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AT, Disability, and Widgets Corporate Priorities in the Use of Assistive Technology

W. Skip Simonds
UnumProvident Corporation
Portland, ME 04122

“For all the glamour and the appeal of new technologies, we still need the old virtues of listening….” - Stanley Herr (in Blanck, 1994)

The development of Assistive Technologies (AT) has increased exponentially since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This increase in the breadth and depth of AT devices has impacted not only the ability of individuals with disabilities to manage their daily activities of living, but has also operated to increase the potential for employment of this group. All of this notwithstanding, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13078 in 1998 with the stated objective of increasing the rate of employment for people with disabilities to equal the rate for their non-disabled counterparts. (Berven & Blanck, 1999) Why is the unemployment rate of those with disabilities still so low, especially considering the vast majority of those disabled would work if possible?

A conclusion that can be drawn is that, despite the explosion in technology and the stated desire of people with disabilities to work, there are still factors present in the hiring process that inhibit employers from hiring more people with disabilities.

It has been suggested that one of the major issues that operates to inhibit employers from hiring people with disabilities is perceived costs associated with such employees. Such cost is supposedly comprised of increasing insurance rates, poor or interrupted attendance, less on the job flexibility. (Matkin, 1983)

To the contrary, statistics have shown that in all cases, the opposites are true. Workers with disabilities do not affect insurance rates, are more regular in their attendance, and are more willing to be flexible to the demands of the workplace. (Matkin, 1983)

It must not be forgotten, however, that disabilities do cost employers, and the costs are not insignificant. For example, the average cost of disability for employers is an amount equal to approximately 8.6% of payroll. (UNUM, 1998) This cost is, admittedly, for disabilities occurring in people presently employed as opposed to those hired with disabilities, but in the employer’s mind, the distinction is lost. Disability costs. So in the employer’s mind, there is a very direct and substantial link between disability and cost.

Disability from the Employer’s Point of View

Here are some representative statistics concerning employment, disability, and related trends from the employer’s point of view.

(from UnumProvident’s Disability Database)

Barriers to Employment from the Employer’s Perspective

Hiring Priority

By and large employers are more concerned with re-employing their own disabled workers than in hiring new employees with a disability. While the corporate world may be interested in putting the severely disabled to work, they are more concerned with helping the current employee return to work, or helping to prevent that employee from leaving work in the first place. I say “more concerned” because, understandably the corporate commitment is to the employee that is already working for the company rather than one that is not.

And, it must be admitted that the corporate employer is not necessarily doing a great job in returning their employees to work following a disability of 90 days or more. A recent survey asked respondents if they would return to work if they could. The overwhelming majority (93%) said they would. However, when employers were asked if employees with disabilities return to work, they reported only 80% of those actually did. (WSJ, 1997) What is the reason for the shortfall?

While the answer is not known, suggestions as to why range from lack of suitable accommodations to resistance on the part of front line managers.

Technology Incompatibility

Corporations, especially medium and large ones, are generally not on the “cutting edge” of computing. There is a trade off between system stability and functional advances. The corporate computing standard is typically up to three versions behind whatever version is currently being marketed to individual consumers.

For example, many companies continue to use Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 as their operating systems of choice even though more current versions are available. Why? Because “off the shelf” applications, company developed “legacy” software, and other variations have been tested, retested, and certified by corporate Information Technology (IT) systems as being compatible and stable. “Stability” is the primary concern of many corporate IT systems people, and considering the costs of downtime, rightfully so.

The same motivation exists in determining the hardware configurations available. Rarely does one find the latest “blazing” co-processor on the corporate desktop. Why? Because while the co-processor may be entirely compatible with the existing systems, that “blazing” speed is only leveraged by newer operating systems. Back to square one.

Unfortunately, many of the most recent and beneficial AT applications require newer operating systems, more RAM, and faster processing than the standard corporate desktop will provide. Buying newer software and hardware may make it possible to institute AT for the worker, but connectivity and compatibility with the rest of the system will be at risk, making the gains dubious.

System Standardization

This is actually a variation on Technological Incompatibility. Because stability is the Holy Grail of the IT department, a high priority is placed on the standardization of systems. The greater the level of standardization of the systems employed, the easier it is to engineer out bugs, flaws, and incompatibilities.

Assistive Technology as an accommodation is anathema to standardization. By definition, an accommodation is non-standard, an exception to the standard. IT systems are not organized to readily accept and support exceptions. In fact, in the writer’s personal experience, he once got a piece of technology approved by an IT manager who was refusing to approve it only when the writer re-characterized the assistive technology in question as “our standard, non-standard accommodation.”

Widgets vs. AT

In business, people do what they are compensated to do. Salespeople hate making customer service calls because their pay depends on selling new business. Front line managers focus on production because to some degree their pay/bonuses/incentives are related to either the quality or quantity of production or both.

The stated goal of an accommodation is to “level” the playing field between employees with and without disabilities. Often this translates to enhancing the abilities of the employee with a disability so that their disability is no longer an issue. However, although the functional abilities of each employee may be the same, the capacity of each employee to produce “widgets” often is not.

“Leveling” the playing field does not solve the problem created by a disability. It merely moves the problem from the arena of function to the arena of capacity. I may be able to do the work with AT, but can I do it as well or as fast as my non-disabled counterpart? And if I cannot, what then is the responsibility of the front line supervisor? If he or she is being compensated to produce (n) widgets per hour and I can only produce (n-x), as long as they are compensated for (n) I will only be a barrier to their ability to manage the process to corporate expectations.

All this points to the question: should corporations lower their standards to hire people with disabilities? If not, then who is it incumbent upon to demonstrate that production will not suffer? The answer may be cast legally in one direction, but practically in another.

Strategies for Crossing the Barrier

Learn the Lingo

Given the above differences in viewpoints, consider how viewpoint relates to semantics. Matkin (1983) suggests that the language of business is largely economics. Since the “focal point” of an employer’s concern is economic, “…rehabilitation personnel must either possess or acquire the knowledge and language skills associated with business and economics in order to communicate effectively with employers.”

This would also greatly benefit any individual with a disability who is seeking employment.

Consider also that often the language of communication for the person with a disability is in terms of the functionality they have gained through the use of AT (“I couldn’t do this before, but now I can.”). As exciting and promising as this is, it is still a step removed from the main concern of the hiring manager, capacity (“I need people who can do (n) number of these per day.”). Voice technology may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but will voice technology allow the worker to process 10 pieces of white mail per hour for a customer service department.

Obviously, the individual would not know what the standards are before going to the interview. But that should be one of the first things he or she should find out about as early on as comfortably possible.

In addition, come armed with a knowledge of how fast you can work: how many words per minute you can dictate or pages per minute you can scan. How fast can you read text with a screen reader? These pieces of information will enable you, with a little questioning, to translate functionality into capacity.

If you have range of motion issues, it is great that you have assistive devices to enable you to reach and grasp. How far? How much weight? How fast? These become critical in the considerations of how well you can perform on the job.

Consider that just making the effort to quantify your abilities in terms that are relevant to the hiring manager shows that you are perceptive, intelligent, and already thinking about ways you can impact the organization. That may even put you ahead of the competition. Be the Solution

There is no obligation for the employer to hire people with disabilities. There is only an obligation to consider them without regard to their disability. The issue that the employer faces is not being disability blind, but rather to be “qualified” focused. The employer’s main concern is to hire the most qualified person for the position available. The effect of disability related civil rights law and regulations are to make sure the employer does not consider disability, per se, as constituting a “dis-qualification.”

However, if a disability does directly impact the ability to perform critical function of the job, the applicant will need to demonstrate that they can still do the work with or without an accommodation, which could include AT.

Even a person without a disability must pass the test of qualification to get the job.

The point here is that AT can not only level the playing field, but in some situations can actually give the applicant a “leg up” on the competition because it enhances performance. Voice activated systems come to mind here because of their powerful ability to script certain repetitious processes around data input. The question is, can the applicant present themselves as the “solution” to the employer’s need.

Recognize the Cost

In the language of business, decisions are generally made on a cost/benefit basis. This means that management recognizes that there is an inherent cost in every action, and that some actions have a greater return or benefit than others. Effective management maximizes the ratio of cost to benefit. The greater the benefit relative to cost, the more favorably the action will be viewed.

There is a cost to hiring people with disabilities. There is a social cost, a business cost, and others. The question of whether there should be or not is not within the scope of this paper. It is merely important that the point is made that there is a cost.

For that matter there is a cost to hiring anyone for any job. The expectation is that the value of the output of the hired person will exceed the costs of hiring and maintaining them (salary, training, benefits, etc.). If an employer can hire two equally qualified people, one who lives locally and one who lives several states away, he or she will probably hire locally. Why increase the cost (relocation stipends) to get the same benefit? Similarly, when a person with AT looks for a job, they must recognize that the cost of hiring them is greater than hiring someone who does not need AT.

Learn More Than One System

Given the barriers of technology inherent in many medium and large corporations, if it is at all possible, the applicant with a disability should learn more than one version of whatever technology is available. The greater the repertoire of AT available, the less likely it will be a problem to be overcome.

If a person without disability only knows Microsoft Word, but the employer only runs Lotus WordPro, the issue then becomes: can the applicant learn WordPro and how quickly? The same is true for applicants with disabilities. If their AT solutions only work on certain systems or with specific hardware, the question of adaptability arises, complicating the hiring process.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Everyone is entitled to a job, but not everyone is entitled to a specific job. It should be realized that all hiring is essentially a sales process. The applicant is both the product and the salesperson, the hiring manager is the customer, and all the other applicants are the competition. There is no entitlement mentality to the sales process. It is highly competitive. There is no salesman or saleswoman in the hiring process but the applicant.

If the applicant understands this fundamental dynamic of the hiring process, then it is a small step to realizing that the perception of the customer is everything. What can the applicant with a disability do to turn perceptions around?

Assistive technology becomes part of the hiring package. It is as much a part of the considerations as the applicant’s educational background or employment history. If AT is presented like an unwanted stepchild, it will not enhance the applicant’s potential for success. If, on the other hand, AT is presented as a bonus: the employer not only gets the applicant, but they get this neat technology with the applicant, then the outcome may be different. It is not being suggested that the employee provides the employer with the technology. Merely that the employee characterizes the technology as a plus, an enhancement, a positive.

These are just a few thoughts around the topic of AT and getting and keeping a job.

A Few Illustrative Case Studies

David and ADD

David was applying for a job as a “number cruncher” for a large CPA firm. While not a CPA himself, he had gone to night school to learn accounting and hoped to land a job with this major firm. David had suffered from ADD all his life but had learned to cope in a variety of situations. In this present job, David would be asked to work largely by himself on second shift, doing statistical analysis on various accounts.

David liked the ability to be relatively autonomous but that he would soon find himself in trouble. David knew from experience that with ADD it was extremely easy for him to become distracted by small things and become intensely interested in the distraction. In studying at school he knew that he would stop studying to take a break and become involved in a video game. Because of his inability to stay on task with work, several hours would go by before David would get back to studying, if at all. David felt badly and always intended to do better, but couldn’t seem to tear himself away from the games. He had tried deleting them from the system but he could easily download and install them in a moment of weakness.

David decided that if there was some way to remind him to stay on task that he could do this job. Since he worked second shift, there was no co-worker to take on that role. David asked what suite of programs the employer was using. With any calendering program, David could set up meeting notices for himself. Each night, at the beginning of his shift, David could program a meeting notice to appear at odd intervals, 30, 45 or 60 minutes throughout the shift. For the name of the meeting, David typed “Are you on task?” That way, when the notice popped up, David would be reminded to self monitor and take control of his impulses. David got the job because of his qualifications, but set his plan in motion each night. It worked. David’s production might vary from night to night, but they were always in acceptable limits. Because of the irregular timing of the notices, David could not get into a rhythm to ignore them.

This was considered a successful application. While it did not completely eliminate David’s tendency to play, his digressions were limited and he was willing to work extra time to make up for it. In addition, the technology was already available in the present systems.

Lisa and CTI

Lisa was an Afro-American who lived in the deep south. She developed cumulative trauma in her right wrist from years of using an adding machine to prove deposits for a large bank. She had tried to shift the function to her left hand and was now developing symptoms there as well. She left the bank and decided to apply for a job in a large department store tallying cash register drawers at night. Because of her previous experience she got the job, but a post offer health interview found the CTI problems and the hiring manager was made aware of the situation.

After a consult, it was decided to move Lisa from an adding machine to a computer and provide her with voice technology and a program that would make the computer emulate an adding machine tape.

Training took triple the normal time and Lisa never was able to achieve the same level of performance as her peers. Not only was a computer totally foreign to her, but her accent and dialect were such that she generated many errors in dictating numbers, forcing her to make many corrections. In addition, with only a sixth grade education, she did not seem to have the adaptability to switch from a function she had been doing for almost 20 years to a new one.

Lisa was eventually let go at the end of her probationary period as there were no other jobs at the employer for which she was suited. This application was not considered successful because although the technology was in place for her to do her job, Lisa lacked the ability to leverage the technology.

Roberta and Sight Impairment

Roberta was being considered for a job as a claims examiner for a large insurer. Roberta was functionally blind in both eyes. Initially the hiring manager was skeptical of her ability to manage the flow of paper required in doing the work.

Roberta demonstrated her screen reading technology during the interview and produced a number of recommendations from teachers and former employers reporting on her ability to “read” and remember large quantities of data. In short, she documented a solution to every potential objection the hiring manager could raise.

Impressed by Roberta’s drive and determination, and assured that she had the ability and technology to do the job, she hired Roberta. After completing training, Roberta worked for six months under the guidance of a senior claims payer as was the case with all newly hired processors. Roberta’s job was to read all incoming documentation and to make an initial determination as to the acceptability of the claim for consideration and if acceptable, to which of several specialist claims payers the claim should be sent to.

Using a scanner and screen reader technology, Roberta was able to read all income documents except those with hand written comments. These were read to her by an associate. Roberta memorized the standard contract (something none of her sighted peers had done) and only needed to scan files for any amendments to the standard contract. As a result, Roberta was able to process claims in a timely fashion with above average accuracy. Because the emphasis on the process was quality of decisions rather than quantity of decisions, Roberta could compete successfully with her fully sighted peers.

This application was considered a success largely because of Roberta’s significant efforts in memorizing the contract, the compatibility of AT with the systems in place, and the correct match of Roberta’s ability to do quality work as opposed mere quantity.


Blanck, P.D. (1994). Communications technology for everyone: Implications for the classroom and beyond. Washington, D.C.: The Annenberg Washington Program Reports.

Brevan, H.M. & Blanck, P.D. (1999). Assistive technology patenting trends and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 17. pp 47-71.

Matkin, R.E. (1983). Educating employers to hire disabled workers. Journal of Rehabilitation, July/Augus/September, 1983.

UNUM Life Insurance Co. of America (1998). Disability Matters. Corporate Publication #1026-98.

About the Author

William W. “Skip” Simonds, M.A. is a Senior Developer for Return-To-Work Programs. Prior to joining UnumProvident in 1998, he led L. L. Bean’s assistive technology efforts. Most recently he has been the lead developer for WorkRx, a return to work prescription for small to midsize employers and provides ongoing support to that program’s consultant group.

Mr. Simonds has over 25 years of corporate management and consulting experience. He is a member of RESNA (The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) and AAES (The Association of Access Engineering Specialists) and is certified in assistive technology by California State University at Northridge. He has authored and presented a number of corporate white papers on topics relating to accommodations for employees with disability to industry gatherings, and provided consultative input to companies such as Microsoft and IBM on a wide variety of return to work and assistive technology development issues.

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