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Workplace Technology: Tomorrow's Solution to Today's Negative Unemployment Trend

Janet Fiore
The Sierra Group, Inc.
King of Prussia, PA
Phone: 610-992-0288
FAX: 610-992-0947
Email: janetfiore@thesierragroup.com 
Website: http://www.thesierragroup.com

Michael Fiore
The Sierra Group, Inc.
King of Prussia, PA
Phone: 610-992-0288
Fax: 610-992-0947
Email: michaelfiore@thesierragroup.com 
Website: http://ww.thesierragroup.com

These are times of economic prosperity and great technological advancements. Across the country today, the amazing powers of technology are being touted as businesses and individuals from all walks of life incorporate the latest high-tech gadgets and computer devices into their lives. Similarly, America's boom economy, with its low unemployment rates and growing job opportunities, is also being heralded as a sign of a promising future as we approach the millennium.

However, as we roll into the year 2000, not everyone will be riding the technology wave to success. In fact, statistics continually indicate that despite this period of economic growth and technological advancement, people with disabilities remain at a disadvantage when it comes to enjoying the opportunities created by those conditions. With the Americans with Disabilities Act almost a decade old, people with disabilities still head the ranks of the unemployed. According to the 1998 Landmark Harris Survey, employment remains the widest gulf between individuals with disabling conditions and nondisabled individuals, with only 29 percent of people with disabilities ages 18 to 64 working.

This paper addresses a new concept that will reverse the negative unemployment trend for people with disabilities while creating a new pool of qualified job candidates to meet the demands of today's employers. Almost ten years ago, when The Sierra Group was founded as a company specializing in rehabilitation engineering, the field of assistive technology was virtually unheard of by the average person. Today, media attention to celebrities such as Christopher Reeves and Teddy Pendergrass has pushed assistive technology into the mainstream consciousness. However, as evidenced by the numerous calls placed to our offices from individuals inquiring whether we provide products such as prostheses, wheelchairs and van lifts, the term "assistive technology" still conjures up images of dependency and incompetency when in fact, the field of assistive technology has evolved to encompass myriad devices, computer hardware and software configurations and ergonomic products that have enabled many individuals to make vast strides in their personal and professional lives.

This paper's focus on The Sierra Engineered Approach to WorkplaceTechnology (tm), an employment model that implements assistive technology in the workplace, will show how technology, when properly applied and engineered to meet specific job requirements while addressing an individual's specificfunctional limitations, can not only increase independence for people with disabilities but create new opportunities for successful employment.

While everyone seems to realize, as evidenced by President Clinton's New Market Tour earlier this year, that access to new technology is critical to the economic success and personal advancement of today's underserved communities, the term "assistive technology" continues to daunt numerous employers, still under the guise that accommodations for a worker with a disability mean expensive and cumbersome contraptions. Too many times, the focus - and therefore the root of intimidation and fear - is on the "assistive" end of workplace accommodation when in reality, "technology" can enable many individuals with disabling conditions to find their niche in the workplace quite unobtrusively. By bringing assistive technology to the workplace, thereby creating an awareness and a need for training in WorkplaceTechnology. With 500 client interactions per year, our work providing technology assessments and training clearly demonstrates that both employers and potential employees are more likely to make a match when both parties are armed with an appropriate knowledge of how technology can empower today's worker with a disability.

For example, Pamela, a commercial sales account executive for AT&T, was able to keep her job after suffering a traumatic brain injury when she, along with AT&T, agreed to work with The Sierra Group to explore the options available to help her keep up with her paperwork and scheduling demands. By demonstrating to AT&T how the use of a custom-programmed Polytel keyboard combined with ACT! contact management software could return Pamela's productivity and efficiency to a suitable level and by training Pamela to use such tools, Sierra provided a cost-effective, customized solution that met the needs of both the employer and employee.

The success of the field of WorkplaceTechnology can be attributed in part to the fact that it takes assistive technology a step further by incorporating mainstream technology with the thousands of adaptive devices and products available to today's individual with a disability. WorkplaceTechnology puts the "technology" back into assistive technology to allow for the successful integration of a worker with a disability into the workforce by using both mainstream and adaptive technology in a seamless, ergonomic and efficient method.

WorkplaceTechnology helped Coleen, a woman with muscular dystrophy, keep her job in human resources when AETNA and US Healthcare merged. It allowed Ron, a man with acuity deficits, to keep track of his client interactions in his position as a counselor and provided Amy, a woman severely injured in a car accident, with the appropriate computer skills when her company streamlined its sales department to become more PC-based.

Based on the premise that no disability should preclude someone from working, WorkplaceTechnology guarantees that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities will decrease with implementation. The development of this concept was spurred by repeatedly alarming statistics that indicated that the majority of individuals with disabling conditions were unsatisfied with their quality of life.

Of 1,000 adults with disabilities surveyed by the National Organization on Disabilities last year:

With employers clamoring for new workers, such gaps between the disabled and nondisabled communities should not persist. Based on extensive research and thousands of real-life situations, Sierra's technology solutions, engineered to incorporate multiple components to adapt to all aspects of a person's job, provide a means to bridge this gap.

Whether it's training a worker who has suffered a brain injury to keep track of scheduling and client information by using ACT! contact management software or customizing a Polytel keyboard - the same type of keyboard used in fast food restaurants - for easier recollection of computer functions, WorkplaceTechnology is equipping both employers and employees with the tools they need to meet the demands of business. Some innovations can be as simple as constructing a rubber banding device for an employee with limited dexterity and upper extremity mobility who must gather his documents using a rubber band at the end of every work day. Others solutions may include training in the use of more traditional assistive technology, such as a speech synthesizer or speech recognition technology, which has now become a mainstream office tool. And in today's computer-driven workforce, where some knowledge of computers is required for just about every job, WorkplaceTechnology also provides an alternative means to computer access with nontraditional keyboards and mouse devices that address the needs of people with dexterity and mobility issues.

WorkplaceTechnology also includes the everyday items that can be customized to meet an individual's needs. For example, lighting can be adapted to turn off and on via various sounds for those who cannot access a light switch. To eliminate eye strain and distortion, fluorescent lights can be replaced with incandescent lighting. Or a desk that is too short to accommodate a wheelchair can be heightened by placing custom-made wooden blocks under the desk. If someone has only one functioning arm, a nonstick pad can be used to keep desktop items from sliding when he or she reaches for them.

In some cases, many people do not realize that they already have a dozen accommodations available to them at their fingertips. Today's Macintoshes and Windows-based PCs contain many features, such as StickyKeys and Autocorrect, that can make using a computer a less cumbersome and intimidating task. With StickyKeys, someone who types with a mouth stick or other device can hit certain function keys that would normally have to be pressed simultaneously one at a time. With Autocorrect, computer users can have frequently made errors automatically corrected as they work. This is WorkplaceTechnology at work, increasing productivity while providing employment options to those historically left out of the mix.

In another example of using what you already have, sometimes the best solutions may simply require the rearranging of a work station for greater comfort to reduce the risk or aggravation of repetitive stress injuries. Eliminate awkward filing activities and free up space by scanning documents into a computer instead to create an electronic filing system. Such tricks often make for a more organized workspace as well, thereby increasing overall efficiency.

Whatever the disability, Sierra has found that there are practical ways to increase productivity and efficiency by adapting assistive technology to fit one's workplace. Regardless of learning disabilities, blindness or limited vision, speech difficulties, mobility or dexterity issues or mental retardation, the talents and skills of an individual with a disabling condition can be maximized and enhanced through technology.

With the recent call by President Clinton and other national disability organizations for private/public partnerships to expand access to new technologies and to provide models for new initiatives, Sierra's model of WorkplaceTechnology is the solution that people with disabilities, rehabilitation professionals and employers are turning to in order to fill the growing demand for a skilled workforce and reverse the negative unemployment trend for people with disabilities.

According to the National Organization on Disabilities, employers should examine all business practices to develop strategies for seeking out and hiring people with disabilities. However, the call to increase employment opportunities must be supported by an action plan that includes targeted training programs to create qualified workers along with education. Some hand-holding must be implemented, for although employers may be more than willing to hire an individual with a disabling condition, few are aware of the technology available to make the transition to a work environment not only seamless but inexpensive as well. With WorkplaceTechnology, employers, rehabilitation professionals and people with disabilities must be trained to use and recognize many of the products that can promote the successful integration of a worker with a disability. Such training and education allows them to make confident, informed decisions when hiring someone with a disability. It also motivates them to more actively court these job candidates whose skills and talents are usually comparable and just as impressive as the individual without a disability but whose disability appears only as an obstacle to be overcome.

Similarly, by training individuals seeking jobs in the properly applied technology, The Sierra Group has found that employers are more receptive to hiring an employee who not only has the skills needed for a particular job but who also has the ability to independently access whatever technology and additional accommodations he or she may need for the job. Potential employees likewise feel more confident and comfortable applying for a job knowing they will be able to meet an employer's demands.

WorkplaceTechnology is also beneficial to employees who suffer a disabling condition or individuals with a disability who, though already employed, are experiencing a worsening of their condition. In such cases, where an employer has already come to value the skills and abilities of that employee, the implementation of WorkplaceTechnology allows them to retain such an individual and to adapt their job description or environment to accommodate their injury or illness.

The National Rehabilitation Association has long called for a worker's compensation program with return-to-work services and standards. WorkplaceTechnology responds to such a call. This model of job creation and retention also encourages individuals on social security disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits to return to work.

Additionally, it has been proven that every program dollar spent to rehabilitate an injured worker actually results in long-term cost savings to the employer and to the community. In fact, the longer an injured worker is out of the workforce, the longer and harder and more costly it will be for them to reenter the workforce. And despite employers' continued apprehension about costly accommodation, businesses can implement accommodations at a reasonable cost, with the National Organization of Disabilities citing an average cost of $300 to accommodate a worker with a disability.

In a survey of employers conducted by the Job Accommodation Network last year, more than 600 respondents indicated the following:

Of more than 800 employers responding:

Of 400 employers responding:
Of 1,600 employers responding:

WorkplaceTechnology therefore proves that accommodation does not have to be cumbersome, expensive, complicated or merely adaptive. Instead, technology devices can be easy to incorporate, accessible to all, cost-effective and adaptable to mainstream technology.

While WorkplaceTechnology will undoubtedly make a significant impact on the employment of people with disabilities, it can also revitalize the special education departments of many school districts struggling to cope with school-to-work transition issues. Although the Federal Department of Education recognized the importance of assistive technology in schools by mandating that a student's individualized education program (IEP) include a focus on assistive technology, many schools are still unaware of the tools available to help students study and work more efficiently while pursuing their educational goals.

In fact, the same study of 1,000 adults that indicated a general lack of improvement in employment for people with disabilities also reported similar statistics in terms of education. According to the survey, one out of five (20 %) adults with disabilities ages 18 and over has not graduated from high school. In fact, the percentage of adults with disabilities without a high school education continues to exceed the rest of the population by 11 %. Yet schools are making efforts that should be making more of an impact on such a trend.

Across the country, intermediate units are seeing a rise in enrollment, and school districts are employing transition coordinators to aid in the transition from school to work. However, many of these individuals claim ignorance of the latest employment issues and the tools necessary to get students into the workforce. And while the need for assistive technology in the schools has been recognized, many will acknowledge that the assistive technology needs of their students are not being met. In cases where school districts do supply assistive technology devices to their special education students, the necessary training to facilitate the use of these devices does not always occur. And so students with disabilities continue to slip through the cracks.

WorkplaceTechnology can help solve this problem by deploying proper technology training models in school districts at an early age. Equipping special education counselors and teachers with a knowledge of the products available and providing them with training will therefore enable them to be of greater assistance to students and to more effectively shape the curriculum of the school's special education program. Similarly, students will be taught to work more independently using properly applied technology solutions. Armed with a knowledge and familiarity of the devices available to increase their productivity, they will graduate from high school with greater confidence and a greater sense of readiness for college or the workforce.

Additionally, implementing WorkplaceTechnology into schools will prove more cost-effective as state agencies will spend less money trying to remediate students who find themselves floundering in the face of increased responsibility and workload demands once they graduate from high school.

In an age where technology drives the economy and the very future of business, there is no reason for people with disabilities to be left behind. And the tool to ensure that this does not happen is WorkplaceTechnology.

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