John Williams — Gathering the Change Agents

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Vinton Cerf, Rob Wong, Chet Cooper, Kim Charlson and Gregg Vanderheiden
Chet Cooper, Gregg Vanderheiden, Senator Tom Harkin, Vinton Cerf, Kim Charlson and Rob Wong

During a recent, historical news maker’s event at the National Press Club, former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Vinton Cerf, Rob Wong, Chet Cooper, Kim Charlson and Gregg Vanderheiden discussed “Driving Economic Growth Through Assistive Technology and Workplace Inclusivity.”

The country must find a way to significantly reduce the 11 million unemployed adults with disabilities in the United States. The disability population is the largest minority group in the United States.

Despite the strength of the U.S. labor market, persons with disabilities are strikingly under-employed. As of July 2018, only 29 percent of Americans with disabilities between ages 16 and 64 were employed, compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability.

The speakers offered ideas to reduce the 11 million unemployed adults with disabilities. Their ideas were based on their past and present experiences in assisting people with disabilities secure employment. During the presentations it was evident that education, access to universally designed assistive technology and inclusion are the tools needed to get more people with disabilities employed. None of the speakers mentioned enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act and other Federal anti-discrimination laws.

Harkin set the tone for the event. He called the 11 million unemployed people with disabilities a blot on America’s history. According to Harkin, when President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 20, 1990, there were four goals associated with the law. The goals were full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Harkin introduced the ADA to the Senate and guided it through the legislative process so the Senate would pass it.

Harkin said the country has done well in three of the goals, but in achieving economic self-sufficiency, the needle has not moved in 29 years. Wanting to put a positive spin on employing people with disabilities, Harkin cited data from a recently release four-year study by Accenture.

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Headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, Accenture offers services in communications, media and technology, financial services, products, resources, health and global resources.

New research from Accenture, in partnership with Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), reveals companies who embrace best practices for employing and supporting more persons with disabilities in their workforce have outperformed their peers. In large part, companies haven’t leveraged the talents of persons with disabilities for three reasons: a lack of understanding of the scope of the talent available, a lack of understanding of the potential benefits, and misconceptions about the cost versus the Return on Investment (ROI) regarding disability inclusion.

The speakers unanimously agreed that the three reasons mentioned above are barriers to employing people with disabilities.

The report found that companies with a disability inclusion policy achieved tangible financial benefits. For example, the research shows that leading companies with inclusion policies, on average, were twice more likely to have higher total shareholder returns than those of their peers.

Despite the strength of the U.S. labor market, as of July 2018, only 29 percent of Americans with disabilities between ages 16 and 64 were employed, compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability. In 2017, the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities was more than twice that for those without a disability—9.2 percent versus 4.2 percent.

The research also revealed employers achieved – on average – 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher economic profit margin.

The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy categorizes persons with disabilities as the third-largest market segment in the U.S., after Hispanics and African-Americans. The discretionary income for working age persons with disabilities is $21 billion—greater than that of the African-American and Hispanic segments combined.

The speakers were policy makers, advocates, educators, and business representatives. They all have the same goal to increase education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities worldwide. Each provided their strategy.

The Policy Maker

Harkin discussed the work of The Harkin’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University, Des Moines, IA. Its mission is to persuade employers worldwide to hire people with disabilities in a competitive integrated environment. That is equal pay for equal work. Another solution is for employers to set a goal over a 10-year span to employ twice the number of people with disabilities working for them.

“If two percent of your employees have disabilities, hire an additional two percent. If the number is four percent, make it eight percent,” Harkin said. He has strong sentiments that doubling the number of employees with disabilities in a decade is doable.

The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement has sponsored four summits with more than 600 people from 50 countries attending. Harkin says, “The people from other countries who attended the summits left knowing that people with disabilities can be educated, employed and can compete with their able-bodied peers, Harkin emphasized.

Harkin is a strong supporter of people with physical disabilities having access to assistive technologies. Assistive technologies are defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”

Assistive technologies eliminate physical and attitudinal barriers that for thousands of years have prevented people with disabilities from being included in their communities. Harkin speaks from experience when he says that.

Harkin’s enthusiasm for assistive technologies creating opportunities for people with disabilities showed when he read an article that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Almed Ali, a 21-year-old Somali American with Cerebral Palsy who is speechless. It was Almed’s dream to give a speech when he graduated from high school. How could he make the dream happen? With the assistance of a text to speech synthesizer, Almed gave the speech he had wanted to give for years. When asked how he felt about giving the speech, Almed said, “It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Harkin urged employers to familiarize themselves with assistive technology products. He suggested that employers consider the purchase of assistive technology as a capital investment and as a tax reduction; He encouraged the developers of hardware and software to make them so everybody can use them and not a select few who understand the intricacies of technology.

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The Corporate View

Vinton Cerf is known as one of the two founding fathers of the Internet. He is hearing impaired and wears a hearing aid. He works for Google. As IBM, Google, Microsoft, HP, Amazon, Verizon other companies move into the accessibility area, Cerf supports Harkin’s view that when engineers start developing hardware and software, they need to ask themselves: “How can I make this product usable for everyone?” Speaking from experience Cerf said, “I tell my engineers at Google that it is easier to make interfaces hard to use. It is harder to make interfaces easy to use.”

Cerf challenges some of the vocabulary used in the disability field. He would replace accessible with usability. To Cerf, usability implies technology can be used everyone. He favors changing the word disability to cool abilities. He believes the term disabled has a negative connotation associated with it. He is certain that if everyone in their life experienced a temporary disability and had to overcome physical and attitudinal barriers, they would have a more positive attitude regarding the challenges a person with a disability faces.

Cerf said that Google is working on developing usability products. He pulled out a handheld usability transcriber from his coat pocket and said, “This transcriber has recorded every word I said since I started speaking. It can do so in 70 languages” Transcriber Live was developed by a Russian friend who is deaf and is difficult to understand.

Cerf supports the inclusion of people with disabilities in the job market. He believes inclusion is good for the person with a disability’s self worth, the economy and country. He says, “People with disabilities who are working bring out of the box thinking to the job.” He sees them as problem solvers. He knows that many people with disabilities have started their own companies in the assistive technology field and are successful.

Looking to the future, Cerf sees the importance of educating people on new technologies. “If people don’t learn to use new technologies they will be left behind,” he said.

A forward-looking teacher, Cerf said, “The model we have today for living is learn a little, earn a little and retire. That model will not survive as the world becomes more technologically advanced. Learn a lot. Learn a lot. Learn a lot is the replacement. People must want to learn and learn.”

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The Advocates

It is quite possible that Chet Cooper’s name and face are recognized worldwide for his 30 years of advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities. Cooper has been advocating for inclusiveness, housing and employment issues on behalf of people with disabilities for three decades. He wants to eradicate myths and stereotypes associated with people with disabilities.

Creating a positive image for people with disabilities is one of his lifetime goals. Like Cerf, Cooper wants to see a more positive vocabulary when dealing with disability issues. Cooper believes that people hear the word disabled in so many different contexts, including the media with its repetition of “disabled” (disabled car, disabled truck, disabled link, and disabled bridge), that subconsciously they have developed a bias against disabled people.

His activism in raising the awareness of the abilities and needs of people with disabilities can be seen in many of his activities. In 1990 he launched ABILITY Magazine, which gave a fresh look at the abilities of people with disabilities. It continues to do so today.

In his speech Cooper gave examples of his efforts to persuade employers to look at a person’s ability and not disability. Cooper created a specialized career system for job seekers with disabilities so companies could find this untapped talent. In 1995, he assisted in creating the first employment website for people with disabilities called Since its inception it has helped hundreds of thousands job seekers with disabilities connect with thousands of employers.

He also developed ABILITY Corps, dedicated to enhancing volunteer opportunities for people with disabilities, showcasing employability and expanding partnerships with NGO’s around the world. His activism can be emulated worldwide.

Senator Tom Harkin, Vint Cerf and Chet Cooper
Senator Tom Harkin, Vint Cerf and Chet Cooper

The Educator

Starting where Cerf stopped, Dr Gregg Vanderheiden–always the teacher–and with 47 years of experience in the assistive work, strengthened Cerf’s comment on the rewards of learning about and mastering technologies. He commented on a serious problem “of our own making” that can only be eradicated by hardware and software developers making products usable by everyone.

Vanderheiden says, “People do not understand how to use modern technologies. This includes computers, cell phones and other communications devices. Today’s technology is too complex for most people to understand and operate. This complexity is creating an educational barrier even among the most intelligent people.”

A problem solver, Vanderheiden went looking for a solution that would make it easier for students to operate a computer. His solution is a program called Morphic. Morphic is an extension of a computer’s operating system. The program unlocks the flexibility, power and simplicity of a computer. A benefit of Morphic is you can take the settings with you and when using another computer. Vanderheiden believes we must start learning about tomorrow’s technology now and the technology must be universally designed so everyone can use it. He created the term Technology Quotient (TQ). TQ is applied to people who know and understand technology. He says people who understand technology will succeed and those people who don’t will not. This includes half the world’s population. He believes that as the technology revolutionizes, people will be spending more time learning.

Vanderheiden has been working with technology for people with disability for 47 years. He is a Professor at the School of Information Studies (School) and Director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. He is the principal investigator of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Information Technology Access.

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A Blind Advocate

Kim Charlson is blind. She is the executive director of the Perkins School, a division of the international NGO Perkins School for the Blind. She is recognized worldwide as a strong advocate for the blind community’s right to be treated as first class citizens. She was the first woman president of the American Council for the Blind from 2013 to 2019. Charlson said, “ The Perkins’ School has long recognized the value of educating employers on disability issues and awareness. Eliminating attitudinal barriers are the most difficult barriers to eliminate. Education is the way to accomplish jobs and inclusion for people with disabilities.”

The Perkins School has a number of tools to help people with disabilities obtain jobs. Charlson says, “One path the school has selected is working with Harvard Extension School.” Perkins developed a 12-week, free education program titled Ed Ex. The program creates an awareness of disability issues that tell employers what they need to know in hiring a person with a disability.

Speaking from personal experience, she discussed the challenges facing her and other blind people when an on-line website is not accessible. Inaccessibility to websites means a blind person isn’t able to find information needed to complete forms, apply for jobs or respond to e-mails. She uses a screen reader to carry out her duties. Without her screen reader, she would be unemployed. Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or Braille display. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user.

Charlson mentioned how important having the proper infrastructure such as buses and subway trains. It is extremely important for blind and visually impaired people to move around a city like Washington, DC. To ease travel for blind and visually impaired people, Perkins School developed a two-way communications device funded by Google, that takes a blind person within four feet of a bus stop. The program Blind Ways is being tested in Washington, DC in 10 Metro Stations and 20 bus stops.

As an advocate, she is working on legislation that will allow blind people to use an autonomous car. An autonomous car is a vehicle that can guide itself without human conduction. This kind of vehicle has become a concrete reality and may pave the way for future systems where computers take over the art of driving.

Charlson sees Blind Ways and the autonomous car as increasing independence and job opportunities for blind and visually impaired persons.

She echoed the opinions of the other five speakers that in building a website you put accessibility apps at the beginning of the project and not later. She mentioned that the W3 and Access Board have guidelines on making websites accessible. She said accessibility to the web is vitally important for blind and visually impaired people in filling out job application, in securing other data.

As a blind person, she could not understand why Domino’s does not want to make its websites accessible to blind and visually impaired people. She added, “Making their web sites accessible to everyone will increase their business.”

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The Business View

Rob Wong is the CEO of Control Bionics. His company manufactures the NeuroNode 3.0 Trilogy, combining touch, eye, EMG and motion control. NeuroNode Trilogy addresses the needs of people with ALS / MND, spinal muscular atrophy syndrome. He has seen technology change a person with a disability’s entire life. He holds the opinion that technology is the great equalizer for people with disabilities.

Wong advocated getting assistive technologies into schools so children with severe disabilities can be educated and employed. His focus was on the results assistive technologies provide the user. Wong believes “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

He is committed to developing newer, less expensive and easier to use assistive technology. Making technology easier to use will expand markets, create new businesses and unlock the ingenuity of people with disabilities.

The plans suggested by the speakers to increase jobs and inclusion can be adopted by anyone. It is important that people are working on programs to change the status quo. The speakers are certain that education, inclusion and access to usable technology will create opportunities for everyone.

Chet Cooper, Gregg Vanderheiden, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Vinton Cerf, Rob Wong and Kim Charlson
Kim Charlson, Rob Wong, Gregg Vanderheiden, Chet Cooper and Vinton Cerf

The Awards

Before the event started, each one of the six speakers received an award from people with disabilities. The money to pay for the awards came from about 80 people with disabilities. Each inscription on the award honored the recipient in their area of specialty.

I was also was a recipient of an award from the disability community for which I am thankful.

John Williams award at the National Press Club

by John M. Williams

John M. Williams is an award-winning writer who has been writing about disability issues for 40 years. He coined the phrase “assistive technology”.

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