There is a largely untapped labor pool that could help alleviate ongoing skills shortages in the IT industry, if only it were used to its potential. Those highly-skilled, highly motivated workers are people with physical disabilities.
I had the opportunity to speak earlier this week with Nick Gutwein, a widely recognized expert on the issues affecting people with disabilities, who also serves as president of BraunAbility, a company that converts vehicles to make them accessible to disabled people. Gutwein cited a recent study that found that only 21 percent of disabled Americans of working age were employed in the past year, compared to 59 percent of people without physical disabilities.
As troubling as that is, what was especially disturbing was Gutwein's response when I asked him how well the IT industry is doing in hiring people with physical disabilities:
My understanding, based on research, is that it's not done a great job.
Gutwein cited the work of Dr. Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, which, according to its website, "aims to advance civic, economic, and social participation of persons with disabilities in a global society." Gutwein said Blanck found that the percentage of people with disabilities in science and engineering jobs is so low that many IT organizations have no experience at all in working with disabled people:
He recommended that they bring in role models and spokespersons to educate those fields of engineering and technology to be able to better understand that part of the labor force, and work to get them roles in IT, which obviously is experiencing a lack of supply and high demand. So what a great opportunity for people with disabilities.
According to Gutwein, the biggest myth that needs to be debunked is that the changes and costs associated with accommodating a person with a physical disability outweigh the benefits. He encapsulated those benefits this way:
If I could use a catchphrase on this, it would be, "ready, willing and disabled." People with disabilities have had to deal with significant challenges, so I think they have more acute problem-solving skills. They are great at finding creative ways to perform tasks others may take for granted. So if you think about problem-solving and dealing with challenges and barriers and hurdles, it's a tremendous attribute that we have found both in our customer base and here in our work force.
Companies may not understand that the market for products and services for people with disabilities is over $200 billion, so you can get employees with obviously a unique window or perspective on marketing to this customer base. That's another advantage.
Third is just a motivation to succeed. When you get someone who wants to work and is disabled, the motivation level is tremendous. So some of those things are maybe a bit on the softer side, but getting someone who's motivated and is able to solve problems and has a unique perspective is a great thing.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Physical Disabilities Act, yet it's clear that we still have a long way to go to ensure that people with physical disabilities enjoy the equal-opportunity rights that others take for granted. Gutwein's message is that fixing that isn't just about building ramps and converting vans-it's about providing jobs:
One of the most important things we can do going forward is to provide employment services for people with disabilities, as opposed to social support and infrastructure. I'm not saying that those aren't important, but to the extent we can provide ways to educate companies and provide job opportunities for this very qualified part of our work force, it's one of the most important advances we can make.
So here's a heads-up for you: Next month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Bring that fact to the attention of your colleagues, and take advantage of the observance to consider ways in which your company can expand employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities. This valuable resource has been overlooked by the IT community long enough.