Magazine article HRMagazine

Give Employees with Disabilities an Assist

Magazine article HRMagazine

Give Employees with Disabilities an Assist

Article excerpt

A new generation of tools offers a variety of low-cost accommodation options.

Eli Hinson has worked for consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton for 13 years, so she was surprised when her manager approached her last fall with a concern: Hinson's manager and co- workers at headquarters in McLean, Va., had noticed an increasing number of spelling, grammar and syntax mis- takes in her writing. What they didn't know was the cause-dyslexia, a lan- guage-processing disorder that can affect reading, writing and spelling.

Hinson was diagnosed in college but had never disclosed her disability to her employer. "I really didn't like to tell peo- ple that I have dyslexia," Hinson says. "It's only just recently that I felt comfort- able enough to tell my manager."

Once she did, Hinson was connected with Booz Allen Hamilton's disability accommodations and workplace adjust- ments team. Within a few weeks, the team set her up with technology tools that help improve her writing and read- ing comprehension. "Managers and co-workers have seen a difference in my e-mails," says Hinson, a SharePoint administrator. The technology tools "gave me confidence. I don't need to have a third party look over my work; I can do it on my own."

Turnkey Solutions

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 brought disability aware- ness into the spotlight across the country. Now, more than 20 years later, tech- nology is ushering in a second wave of consciousness about employees with dis- abilities-and the availability of simple, affordable tools to accommodate them.

Solutions used to be costly and cumbersome. Tony Stephens, public policy and advocacy manager for the National Industries for the Blind, based in Alexandria, Va., has been blind since birth. When he was in school, a screen reading program and scanner cost thou- sands of dollars, he says. Today, these functions are features of off-the-shelf operating systems or downloadable add-ons.

"By upgrading your operating sys- tem, you get built-in speech recogni- tion, speech output, magnification, icon and graphic upgrades, word prediction, color-contrast ability, and alternate key- board and mouse controls. What main- streaming means is that these technolo- gies are becoming cheaper and more cost-effective," says Beth Loy, Ph.D., principal consultant for the Job Accom- modation Network, a grant-funded proj- ect of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

"Ten years ago, someone might have had a dozen different devices" such as a screen magnifier, a currency reader, a talking calculator and a GPS, says Chris Frank, a team leader for employment and technology services at the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired-Good- will of the Finger Lakes, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y. "Now they might all just be apps" on a person's smartphone.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 56.7 million people in the United States had some type of diag- nosed disability in 2010, and more than 40 percent of them were working age. Although the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is higher than the overall average unemployment rate, experts say it's not due to lack of skills. "This is a very solid untapped work- force," Stephens says.

While the ADA has helped raise awareness, misconceptions about people with disabilities persist. According to Stephens and his colleague Doug Goist, some managers think that employ- ees who use assistive technology are somehow less capable. "I like to say to HR managers, 'How many of you use reading glasses? Can you read with- out them?' " explains Goist, an assis- tive technology specialist. "Glasses are assistive technology. It doesn't mean you can't perform in your job."

Beyond Compliance

In fact, people at all levels of education and skill use adaptive technology in their work. At Rosicki, Rosicki & Associ- ates PC, a mortgage banking law firm in New York, about 23 percent of its 425 employees have a disability. …

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