A presenter stands in front of a mic and her powerpoint.

Overview: People with Disabilities in Education and the Workforce

Presenter: Richard Ladner, University of Washington

By increasing access to allow higher numbers of people with disabilities in the college/university setting and workplace, we allow a substantial population—15 percent of the world’s population—the ability to participate. Though there are many people with disabilities already succeeding in PhD programs and challenging careers, these numbers are still much lower than their representation in the general population.

According to the World Health Organization, a disability is not primarily a health problem, but rather defined by the ability to interact with the environment and as well as social barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in society. While K-12 education has made great strides in including people with disabilities, only ten percent of college students and four percent of graduate students have disabilities.

Innovations for access to people with disabilities often become solutions for the wider population. Examples of this include personal texting, speech recognition, and video chat. Personal texting and Picturephone were both originally created in the 1960’s for deaf people to communicate over distances; speech recognition was originally created for people who could not type easily. These technologies are now used by many people daily (e.g., iOS’s Siri). Disability and technology innovation are intertwined, and more mainstream technology products have accessibility features built-in.

Throughout the years, people with disabilities have been excluded, institutionalized, and accommodated, which is a reactive approach. Today we can apply universal design, a proactive approach that considers the needs of all people with all types of abilities and disabilities from the beginning stages of design. Companies often only look at accessibility as a compliance issue. Instead, companies should view this issue in a more welcoming light—how can we be more inclusive and welcoming to that 15 percent of the population is often be left out?


Supporting Neurodiverse Software Engineers in Technical Workplace Settings

Presenter: Meredith Ringel Morris, Microsoft Research

Autism is becoming more and more common—1 out of 68 children is on the autism spectrum with widespread abilities in a variety of functions. Many people with autism excel in school and hold highly competitive jobs.

By considering neurodiverse (attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and/or learning disability) employee candidates, companies can open doors to untapped talent pools. People with autism often have qualities praised in the technology world. But what can be done for people with autism to maximize their potential in the technology industry?

When Microsoft Research interviewed people on the autism spectrum, we attempted to look into the issues of neurodiversity in the workplace. Only half of these individuals had disclosed their disability to their employer, sometimes because of potential stigma and discrimination. Most people who are neurodiverse had challenges arise due to a literal interpretation of the rules and miscommunication. Furthermore, these individuals claimed if they found something uninteresting they often became disengaged or felt uncomfortable in team-building exercises. Accommodations that people on the autism spectrum requested revolved around travel, written instructions, private meetings with a manager, working from home, and awareness from colleagues.

A larger survey was sent to 2600 employees from Microsoft. 846 completed the survey; 85% of these were male, with 7% stating they were neurodiverse. This survey helped us learn about the differences between technology workers who are neurodiverse and those who are not.

We’ve learned that there are many people on the spectrum who do not disclose their disabilities. Educating all employees about neurodiversity and creating a culture of acceptance of difference will help remove stigma and encourage people to disclose. Also allowing for a variety of office settings and communication methods can make employees feel more comfortable in their workplace and better focus on their work.

To learn more details about this research, please read the full report available at research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/merrie/papers/neurodiverse_tech_employees_assets2015.pdf.

Disability Disclosure in Employment

Presenter: Susann Sears, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

This presentation focused on when to disclose one’s disability, how to create a disability disclosure statement, and the pros and cons of disclosing. This content may help employers understand how potential employees may approach the disclosure process.

It is the employee’s responsibility to ask for an accommodation, which requires the employee to disclose their disability. 70 percent of workplace accommodations can be made for less than $500. Companies can only claim undue hardship if an accommodation would be very expensive or nearly impossible to provide.

A person with a disability may disclose before or during an interview, after hiring, when an accommodation is needed, or never. Disclosing a disability too early may prevent a person from getting an interview. However, for some people it is important to be proactive in disclosing to ensure an interview location is accessible, to arrange for a sign language interpreter, or to frame a disability as a strength.

When requesting an accommodation, employees should be clear and concise about what is needed and how the accommodation positively affects work performance. Though employers can be apprehensive about costs or behaviors when it comes to disabilities, it helps when the employee builds a relationship of trust and confidence.


Microsoft’s DisAbility Initiatives

Presenter: Jen Guadagno & Devan Vaughn, Microsoft

People with disabilities have a lot of untapped potential. Microsoft is expanding and building an inclusive workplace environment; we have put in place multiple programs in order to hire more people with disabilities. Through these programs and other strategies related to people with disabilities, we can create a culture of inclusivity and accessibility. Through these efforts, we have been able to do the following:

  • actively recruited people with disabilities
  • included universal design in the product design process
  • hosted an Ability Career Fair and brought information on our inclusive hiring to other career fairs on university campuses and at industry events
  • as a part of our annual Hackathon event, hosted numerous “ability hacks” that focus on accessibility and inclusion
  • offered a disAbility scholarship each year since 2013 to support a student with a disability pursuing a college degree

Finally, we run the Autism Inclusive Hiring Program. This program educates recruiters, hiring managers and interviewers on what to expect in working with job candidates on the autism spectrum. It also allows for a different approach to hiring, including a different view on resumes, phone interviews, and technical assessments. There is a 1-2 week, in-person hiring event so that qualified candidates can participate in team projects and prepare for interviews in a relaxed atmosphere. Once hired, employees in this program a matched with a team of mentors to help them navigate their new position and the Microsoft culture.

Mentorship and Hiring Best Practices

Presenter: Sam Sepah, Google

In my personal life, I worried that my disability was a barrier to getting hired. I had a personal connection who continually got me into interviews, and it took me a few interviews to finally get an internship working in human resources (HR).  My connection saw me as more than my resume and helped me work through my concerns in order to find a career in HR.

In a study of the barriers listed by employers to hiring people with disabilities, the top 5 barriers include these:

  • lack of qualified applicants
  • lack of related experience
  • lack of requisite skills and training
  • inadequate supervisor knowledge of accommodations
  • cost of accommodations

Best practices to increase hiring people with disabilities include the following:

  • offering internships for people with disabilities
  • having strong management commitment
  • including people with disabilities in organizational goals
  • actively recruiting people with disabilities
  • including people with disabilities in a diversity plan

Employers should address the 3 R’s: recruiting, retaining, and recognizing. If you get involved in recruiting and hiring people with disabilities at your company, more applicants with disabilities will apply for jobs in your company. Employees with disabilities can help to recruit people with disabilities, support a disability-focused employee network, and create partnerships with disability-related advocacy organizations. Ideally, the employer will create a centralized accommodation fund to ensure that departments hiring an individual with a disability do not bear the burden of accommodation costs, provide a formal process for requesting and receiving accommodations, and create an inclusive culture.

Having a team of mentors helps a person to have a great career. It is also important for an employ to become an advocate for others and create a welcoming environment for all. This leads to an inclusive workplace. All employees should have to take a cultural training, have more accountability by creating a plan to follow, and have opportunities for advancement. At Google, we offered an ASL class and, within 48 hours, over 160 people had signed up. You won’t know what your employees will want to take until you offer it, and it makes everyone feel more included in the culture.

Roundtable Discussion – Assistive Technology and Accessibility

This discussion featured Terrill Thompson, University of Washington; Dan Comden, University of Washington, and Imran Ahmed, Bosma Enterprises. It was moderated by Sheryl Burgstahler, director of DO-IT and co-PI for AccessComputing.

There are thousands of different types of assistive technologies. Employers should be in the general practice of asking all new employees what kinds of tools they use to make their job easier. Does an employee use a screen magnifier, speech recognition, text-to-speech software, or braille? No employer is going to be an expert in all technologies and know what to offer to an employee, especially someone with a disability. A person with a disability has the responsibility to be the expert on their own needs and tools; however, it is important that employers offer employees the opportunity to learn more about technologies and tools they could use.

The CSUN Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities and Closing the Gap conferences are both great places for employees to learn about different technology and how to use a diverse range of tools. No one will ever be an expert on all technology, but at a conference he/she can witness the richness of the field.

If you want to design products that work with assistive technology, keyboard functionality is the most important quality to consider. Many assistive technologies support keyboard use alone. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) of the World Wide Web Consortium should be followed for development of web content and software . The WCAG 2.0 basic success criteria gauge whether something is accessible or not. And just because something is technically accessible, does not mean it is usable. Usability requires that someone can effectively use a product in the way it was intended.

What are some of the issues with making PDFs and forms accessible?

Portable Document Format (PDF) files follow similar guidelines to websites—heading styles, accessible tables, alt text for images, etc. But accessibility guidelines are not always intuitive for creators to use and people with disabilities are often left out of the conversation. Some employers struggle with the tools they have to create accessible documents. Employers need to learn the basics of document accessibility so they can at least start to include people with disabilities, both internally and externally.

However, reactively making documents and videos accessible are expensive accommodations. Having accessible documents and captioned videos  already in place not only is cheaper and easier, it creates a welcoming culture where people do not have to request accommodations. These accessibility features are often helpful for those who do not have difficulties.

Captioned videos are a necessity for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Who else benefits from captions?

Captions benefit everyone one when new terminology is spelled out. They can be repurposed as transcripts and are searchable. Communication access real-time translation (CART) can be helpful for everyone attending an event because even if you stop paying attention, you can look back on the text to see what was missed. CART can also be used remotely, so people can discreetly use it, or look at the transcripts later.

What is happening in today’s world for smart phone accessibility?

Mobile technology is only getting more popular—this is great because phones already have many accessibility features built in. It gets easier and easier to build an accessible mobile app. Apps are simpler than desktop software and usually feature bigger displays or aspects that work with a phone’s built in features.

What can we do to make sure the tools to create are also accessible to people with disabilities?

We should promote accessibility across the board so that the means of creation should become more and more accessible as well. The mentality of universal design means all products, both internal and external, should be as accessible as possible.