The Tech Sector’s Big Disability Inclusion Problem

Much has been written about the lack of diversity in the technology sector, but it focuses primarily on gender and race. Of course, that’s important, but a group that is often overlooked in conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech is individuals with disabilities.

The tech sector is a prolific job generator, with 530,000 new jobs projected in the United States by 2029. Yet the nation’s unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 2.5 times higher than for those without — even though companies that are inclusive of individuals with disabilities are more financially successful.

That is why the Institute for Career Development, where I am CEO, and New York Institute of Technology recently studied the challenges for individuals with disabilities seeking employment in technology in New York City. 

Between 2010 and 2019, 46,000 jobs in the technology sector were added in New York City, a 6% share of the city’s employment growth. It’s also worth pointing out that one in five New Yorkers has a disability, making individuals with disabilities one of the city’s largest minority groups.

“Many tech companies have explicit reputations as being unwelcoming to those with health issues,” writes Rachel Thomas, director of the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics and an early engineer at Uber. “The tech industry’s obsession with working ridiculously long hours is inaccessible to many disabled and ill people, for whom adequate rest is often not optional, or who may have regular doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, or tests. On top of being exclusionary, this insistence on long hours is contrary to research on productivity — it doesn’t even lead to more productive companies.”

In fact, individuals with disabilities bring perspective and experience that enhance organizations. People with disabilities have for years advocated for greater corporate consideration of work-life balance, with allowances for those who must tend to a family need or visit a doctor during the day. 

Amid the pandemic, such considerations, which employers previously had strongly resisted, now seem almost quaint. Today working from home is standard practice, and having a child interrupt a Zoom meeting is often expected.

It is therefore ironic that an industry that prides itself on being innovative and far-sighted would have trouble understanding the value of diverse perspectives, especially those grounded in persistence, drive, and determination in overcoming obstacles, no matter how daunting.

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A big part of the challenge of addressing this problem is conceptual — it involves seeing disability differently.

First, employers must recognize disability as a social construct. It is defined by environment — and environment can be adapted. A staircase makes someone in a wheelchair “disabled;” a ramp makes that person “abled.” Similarly, the availability of sign language can determine whether a deaf person is able to join a conversation.

Second, companies must consider disability as a form of diversity that adds valuable insights. Not only do individuals with disabilities bring their innate talents; they also have strengths that they have developed through overcoming challenges. Together those attributes are a powerful asset that can enhance any organization.

We need to move away from the idea that people with disabilities are lacking something and recognize that they are adding something. As the pandemic has taught us, employees who have experience tackling great challenges without being daunted by them have much to teach us all. Even the greatest technology can benefit from that kind of drive and determination.

Susan Scheer is CEO of the Institute for Career Development (ICD), the 100-year-old non-profit organization based in New York City that provides training, education and employment services to the disability and military veteran communities. In that role, as she has throughout her career, she champions the dignity of all people with disabilities by advocating for their rights and staunchly supporting their inclusion and equitable treatment in the workplace.

Susan is a prominent thought leader on diversity. She is the volunteer president of the Disabilities Network of New York City. She has been a featured speaker on the importance of disability inclusion at many events in the private and public sectors. She has served as a consultant to the U.S. State Department on disability rights.

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