Second Sunday Series — This is the last of 12 columns on work and disability appearing over 12 months — one on each second Sunday of the month, from September through August. Previous columns discussed self-employment; becoming unexpectedly disabled; whether to work with a disability, the subminimum wage, promotions for workers with disabilities, higher education decisions, self-advocating, career tips for family caretakers, testing limits as a worker with disabilities, the dilemma of revealing disabilities during job search, and overall concepts of disability in the workplace.
Can you guess who some of the most tech-savvy people in the United States might be? I don’t have statistics, but I’m confident in my guess that individuals with disabilities would lead the pack.
I say that despite surveys that show this group reporting lower usage of the internet, computers and smartphones than those without disabilities. These are just some types of technology, after all.
If we broaden the term to include assistive devices and home technology, the conversation quickly changes. Individuals with disabilities and their loved ones have needed to be on the cutting edge of technological advances because so much of their lives depend on it.
The examples are everywhere, even when they’re hidden in plain sight. Sound-cancelling headphones that help the neuro-divergent to cope with our cacophonous world; digitally-controlled hearing aids (now available over the counter!); smart-home technologies providing voice control for key systems and everyday conveniences.
This list could be pages long and still not cover all the technology-based advances that didn’t exist even a few years ago. For my part, I often wonder what my father’s life would have been like if he’d been born in this generation. A below-the knee amputee from the age of 30, he lived 43 years with a cumbersome wooden (yes, made of wood) leg. Today’s technology-driven prostheses with their slim profile and full range of motion would have made a difference.
When it comes to making the world more accessible for themselves, technology has been a game-changer for people with disabilities and those who share their lives. Even the ability to speak questions into a smartphone, something we now take for granted, opens new worlds for those who can’t easily navigate a keyboard or key pad.
Of course, work has been changed by technology as well. We have a long way to go, but employers are more aware than in the past that accommodation for a disabled worker could be as simple as a larger monitor or a trackball for the computer.
And government regulations have played their part, including not only the ADA (American with Disabilities Act), but ADA-influenced laws governing accessibility standards for websites and internet search engines.
Have we mentioned self-driving cars? If this option becomes universal, it could open transportation opportunities for the disabled that were barely imaginable in past generations.
And yet, as exciting and fascinating as these technologies are, there’s a dark side to consider as well. In an engaging article from July 2022, authors at Thevaluable500.com warn that our preoccupation with assistive devices and technologies places the burden on the individual without actually improving the world around them.
Thus, making wheelchairs that can navigate stairs may help one user but it doesn’t impact builders’ decisions in placing the stairs where they do. Likewise, modified vehicles don’t address poor public transportation. Not to mention that not very many people can afford these innovative individual solutions in the first place.
The problem extends to the workplace where, the authors note, improved technology solutions could lead employers to expect individual workers to solve their own accessibility problems, rather than improving the work environment itself to be more inclusive.
Sigh. It’s a valid reminder that not every advance necessarily advances us. Which is an appropriate, if slightly downbeat note on which to end this series on work and disability. We are making actual progress, of course, but we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball when it comes to the bigger picture.
On a personal note, I’ve found writing this 12-part series to be deeply rewarding, challenging and aggravating all at the same time. Rewarding because of the people who have shared their stories and ideas. Challenging because it’s been nearly impossible to feel confident about capturing the best and most helpful information.
And yes, aggravating. Because, as far as we’ve come, we aren’t nearly reaching our potential as a community in addressing this issue. We can do so much better; I have faith that we will.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at email@example.com.