The telephone. TCP/IP protocols. Pokemon GO. Cloud computing. Ghostbusters.
What do these innovations have in common? All of these cultural icons were created by individuals with a disability.
Everyone knows tech has a diversity problem. Women don’t receive as much funding as their male counterparts, ethnically diverse tech workers make up a dismal percentage of the workforce, and Most AI can only recognize white men. As these depressing stats are quoted again and again, bloggers everywhere agree that we need more diversity in tech.
However, there is a large sector of our population that has been continually ignored by the #DiversityinTech movement: individuals with a disability.
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One in four American adults lives with a disability and one in three lives with a chronic illness. That’s over 61 million people. Roughly 650 million people live with a disability worldwide, making them the largest minority group on the planet. In countries with a life expectancy of at least 70 years, the average citizen will spend 11.5% of their life (about 8 years) living with at least one disability. As baby boomers age, this number will only rise, as disability increases in frequency with age.
If these stats are surprising to you, open your eyes. It’s extremely likely that someone you know suffers from a disability, whether a mental illness, chronic health condition, mobility restriction, cognitive difference, or anything else that “substantially limits one or more major life activity.” This broad legal definition by the ADA includes everything from Asperger syndrome to epilepsy to Crohn’s disease, all of which are examples of “hidden disabilities” or conditions not immediately visible or obvious. In fact, over 96% of chronic health conditions are considered “invisible”, meaning their presence is not inherently obvious to the outside observer.
Across all age groups, industries, and educational levels, individuals with a disability are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. They also suffer higher rates of discrimination and a lack of mobility opportunities; one third have reported discrimination in their workplace.
In an era of more STEM jobs than skilled workers, why is the tech industry ignoring this valuable resource?
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Reducing ableism in the tech industry isn’t just a moral and ethical move. It also makes good financial sense.
By now, everyone and their grandmother has heard the stat that more ethnically and gender diverse companies outperform their competitors.
However, it is also true that companies that prioritize hiring individuals with disabilities see greater net income, revenue, value creation, and shareholder returns than their competition. And it’s as simple as being inclusive.
Microsoft, AT&T, and Virgin are just a few large corporations reaping the rewards of a more inclusive workplace. Higher employee engagement and morale, lower turnover, and increased employee satisfaction and retention are just a few. As individuals with disabilities are often early adopters and champions of new technologies, harnessing their unique perspectives allows for more innovative and accessible design. For example, text messaging was originally designed for people who are hard of hearing. Now, 23 billion text messages are sent each day worldwide.
Public facing businesses receive a double bonus as they appeal to the world’s largest minority group: the 10% of individuals worldwide with disabilities.
If you have a public facing or B2C company, hiring people with disabilities can help make your products and services accessible to a wider audience, especially diversity-conscious groups like millennials and Generation Z.
Many employers fear hiring individuals with disabilities due to the potential cost of accommodations. But just as there are thousands of different causes of disability, there are a variety of ways employers can accommodate their employees.
Over half of requested accommodations have no cost.
Remote work and flexible work schedules can even save companies money. Small additions to your workplace, such as noise cancelling headphones, braille displays, modified work spaces, or large button phones are often enough to allow an individual with disabilities to succeed.
You may find that your remote or contract workers are already accommodating themselves with their own altered work schedule. Remember, while you may be learning about it for the first time, individuals with disabilities have a lifetime of experience navigating systems and environments that were not designed for them.
Costs, if any, to accommodate an employee with a disability, are on average just $500. Over the course of the employee’s career with your company, that is pocket change.
Allow your employees to dictate the accommodation process, as they likely know exactly what they need and when they need it. For more information about how employers can support workers with disabilities, check out the searchable Job Accommodation Network (JAN).
Remember that inclusion begins at the start of the hiring process, not the end. The traditional interview process might be limiting your candidate pool. That’s why many businesses have adjusted, and offer remote interviews, skills-based testing, and accessible careers websites. These can help ensure you are hiring from the widest possible talent pool.
Making diversity and inclusion a company priority will go a long way towards encouraging your employees to speak up and ask for what they need. While it’s illegal to ask employees or potential employees to declare any disabilities, make it clear during the onboarding process that you are willing and able to make accommodations.
Employee support groups are also a powerful tool to let current and potential workers know they are valued and supported. When it’s clear to your workers that inclusion is a core company value, they will feel more comfortable speaking up about what is often a personal issue (their health).
In a time where there are more skilled job openings than those qualified for them, ignoring a valuable talent pool is short sighted and frankly, ignorant. Not taking advantage of the talents and determination of workers with disabilities is a significant loss to your business’s reputation, profitability, and competitive edge.
Stop limiting yourself to those with the same abilities as you. Open your eyes (and your business) to those with different abilities, and reap the rewards of diverse perspectives in your workforce. Who knows – maybe you’ll invent the next Pokemon.
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