HR Technology: Give Employees with Disabilities an Assist

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

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold August 1, 2013

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 mistakes in her writing. What they didn’t know was the cause—dyslexia, a language-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 people that I have dyslexia," Hinson says. "It’s only just recently that I felt comfortable enough to tell my manager."

Once she did, Hinson was connected with Booz Allen Hamilton’s disability accommodations and workplace adjustments team. Within a few weeks, the team set her up with technology tools that help improve her writing and reading 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 awareness into the spotlight across the country. Now, more than 20 years later, technology is ushering in a second wave of consciousness about employees with disabilities—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 thousands of dollars, he says. Today, these functions are features of off-the-shelf operating systems or downloadable add-ons.

"By upgrading your operating system, you get built-in speech recognition, speech output, magnification, icon and graphic upgrades, word prediction, color-contrast ability, and alternate keyboard and mouse controls. What mainstreaming means is that these technologies are becoming cheaper and more cost-effective," says Beth Loy, Ph.D., principal consultant for the Job Accommodation Network, a grant-funded project 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-Goodwill 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 diagnosed 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 workforce," 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 employees 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 without them?’ " explains Goist, an assistive 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 & Associates PC, a mortgage banking law firm in New York, about 23 percent of its 425 employees have a disability. The firm uses adaptive software and hardware to accommodate those with vision and hearing impairments, cystic fibrosis, and spina bifida. "There are certain assumptions that a person with a disability can only handle the lowest-level work," says Craig Wolfson, associate partner and director of human resources. "People are surprised when we tell them we have attorneys, managers, paralegals, employees at all levels" who have disabilities.

While some disabilities are apparent, the legal definition includes a range of conditions, especially after the ADA was expanded through the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. ADA regulations now include sensory, cognitive, physical and psychiatric conditions as well as chronic diseases.

"We have a significantly higher percentage of people covered by the act" as a result of the ADA Amendments Act, says Michele Magna, disability specialist at Booz Allen Hamilton. "We want to have employees that can be as successful and productive as possible. If you aren’t providing those types of tools, the individuals are at a disadvantage, and you’re not going to get maximum productivity."

Amped Up

Today, adaptive technology goes far beyond screen magnifiers and sound amplifiers. Interestingly, many functions are familiar to a wide audience, thanks to popular tools like autocorrect, spell check and iPhone’s Siri.

Speech recognition software (similar to Siri) allows users to speak their thoughts and have them translated into text in a program file, and can also read text from a program file aloud. Word-prediction software like autocorrect uses context clues and user history to complete words after just a few keystrokes. And literacy programs such as spelling and grammar checks catch mistakes in written communication. Adaptive technology versions typically have beefed-up capabilities. Such tools can help employees with challenges from learning disabilities like dyslexia to fatigue caused by conditions like multiple sclerosis.

At Booz Allen Hamilton, Hinson uses a tool called WhiteSmoke to help her write e-mails and Read&Write for help with Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. "When you start typing, [WhiteSmoke] pops up and reviews your sentences for you and grades you before you can send" out the e-mail, she explains.

She benefits from the tools’ text-to-speech capabilities to improve comprehension. She says she processes information better when it is read to her than when she sees it on a page or screen.

Adaptive hardware can help employees with dexterity limitations: A half-QWERTY keyboard can help users who have carpal tunnel syndrome, one hand or limited fine-motor skills. When a blind person uses it along with a Braille display, it can read text aloud as he or she types. And "smartpens" allow employees to transfer recorded notes or audio to computer files, so they can take adaptive technology with them to meetings and outside appointments in a convenient, portable way.

Considering Cost

"Employers should not be afraid of price," Goist says. A 2012 Job Accommodation Network survey of 1,905 organizations that had provided accommodations for employees found that 57 percent of the accommodations were available at no cost, while the rest cost $500 or less. In many cases, local government and nonprofit agencies can provide adaptive technology tools to employers for free or at reduced rates.

"There is little to no cost for the employer," Wolfson says. "There might be a little startup cost, [but] the employees you are getting are so worth it." Managers at Rosicki, Rosicki & Associates have worked with The Rehabilitation Institute, Goodwill, New York state’s Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation, and Helen Keller Services for the Blind to identify candidates with disabilities and appropriate accommodations for them. "Many agencies will provide short-term or long-term job coaches or onsite support to help with the transition at no cost to the employer," Wolfson says.

In addition, some state and federal programs offer tax credits to employers that hire employees with disabilities and invest in adaptive technologies. Employers should check with state or local agencies that offer services for disabled residents to identify programs in their areas.

Tailored to the Job

When trying to identify the best adaptive technology solution for an employee, HR professionals need to consider the big picture. "You can’t just look at a disability in isolation," Magna says. "Look at it in conjunction with the essential functions of their job. You could have two individuals with the same diagnosis, but, because their duties are different, their accommodations packages might look very different."

Plus, there is a range of variation within each disability diagnosis. For example, one person with limited vision may prefer changing the color and font display on her computer, while another may prefer screen magnification.

Ask employees who need accommodations lots of questions, advises Linda Gillis, PHR, SPHR, Red Roof Inn’s hiring and training manager. The Springfield, Ohio-based company has three employees with visual impairments in its customer contact center who use screen reading and magnification tools. "Our goal is to make each agent the best he or she can be at their job," Gillis says.

Often, the employee or candidate can be a valuable source of information on adaptive technology options. Vicki Minter, an agent in Red Roof Inn’s customer contact center, has used the screen reading tool JAWS—Job Access with Speech software—at a variety of jobs since the early 1990s. "I always let [employers] know upfront that I use adaptive equipment," Minter says. "Sometimes they are a little apprehensive. I try to help them feel free to ask me about it." The program Minter uses converts text on a computer screen to speech or a Braille display.

"The person knows their impairment better than anyone," Stephens notes. "Don’t be afraid to ask ‘What do you need to do your job 100 percent?’ "

At Booz Allen Hamilton, employees request accommodations by submitting a form through the company’s intranet. Adaptive services are covered in the onboarding process, so new hires can self-identify and request them.

At other employers, the process is less formal. Red Roof Inn employees simply inform managers of their needs. The two then work together to accommodate those needs. "We have an open-door policy where people can have those conversations," Gillis says.

‘Don’t be afraid to ask "What do you need to do your job 100 percent?" ’

Experts recommend that HR professionals learning about adaptive technology try out some of the tools themselves. "Employers often have a lack of awareness of what solutions are out there and how they function," Goist says. "If an employer sits down and sees the unbelievable things the technology is able to do, that will remove any hesitation. There is nothing you can’t do when using this type of technology."

Jennifer Taylor Arnold is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.



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