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Companies still grappling with hiring people with disabilities

Firms see emerging technology as one path to a more inclusive future

Read Palo Alto companies making strides in hiring people with disabilities

==I Read State moves to improve work opportunities, pay for disabled workers

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Recent pronouncements by technology companies about inclusiveness and diversity would seem to indicate that they are making great strides, but how well are they doing with hiring people with disabilities?

The scorecard is still largely unmarked: While companies are more forthcoming about hiring by demographics such as race, gender and age, they often closely protect information about disability hiring.

In a recent announcement about Apple's diversity hiring, the company specified its increased employment of women, blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but it did not break out its disability hires. Other companies take disability out of the conversation, saying they focus on hiring the best person for the job, regardless of disability.

Disability advocates say there are reasons for the reticence. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from asking an applicant whether he or she is disabled and about the nature or severity of a disability. Employers also cannot require an applicant to take a medical examination before making a job offer.

Martha Artiles, president of Silicon Valley Business Leadership Network, which connects employers and job seekers who have disabilities, said that hiring professionals is more complex than hiring lower-skilled labor.

"You can't go through one organization to get a good, broad spectrum of talent," she said. As many as 72 percent of employable persons with a disability aren't enrolled in services, including state-funded training and employment programs, from which they might be recruited, she said.

And some companies report being unsure of what to do regarding recruitment, training and accommodations for workers with disabilities, said Maria Nicolacoudis, executive director of Expandability, a San Jose-based nonprofit organization that recruits, screens and assesses potential candidates for employers and offers training and post-placement support.

Companies have turned to nonprofits like Expandability to help them find their way when it comes to disability hiring.

Google has created a program, TechAbility, that works with a nonprofit agency to recruit and hire students with disabilities for full-time employment. And Facebook uses The Arc, a national nonprofit organization with programs to help employers train and hire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Facebook also goes to college campuses to recruit recent graduates with disabilities, a spokesperson said.

Some Silicon Valley companies are actively seeking ways to improve their hiring of workers with disabilities, if not out of altruism or any cultural shift, then because of their bottom lines. Consumers with disabilities, which include the aging, are now recognized as a powerful economic force, Artiles said.

A new initiative announced in July by several Silicon Valley companies seeks to capitalize on the development of new and emerging assistive technologies for the disabled population by building a knowledgeable workforce that understands disabilities.

Suzanne Philion, director of Corporate Communications for Yahoo said several tech companies, including Dropbox, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo, reached out to academic institutions and disability advocates in an effort to ensure students are exposed to the best principles regarding assistive technology and that "we fill the pipeline with qualified candidates."

"Accessibility must become mainstream. One of the greatest challenges to making accessible technology more ubiquitous is a lack of awareness and understanding of basic accessibility issues, concepts and practices," the group wrote in its principles and objectives statement. "We propose to begin building this foundation of knowledge in higher education, with enhanced training and collaborations with people with disabilities."

Those disability-assistive technologies are expected to level the employment field, advocates and company spokespeople said, through voice recognition, hands-free dictation and other applications.

At the Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple showcased "Workflow," an automation tool for iOS and watchOS, which included VoiceOver, a technology to make devices accessible to those who are blind or have low-vision. The software won the company's own 2015 Design Awards.

The American Foundation for the Blind also gave Apple the Helen Keller Achievement Award in May for VoiceOver, a gesture-based screen reader that allows users point at a screen to hear a description of everything on the display.

Companies are seeing the advantages of using disabled persons to design, troubleshoot and test their new products, but will that interest translate into jobs for people with disabilities?

That depends in part on public and corporate policies regarding access to appropriate education, computer skills and other training; disability income policies; and the availability of workplace accommodations and other employment supports, according to a report by the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

From that agency's viewpoint, the tech sector's role will be crucial. Most job growth for people with disabilities is projected to be in occupations for which computer use is important, according to the report.

"The rapid development of new computer and information technologies has particular benefits for many people with disabilities by helping overcome specific physical and cognitive limitations and significantly increasing the workplace productivity of people with disabilities.

"Technology and corporate policies are also creating more possibilities for home-based and other flexible work arrangements that than especially benefit people with disabilities who deal with transportation difficulties and medical concerns," the report noted.

Advocates such as Artiles and Nicolacoudis added that a cultural shift is necessary to make hiring people with disabilities fruitful and long lasting.

A recent open letter by Apple CEO Tim Cook seemed to point to an evolving corporate cultural change:

"Our definition of diversity goes far beyond the traditional categories of race, gender, and ethnicity. It includes personal qualities that usually go unmeasured, like sexual orientation, veteran status and disabilities. Who we are, where we come from, and what we've experienced influence the way we perceive issues and solve problems. We believe in celebrating that diversity and investing in it."

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