Physically Disabled Need Jobs, Not Just Wheelchair Ramps

Don Tennant

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.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 29, 2010 4:10 AM LoTan LoTan  says:

I think it's a worthy cause to bring the physically disabled into the IT profession. My only concern is that it appears that most companies will only hire candidates who have spot-on experience in all of the areas that are written up in the job description. If these same companies are willing to "work to get them roles in IT", shouldn't they also be willing to "work to get" non-handicapped people with previous experience back into IT?

Sep 29, 2010 4:12 AM LoTan LoTan  says: in response to LoTan

My quote up above did not come out as intended. "Disabled people" should not be a link. I meant to have brackets around "disabled people" to show that I was adding those words in to further clarify the quote.

Oct 5, 2010 7:19 AM Nancy Greenfield Nancy Greenfield  says:

Have you ever heard of the Ticket To Work Program? It helps people on SSDI/SSI get back to work for free.  Employment Options has over 500 openings for beneficiaries who want to work from home either full or part time, mostly in customer service but IT background great for technical support. Paid training.  Keep your benefits and try working again.

Oct 21, 2010 3:18 AM Randy Stogner Randy Stogner  says: in response to Nancy Greenfield

Unless they've improved it in the past 20 years, Ticket to work is a joke. Take it from someone that is disabled and tried to use it.

Oct 21, 2010 3:25 AM Randy Stogner Randy Stogner  says:

Kudos on the article! The article is spot on where it states that the disabled tend to be better problem solvers.

I'm a disabled, have been for 30 years, and have 20 years IT experience. I received my training through a program the State of Mississippi had implemented, then decided wasn't worth the effort/expenditure.

My problem solving abilities, and ability to think out of the box, have earned me several promotions, and gotten me a few jobs, and I owe most of those skills to overcoming obstacles encountered since becoming disabled.

The disabled that want to work are more than willing to receive training if they can get it for free, or at a reasonable rate. Many don't want to work because they're hooked on "free" money, but the ones that do most often lack skills, opportunity, or both.

In 20 years, The problem I've encountered most is that a lot of corporations aren't willing to promote the disabled IT workers to management positions.

Nov 3, 2010 10:15 AM Gary Caisse Gary Caisse  says: in response to Nancy Greenfield

user1571638 Nailed it on the head. Unfortunetly for us the disabled. It goes like this if you can think for yourself, and know what YOU WANT! You will get every advocacy agent, organisation that takes complaints to make sure your rights are not violated and they are fire out of the gate. Then 6 months go by and they send you a letter saying we haven't heard from you so we assume you don't have a problem anymore. BUT, BUT BUT, YOU CALLED THEM OVER 100 TIMES AND NOBODY CALLS YOU BACK OR TAKES YOUR CALLS. I personally have been doing this dance for at least 10 years and still going why not that I want something for nothing but when there's 100's of different advocacy agencies for Social Security, Medicare, etc. I had a medicare problem and I would call one agency and they don't do that! you have to call so and so, so and so says no you need to call who you already called then they start giving you numbers and you call them all and I guarentee they will all tell you the same thing. Advocacy on the other hand works like this they pump you up and who have to believe this is the one or you still would not be doing all this. In over 10 years there M.O. is exactly the same. I know because I am in the middle of another one right now. Here's the kicker there are 2 kinds of people in this world and nobody take offense but if your a goverment type worker you will be rewarded for all your efforts to do nothing. You will be the one making pay raises, promoted for your devotion to do as your told and by no means think for yourself or question anything you are told to do. Now here comes the people that think for themself, know what you want and are very happy with yourself.

I have always been this way but being disabled has taught me one thing you will never find harder workers, happier people, deep thinkers, can take charge when things get tough, and would be the biggest asset a company can have. This is not how the system is set up in fact this won't even be seen because I am the systems worse nightmare that won't go away. Why I just need to readjust my life to do something different but being on disability and making about $625 a month. How can you be retrained when I cannot live on the streets for $625 a month. I apoligize now its getting personnal and this helps no one. 1 more thing anybody that believes in the system and that it works please don't try and find fault in a person that if you got to know them are wonderful people.

Jan 5, 2011 4:27 AM Ramkrishnadas Ramkrishnadas  says: in response to LoTan

Helo sir i am a handicapt person . only right side one leg problem. my qulifiction is +3 complited.& computer course PGDCA COMPLITED , i have two years expreneces in computer sir but today i have no job sir .so plz sir give me a job . i have lots of thank full for you.



Mar 12, 2011 3:24 AM Wheelchair Ramp Advocate Wheelchair Ramp Advocate  says:

Great article. Accessibility is one thing, but opportunity is another. As long as they are not discriminated against because of physical condition then I believe everything will be ok.

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