Making Assistive Technology Easier to Access

December 3, 2018 | Kurt Vogel, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

Last year, I had an internship with the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access at Georgia Tech. I worked as a Research Assistant and helped research different types of assistive technology software that would be later compiled into an online database for the public. This really helped me to see how I could incorporate my three interests of Disability Advocacy, Information Technology, and Assistive Technology.

What I realized when I was there was how much assistive technology there is out there without much of a widespread infrastructure in place. What I mean is that there is not much of an infrastructure in place for people to try the software or devices before they purchase them or before Vocational Rehabilitation assists in the requisition of the software or device.

There are Assistive Technology centers where you can go to have an assistive technology assessment and then they will loan you the equipment for a few weeks before actually having to purchase it. Oftentimes these centers are only located within large cities or educational institutions. This summer, I had the opportunity to visit the USDA Target Center, which is an assistive technology demonstration lab. Employees can receive an assistive technology assessment and try out different assistive technology software and devices in their actual office and work environment. There are staff available who are knowledgeable in the assistive technology software and devices.
This is a perfect example of what an ideal assistive technology center would look like. The assistive technology staff, the employer, and the employee (the one using the assistive technology software) are all collaborating and communicating with each other to make sure that the employee is going to have the Assistive Technology resources available to be successful in their job.

However, in many employment settings, there is not an assistive technology demonstration lab available for someone to try before they buy. For example, if there was more of an infrastructure in place, sort of like an assistive technology library, and there were people in place to work with you over the course of several weeks, then it would be more helpful. One of the reasons assistive tech is so hard to access is because there is no way to try it. If the company bought a new piece of assistive technology and the employee doesn’t know that it is going to be a good fit, there would be no guarantee that it would be the right choice. If the employee could try it first and demonstrate that it is helpful with some evidence that it actually worked well, the company might be more eager to purchase.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is a federal and state government partnership program that helps people with disabilities get the services they need to be successful during employment. Oftentimes in rural areas people do not have access to transportation to go to the assistive technology center. This is where VR helps people with disabilities purchase the assistive technology. Sometimes VR does not have adequate resources available and often purchases the assistive technology but then does not help with the execution of ensuring that the person knows how to use the technology before closing the case.

What I see as a solution is that VR could partner with local educational institutions or assistive technology centers that have the resources available to work alongside the person to make sure that the particular assistive technology is the right fit. The education institution would administer the assistive tech assessment and then tailor what equipment was loaned to them based on the assessment. Then the individual would be able to receive one-on-one training on how to use the software if they needed additional support in setting it up.

 

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Kurt Vogel is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. He interned with the U.S. Access Board.

Unhacking Disability Employment: World Answers

November 19, 2018 | María Pereira, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

It’s a sweltering day. I’m a stranger walking into a world unknown, devastated by the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador. Quite apprehensive, a woman invites me inside her makeshift tent. I meet her 18 year-old daughter with multiple sclerosis who is lying on a mattress on the dirt floor. Her abilities were going to waste as she looked up to the ceiling for hours on end. In refugee camps, finding people with disabilities hidden away with nothing to do is not out of the ordinary. Perhaps you would not expect people with disabilities to be excluded from work in this way in places not impacted by disaster, war, or other crises.

Yet the situation is not much better elsewhere. In fact, even if we look at developed countries, such as the United States, we find alarming statistics; in the U.S. the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is 31.20% compared to 76.40% for people without disabilities. This is strikingly similar to Ecuador’s statistics, where although 63.15% of registered people with disabilities are working-age, only 23.52% are employed. Based on data from 51 countries, the employment rate for men with disabilities is 52.8% while that of non-disabled men is 64.9% and similarly, the employment rate for women with disabilities is 19.6% compared to 29.9% for their non-disabled counterparts. So yes, while the issue is clearly aggravated in poor and crisis-stricken nations, unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities and resulting poverty are world issues. As such, we should look for world answers.

I have come up with three mottos to promote the employment of people with disabilities. It is up to us, workers, employers, and communities to embrace these mottos with initiatives (such as those linked):

  • People with disabilities can and want to work.
    People with disabilities are excellent workers and further innovation. All entities would benefit from employing disabled workers and creating disability-positive environments (such as the Walgreens model, teachers with disabilities in Lesotho, or Deaf Can! Coffee). Further, with the advent of social media and the internet, mass communications campaigns and pledges might be the future for culture change in the workplace (a la the Disability Confident Campaign).
  • People with disabilities need to stop being scared to work.
    People with disabilities often do not look for employment or turn down opportunities because they would risk losing disability benefits. Evidence from countries like Hungary and Poland suggests that tighter obligations to support occupational health services and reintegration can help disability beneficiaries enter or re-enter the workforce. We need to get rid of income caps on benefits qualifications and move towards benefits promoting reintegration.
  • People with disabilities can be the boss.
    Why couldn’t people with disabilities hire themselves? Incubators and accelerators have become key in promoting economic empowerment of other minorities…we should do the same! (See the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Programme and Disability Start-Up Network as examples).

By no means do I intend to a solve a problem that affects every corner of the world here, in 500 words. Perhaps the intention is more to leave it in writing that it should be a priority to address the unemployment of people with disabilities. Continued cross-country and cross-disability initiatives, as well as ample data and research collection, should be continued until we find answers to this world problem.

None of us should be lying on mattresses, looking at ceilings, with nothing to do.

 

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María Pereira is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.

TIME Act: It’s Time We Raise Our Expectations

November 16, 2018 | Sarah Patnaude, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

What if the Federal Government said that you are not productive enough to be guaranteed a minimum wage due to having blonde hair? I bet that would incite outrage. Though this is exactly the outlandish discrimination the disability community experiences.

Many know that the Fair Labor Standards Act enacted in 1938 provides protections to workers, including the basic protection of the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25/hour. What many do not know is that there contains a clause that excludes the disability community from these protections. Section 14(c) allows employers to obtain a special certificate from the Department of Labor that will permit them to legally give their workers with disabilities a fraction of the pay workers without disabilities earn, simply due to their disability.

Based on the misconception that workers with disabilities cannot compete with their nondisabled peers in the workforce, this practice is just one of the many ways in which society insinuates that the disability community is inferior. Entities that pay their workers with disabilities subminimum wages demonstrate a core belief that those individuals do not have the capacity to be a contributing member of their staff.

I grew up with peers, professionals, and strangers constantly telling me that I would not be successful, that I could not and would not hold a job because I was blind. I was encouraged to minimize my dreams because of my disability.

The truth is people ultimately adjust to their surroundings. If someone is frequently confronted with low expectations, then that individual is going to lower their own standards for themselves to meet the low goal. For years, I lowered the bar for myself because I was taught that having a disability would hinder my ability to be a self-sufficient, contributing member of society. What a wonder that does to someone’s self-confidence and self-worth. But if people with disabilities, including myself, are met with the same assumptions and standards we as a society have of those without disabilities, then we will raise our own bar, providing us with the drive to accomplish more. This cycle of pushing to do bigger, to be better, and to be more is actively apparent with nondisabled workers, so why is it not applied to disabled workers?

Because the truth is disability does not equate to lower ability, lower competency, nor lower productivity.

That’s why the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment (TIME) Act, H.R. 1377, is so important. By passing this legislation, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act will be phased out within a six-year time frame. Ultimately, the TIME Act understands the truth about workers with disabilities: that we are equal to our nondisabled peers. Ending this unjust practice of subminimum wages will create a more competitive work environment for all workers by promoting a change in our attitudes regarding disability in the workforce.

IT IS TIME we raise our expectations. IT IS TIME individuals with disabilities have equal rights and protections in the workforce. IT IS TIME we pass the TIME Act.

 

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Sarah Patnaude is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Disability Employment Awareness Month Reminds Us to Make the Most of Ticket to Work

October 28, 2018 | Paula Morgan, Return to Work Case Manager at Allsup Employment Services

October marks the annual occurrence of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the U.S., where organizations nationwide work to educate the public on the value and necessity of a workforce that includes people with disabilities, as well as the challenges faced by this group when trying to find a place in the modern workforce.

For people with disabilities, experiencing the personal rewards of returning to work is not only satisfying but can lend a sense of security for the future. After a sometimes grueling recovery from a severe condition or illness, becoming financially independent and secure again can help renew a sense of purpose and direction in life.

Unfortunately, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly twice as high as those who are able-bodied (7.3 percent versus 3.4 percent). That’s in part due to the many misconceptions shared by employers and policymakers — and even individuals with disabilities themselves. Research shows the longer that formerly injured or ill individuals are out of the workforce, the harder it becomes for them to re-enter. It’s crucial to help this transition occur as quickly as possible, especially since it’s the financial disruption that can cause the largest problems down the line – not the initial costs for medical treatment.

Allsup Employment Services specialists know that people with disabilities want to go back to work. When we ask, more than half of the applicants we serve through our online Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) assistance platform indicate they do want to go back to work someday. We also know that very few do. The road back to employment can be a scary one―many are afraid of losing the benefits they currently need to survive. Other potential job seekers just don’t have a clear path available, or the resources they need, to make that happen.

This October, there is some good news. In today’s tightening labor market, employers are starting to show more openness to providing accommodations to workers who have experienced a severely disabling illness or injury. By receiving education at the start of their Social Security disability application process about the programs and assistance available, people with disabilities can better envision a path to put their lives and careers back on track.

For those who have a disability, the first thing to do is to find out if they qualify for SSDI, and then apply immediately. If they have already been awarded SSDI, they could benefit from Social Security’s Ticket to Work program. Ticket to Work can help them earn more money than they currently receive in SSDI benefits and can improve their financial future. If and when an individual is medically able to try some kind of work, this program makes it easier for the person to test whether he or she is ready to work, without the fear of losing SSDI and Medicare benefits.

To make the most of the program, it helps to understand these Ticket to Work basics:

  • Employment Networks (ENs). More than 600 ENs across the U.S. offer a range of free support
    services through the Ticket program. Some ENs serve specific populations, while others provide specialized support services. You can visit the SSA’s Ticket to Work page to search for an EN, or you can check out the TrueHelp site for more information on returning to work with SSDI.
  • Trial Work Period (TWP). Individuals can keep their SSDI cash benefits while testing their ability to work for nine months (anytime during a 60-month time period). They have a safety net where they can test their ability to work again and receive full SSDI benefits in addition to their job earnings.
  • Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE). After the Trial Work Period ends, individuals are eligible to receive SSDI benefits for any month in which their job earnings drop below a threshold called “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). In 2018, SGA is $1,180 for non-blind individuals and $1,970 for blind individuals. This period lasts 36 months.
  • Continuing Medicare Coverage. After the Trial Work Period ends, Medicare coverage continues for up to 93 consecutive months. Individuals still receive coverage during this time even if SSDI payments end.
  • Expedited Reinstatement of Benefits. If individuals become unable to work again within five years after the EPE ends, they can request to have their SSDI benefits restarted without filing a new Application.
  • Continuing Disability Review (CDR) Protection. Social Security periodically reviews disability claims. As part of the Ticket to Work program, individuals are exempt from medical CDRs and their status remains unchanged. For patients ready and medically able to return to work, taking advantage of the Ticket to Work program can help prepare them for success.

As you can see, there are years of protection and important supports to help individuals attempt a return to work. Returning to work can be tough and complicated, but the Ticket to Work program can streamline the process. Working again also can provide a better financial future in the years leading up to retirement. For many people with disabilities, using their Social Security disability benefits could be their best path back into the workforce.

Increasing and Expanding Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities Worldwide

October 22, 2018 | Luanjiao (Aggie) Hu, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

People with disabilities make up about 10 to 15 percent of the world population, according to the World Report on Disability. As a massive number of people, our community faces many challenges globally, in the realms of education, employment, health care, and relationships, among others. I am particularly invested in employment issues for people with disabilities for two reasons: 1) my work with the ADA International Fellowship Program on inclusive employment, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (my placement in the AAPD Summer Internship Program), and 2) a conversation I had with Dr. Richard Lytle, formerly of Gallaudet University and a social entrepreneur who is pushing inclusive employment for people with disabilities in China.

It is no news to many that people with disabilities have lower employment rates than those without disabilities globally. “The unemployment rate among adult Americans with disabilities who want to work and can work is over 60%! That is a blot on our national character,” commented Senator Tom Harkin at his farewell speech to the Senate. In some Asia-Pacific countries, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is as high as over 80%. Researchers have documented the severity of the issue and the importance of employment, especially for marginalized populations. I myself have witnessed how employment discrimination takes place towards people with disabilities in China: a woman with physical disability applying for a software programmer position was denied the interview opportunity when she disclosed her disability to the potential employer; a deaf designer was turned down for a job because of the employer’s claim that their workplace requires a significant amount of verbal communication, despite his excellent designing skills; a person with disability is paid only half the amount a non-disabled coworker receives for the same position. The list of discriminatory examples goes on and on.

Increasing and expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities is indeed a global concern. From Africa, to Asia, to the Americas, we face similar issues — albeit at slightly different severity levels based on our unique cultural and national contexts. Facilitating exchanges and conversations on best practices among leaders of inclusive employment between different countries, a practice exemplified by the ADA International Fellowship Program, is one of the many ways we can address this global issue. Using one’s multiple talents and network to embark on social enterprises like Communication Access (a business organization that works with multinational corporations in China to hire, train, and retain people with disabilities in workplaces; founded by Dr. Richard Lytle) is another way individuals can contribute in pushing for more meaningful employment for people with disabilities. In both cases, I see the value of collaboration across national borders in addressing employment issues for people with disabilities. Looking beyond one’s national context to see new possibilities and ways of thinking helps inspire us to create more innovative approaches and models that move us closer to our ultimate goals.

 

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Luanjiao (Aggie) Hu is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

Kickstarting Employment for People with Disabilities

March 22, 2018 | Erez Cohen

When my Social Work intern, Drew McNamara, shared with me that he would like to work on a personal project, I was a little concerned. Drew had been interning with us at Hillel for only a month. But as he shared with me his vision to help people with disabilities find gainful employment, I was hooked. Only 17% of all people with disabilities are employed, meaning there are more than 45 million individuals that are not. Creative Souls was made to change that. Having worked with people with disabilities for nearly a full decade, Drew knew he wanted to combine his long-held love for helping these individuals with his recently discovered passion for social entrepreneurship.

The idea was very straight forward. Work with people with disabilities to paint on canvas shoes and then sell these shoes. The artists will get paid based on the sales. This idea, I thought, plays directly into Hillel’s vision of empowering students to do right with the world. And so – we started the program small, by employing seven artists with disabilities to hand paint canvass shoes. The shoes were displayed at the Boneyard Arts Festival last year at a special reception at the Cohen Center for Jewish Life. The shoes were sold at the event and later on the Creative Souls website (https://becreativesouls.com).

Two challenges rose from this experience – the offering of shoes were limited to the specific design at a specific size; and every pair of shoes took close to an hour to make. Drew went back to the drawing board. He found a specific printer that can print designs by the artists, giving them royalties for each shoe sold. That way he can custom print shoes and receive designs from thousands of artists. On March 13, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 that would provide the necessary funding to cost-effectively produce the goods and pay the artists for their designs.

At its core, the company seeks to empower people with disabilities to earn an income. It provides a learning experience where inclusion is not an afterthought; it is part of the foundation. Each artist has the opportunity to show his or her unique personality through the artwork they create, which is sold directly to consumers.

 

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Erez Cohen is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2013. Previously, Erez working in as a project manager in East Africa and fundraiser for the Jaffa Institute in Israel. Erez has a MA in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and he is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois School of Social Work.

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