The World Bank coined the term, “Disability Divide” after noting how digital technology plays a critical role in bridging barriers to communication, interaction and information. While 9-out-of-10 American adults use the internet, nearly 1-in-5 have a disability that may affect their ability to use the internet.
Many jobs have a digital element already, and it is predicted that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. Technology, used in both academic and employment settings, must be accessible so that individuals with visual disabilities have equal access.
Accessible technology platforms are also needed to ensure educational institutions can accommodate their entire student body. In the United States, it’s estimated that 14% of K-12 students have a disability. For undergraduates, the figure is 11%; for graduate students, 5%.
Universal Design (UD) is a strategy for making products, environments, operational systems and services welcoming and usable to the most diverse range of people possible. If product designers apply universal design principles, with a special focus on accessibility for people with disabilities, and if usability experts routinely include people with a variety of disabilities in usability tests, more products will be accessible to and usable by everyone.
There is incredible demand for a workforce skilled in accessible technology. In a Teach Access survey, 93% of respondents said demand for accessibility skills were increasing and 63% said their current staff doesn’t have sufficient accessible technology skills. The problem stems from the small number of academic programs (estimated to be about 2.5%) that teach accessibility topics. Two of the most cited reasons for not teaching about it were (i) it was not part of the core curriculum and (ii) the teacher did not know enough about the topic to teach it.
In the 2019 and 2020 school years, FFF invested in two “Design For Disability Inclusion” challenges that gave hundreds of students studying entrepreneurship and engineering the opportunity to propose a solution that would benefit BVI populations.
In the first iteration, FFF partnered with Project ECHO and gave students the option to either design a product or service that was specifically useful to BVI populations or to embed Universal Design principles into their product or service and defend how their concept was made stronger in the implementation thereof.
In the second iteration, two grantees -- Big Picture Learning and Wayfinder -- partnered to challenge kids to design a product that would encourage BVI youth to participate more readily in physical activity. Winners were tasked with physically building a prototype and will be given a full product life cycle feedback loop from Wayfinder’s BVI clients.
These efforts had outcomes that included (i) heightened awareness of the unique needs of BVI populations and (ii) implementations of UD that increased levels of empathy and understanding of BVI challenges.
FFF believes the next generation of accessible technology will not be successfully created unless we attract more people with disabilities to play a bigger role in helping to develop it. With this in mind, FFF seeks to develop more cross-collaborations between organizations that have BVI clients to co-create alongside accessibility innovators. This would grow workforce skills for both populations that could lead them on a positive trajectory.
Work-based learning experiences and internships are crucial towards making the shift towards inclusive employment. By harnessing real-world experiences like shadowing, internships and mentoring creates a better understanding of the unique needs of BVI populations and the support necessary to ensure success.
To optimize employment potential, individuals with disabilities should have a basic understanding of what accessible workplace technology is -- and use it to access and meet their own needs.
Nearly three-quarters (72%) of people who work in the social sector say their organizations have made a public commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DDEI) and have policies that prohibit denying people with disabilities equal opportunity to participate. The U.S. and Canada are responsible for one-third to one-half of global design spending and new predictions estimate that 40% of design spending will emphasize accessibility requirements.
In 2021, FFF funded RespectAbility’s National Leadership Fellowship program that employs people with disabilities and refines their necessary skills for careers advancing access and inclusion initiatives. The Fellows will also be involved in several projects in public policy, advocacy, and mainstream media entertainment communications to tackle negative attitudes and reduce long-standing barriers that prevent people with low vision or blindness from obtaining employment. Educating employers about accessibility is yet another way to dismantle the barrier to employment.
According to a national survey of consumer attitudes towards companies that hire people with disabilities:
92% felt more favorable toward companies that hire individuals with disabilities.
87% specifically agree that they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities.
Beyond that, it turns out companies that offered the most inclusive working environment for disabled employees achieved an average of 28% higher revenue, 30% greater economic profit margins, and twice the net income of their industry peers between 2015 and 2018. Furthermore, those companies that were rated as “disability inclusion champions” were twice as likely to have a higher shareholder return than their peer group.