New Technology Helps Disabled Workers Return to their Jobs

February 5, 2014


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Emery Reddy

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Interactive Accommodation Process

High school football coach K. Bella, who is deaf, just discovered a way to communicate with his players through a new technology that brings a live sign language interpreter to his television screen. Bella’s players, whether on the phone or elsewhere, can listen to the interpreter voicing out Bella’s signs. Bella, who works as a defensive coordinator at Mission San Jose High School in California, characterizes the technology as a “huge improvement over typing messages back and forth.” As he explains, “This allows me to work with hearing players, because there’s a lot in my language that has to do with expressions. The meaning is lost if sign language is reduced to written text.”

Bella has just joined the ranks of a growing number of disabled workers who can now find and keep jobs thanks to technologies designed to help them better communicate with others or complete work tasks. Disability attorneys are celebrating those advances.

Apple, for instance, is updating all of its products to include technologies like voice recognition and screen readers that translate text into speech. In other words, these will no longer just be offered as optional add-ons. In addition, apps like GoTalk NOW and TapSpeak Sequence enable users to synthesize text, pictures, and symbols with audio programs that put a voice to ideas. Users who are unable to speak clearly can now tap a picture of a hand and a book, and the device will say: “Please pass me the book.”

Blind people are also able to do note-taking with voice-recognition programs, and listen to emails or understand a website with screen “readers.” Users with ADD can use applications that remind them to keep themselves focused by alerting them to appointments with sound and light cues. And even people with spinal injuries have access to hands-free technologies with digital tablets that use mouth sticks that were recently only featured on wheelchairs.

“High-tech advances are starting to help level the playing field, opening the door for so many people,” said Therese Willkomm, a representative for the Institute on Disability at New Hampshire University.

Disabled Workers’ Benefits

Even more promising, these advances have generated greater numbers of people with disabilities in jobs, according to Kathleen Martinez, an administration with the U.S. Department of Labor who oversees disability employment policy.  “In professional careers, technology has helped increase the employment rate immensely. It’s actually allowed us to participate in office careers more than ever before,” said Martinez.

In 2012, the unemployment rate among Americans who are deaf, blind, or have serious physical or mental issues was 13.4%. This compares to 7.9% unemployment for those without disabilities. But a Labor Department study released in June indicates that the percentage of employed disabled Americans rose by 4% over the past two years.

At the same time, unemployment rates for the disabled decreased by 1.6 points in a year, a larger drop than experienced among able-bodied workers.

Google Glass is a miniature device mounted on one’s eyeglasses that can shoot photos, film video, and browse the Internet; its built-in camera and voice-command abilities make it possible for disabled people to read what others are saying, and maybe even control wheelchairs with their eyes or voices.

Eric LeGrand, who used to work as a Rutgers University defensive tackle, was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury in a game against the Army in 2010.

He remembers the first time his assistant clamped an iPhone with voice recognition next to his mouth. As LeGrand explains, “I can’t move my arms, but I’m going to school and the sky is the limit for me. I can open and close the doors to my house through a home security app. I can control my wheelchair. I text message, and go on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t have to sit there like a vegetable all the time. Technology can take care of it.”

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