Hariharan S
Oct 14, 2019

How technology can help build a disability-friendly workforce

It's time to start building a workforce fit for the world's largest minority, and assistive technology can help.

How technology can help build a disability-friendly workforce

International Sign Language Day came by in my social media feed under the hashtag #IDSL2019 – in the form of a Scottish student who invented 100 new signs for scientific terms, to help make STEM jobs more accessible for the hearing impaired. It occurred to me how small actions and ideas can have great consequences to ensure we include people living with a disability at work, and the role that technology can play in these inclusivity efforts.

From Adidas selling single shoes to amputees, to a Starbucks where all employees are fluent in sign language, and even an inclusive Xbox controller, companies are adapting their services and products to serve a more diverse community. I’m also impressed by the OMTANKSAM (meaning ‘thoughtful’) collection by Ikea, which includes furniture specially designed for people with disabilities.

While these efforts by businesses are praiseworthy, people with disabilities depend on more than disability-conscious companies, especially when it comes to access to well-paid and meaningful work. Well thought-out government policies are critical to ensuring people with disabilities both enter and stay in the workforce.

For example, the Special Employment credit offsets wages of 16-22% percent, making it lucrative for businesses to employ people with disabilities. Meanwhile the Open Door Program funds 90% of course fees for training both people with a disability and their co-workers. Workers can even do a three month ‘trial’, which the Singapore government pays for. In addition, salaries and CPF contributions can be topped up for those workers with disabilities that don’t earn enough.

What’s more, the Singapore Ministry of Social and Family Development announced the formation of a new workgroup in March, that exists solely to enhance access to learning opportunities and employment pathways for people with disabilities. This initiative especially caught my eye. The Singapore government recognises that the effort to include people with a variety of skills is a work in progress. With technological innovation racing forward at lightning speed, we shouldn’t ever consider our inclusivity efforts to be “done”. We may even learn that the small adjustments we now make to welcome people with disabilities into the workforce will become common in future.

Here’s a great example. When I learnt of our acquisition of Voicea, I welcomed it with open arms. Voicea has developed a powerful transcription service that blends artificial intelligence (AI) and automated speech recognition. This acquisition will help us build real-time captioning for every meeting, so people with hearing impairments or language difficulties can read along with what is being said and participate in meetings. A powerful AI engine forms the basis of Voicea technology: based on user feedback and corrections of transcripts, the solution learns and adjusts to industry-specific, even company-specific terminology.

The application of AI and automated voice recognition, which is what Voicea leverages, is set to explode in the next few years. Some experts even argue that voice will become the primary ‘interface’ for how we engage with technology, freeing people from learning how to navigate complex software. In future, our homes, offices and our cars will be controlled with our voice. From scheduling an appointment to turning the lights on, you will only have to ask. You can imagine that people with physical impairments stand to reap the benefits. (For people living with speech impairments, an app called Talkitt already exists, which learns speech patterns from users and translates their speech into understandable language – in the speaker’s own voice, no less).

If you’re still wondering if the inclusivity of products and services is a marginal issue, I’m afraid it isn’t; globally, 15% of people live with some form of disability. That’s about 1 billion people, or the world’s largest minority, according to the United Nations. In fact, the Million Dollar Round Table estimates that you have a 50/50 chance of becoming disabled, for a period of at least 90 days, before you reach retirement. So, if you started reading this thinking it doesn’t apply to you - think again.

Assistive technology can be a solution to help people (re)join the workforce, lifting families out of poverty and building priceless skills. Inclusivity also makes solid business sense. A recent Accenture survey found that companies that excelled in disability inclusion achieved – on average – 28% higher revenues, double the net income and 30% higher profit margins than similar companies in their field.

When I broke my ankle a few years ago, I spent several weeks recuperating at home. Well, recuperating – it wasn’t long before I was back to writing emails and taking calls from home. I realised our workplace solutions were more than a perk: they became a lifeline. The experience made me more empathetic on the need for connection and the critical role that technology plays in inclusivity efforts. Ensuring that people with disabilities, temporary or otherwise, are supported in how they can and wish to work, is to the benefit of everyone.


Hariharan S is managing director of collaboration, Asia Pacific, Japan & China at Cisco.

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