New technology enables disabled people to integrate into workplace

Assistive applications open up mainstream opportunities to people with disabilities

Christina McCarthy studied French and Spanish at college and her language skills come in very handy for her front-line job with Enterprise Rent-a-Car. McCarthy is visually impaired, but with the help of assistive technology she can do her job as competently as any other employee.

Dell, CitiBank, IBM, Microsoft and Deloitte are just some of the big-name companies that have made a conscious effort to use assistive technologies to help young graduates with disabilities get into the workplace. And this is no sop to political correctness. These are well-qualified young people who just need what Ahead (the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability) executive director Ann Heelan describes as "reasonable accommodations" to make it possible for them to function effectively in the mainstream workplace.

“The issue is still that employers see the disability first, not the person or their skills or what they can bring to an organisation,” says Heelan. “There is still a prevailing stereotype that creates bias – conscious or unconscious – that equates disability with difficulty and cost.

“In fact, our research for the last 10 years shows that, in 60 per cent of cases, there is no additional cost to employing someone with a disability. What it takes is a change in the recruitment process and the prevailing mindset to recognise that these young people can bring a whole new skill set to a business. Companies need good-quality talent and this is one avenue where it is available if they are willing to take the steps to accommodate it.”



In McCarthy’s case, Enterprise spent about €14,000 on getting software developed to integrate its reservations system with McCarthy’s braille reader technology. A percentage of the cost was offset by a Government grant available to all companies that add assistance technologies in the workplace.

"As a company we're very committed to diversity and to having a workforce that reflects society as a whole and it was very important for us to get the project over the line," says Enterprise's operations supervisor, Peter Walsh. "No one had ever tried to do something like this with our rental system before but our people in London and St Louis and a fantastic UK company, Blazie [which specialises in supporting the assistive technology needs of blind and partially sighted people in business] put a huge effort into making it happen.

“It was a really big undertaking to write all the necessary code and test it. At the moment, it’s only being used by Christina in our Dublin office, but we are a big international company and people within the organisation are beginning to realise that this can and has been done and we hope it will spread.

“We also have a staff member who uses a wheelchair and have made modifications to facilitate this such as changing our exits, providing a modified vehicle and lowering the height of our counter.”

Those with impairments do have different needs and Heelan advises companies interested in employing a person with a disability to consult Ahead’s website or to talk to the organisation for help first.

“Best practice is to carry out an individual needs assessment, which is essentially a structured consultation to determine what someone needs added or changed in order to perform their role. This assessment provides a framework to ensure that the employer ‘gets it right’ from a personal and legal perspective,” she says.

Examples of assistive technologies include screen-reading software that will read out loud into headphones, speech dictation, amplified handsets and optical scanners.

On a practical level, “reasonable accommodations” could include increasing the font size on a computer screen, locating someone near an accessible bathroom, providing furniture of a suitable height, keeping passages free from obstacles and having the basics such as wheelchair-accessible ramps and lifts.

Ahead has about 1,000 graduates on its books who are looking for work and Heelan says that once companies take the trouble to meet one of their graduates, they begin to see the person and what they have to offer.

Employment fair

On May 25th, CitiBank and Ahead will host a fair at Citi's Dublin offices (open to all) where graduates with disabilities can meet potential employers. There will be 20 companies hosting stands there, including Accenture, ESB, Deutsche Bank, EY and Enterprise.

For companies that are unsure about taking the plunge, getting involved with the WAM (willing able mentoring) programme run by Ahead may be a good first step. It is a work placement programme which aims to build the capacity of employers to integrate disability into the mainstream workplace. Participating companies attend learning events and collaborate with WAM to offer mentored, paid work placements for graduates with disabilities. To date more than 300 graduates have been placed through the programme.

A staggering 86 per cent of visually impaired people are unemployed and Christina McCarthy describes working for Enterprise as her first “real” job. She credits the commitment of Enterprise’s group HR manager, Leslee O’Loughlin, and Peter Walsh with making it happen for her.

“I already used technology and had a fair idea of what I needed to do the job and they met me on that,” McCarthy says. “I think most people with a disability will know what technology is available so my advice is to ask them what they need.

“I would never criticise any employer for talking about diversity and inclusion, but they need to walk the walk – as Enterprise has done – not just talk the talk.”