencing, but how about in sign language? Video relay service is a free service from the FCC that allows deaf people to make telephone calls to hearing people using their native sign language. It is done on the Internet using voice over internet protocol (VoIP) using a computer with a camera, such as Apple’s iSight.

So there you have it: Many accommodations are already in use in the workplace, and most cost less than $500 or are free to use. If you have a disability, brush up on your assistive technology knowledge and make it clear to employers that these tools are the key to your success.

Read about disability career websites here.

  • Darrell Shandrow

    freedomscientific.comgwmicro.comserotek.comnvda-project.orgIt is important to correct the notion that Windows has a built-in screen reader. It does not. The access provided by Narator in Windows is far below that required for even the most basic of job tasks. Even Microsoft will tell you this is the case. The two leading screen readers are JAWS and Window-Eyes. They possess the configurability and scripting capabilities required in order to access many jobs.

    JAWS by Freedom Scientific –
    Window-Eyes by GW Micro –

    If scripting isn’t required, then you have low cost and free options that may be appropriate, especially in jobs where e-mail, web access and word processing are the order of the day.

    System Access by Serotek –
    Nonvisual Desktop Access by NV Access (open source) –

    All in all, unfortunately, despite the assistive technology currently on the market, many jobs remain inaccessible to us because employers won’t bother to ensure their software actually works with screen readers. I was laid off in July of last year because my employer, SonicWALL, made some changes that would’ve required me to use a completely inaccessible implementation of Siebel. Instead of spending the hour or so of their programmers’ time to make available a “standard interactivity” version, SonicWALL chose the path of least resistance by simply throwing me away like yesterday’s garbage. I filed a charge of disability related discrimination against SonicWALL through the EEOC, but no conclusions have yet been reached.

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  • Dee

    I think this information about assistive technology is priceless and so important to people like myself with disabilities.

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