Thanks to several key technological breakthroughs over the last few years, the number of people with disabilities, including paralysis, who are able to find and keep jobs is on the rise. In addition to making the workplace more friendly for workers with disabilities, the technology is also helping make community involvement easier.
The unemployment rate among Americans who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities was 13.4 percent last year, compared to a national average of 7.9 for those without disabilities. The good news is that unemployment rates dropped 1.6 for workers with disabilities, a bigger decrease than non-disabled workers saw.
“High-tech advances are starting to help level the playing field, opening the door for so many people,” said Therese Willkomm of the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
The technology that is helping to drive these positive employment numbers is impressive, to say the least. Apple is at the forefront of the technological advancements, with features like voice recognition and screen readers that synthesize text into speech built into products instead of being costly add-ons.
A quick search through your devices application store will turn up all sorts of apps designed to assist with disabilities from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to paralysis. For example, GoTalk Now and TapSpeak Sequence allow a user to touch a picture of a hand, then a book, and the device will say “Please pass me the book.” There are apps that read the screen for those that cannot see, that remind people with ADHD to stay on task and the list goes on and on.
The technological advances positively impacting workers include technology even more impressive than the apps. Tobii, a Swedish firm, developed eye-tracking programs that allow those that cannot use their arms or hands to operate a computer by looking into a box that uses a camera and infrared light to track movement of the eye. The device then triggers the cursor to move when the user blinks.
Google Glass is a tiny device worn on the eyeglasses that uses a built in camera and voice-command capabilities, and could read what people are saying to the wearer, or control wheelchairs with a gaze or voice command. The possibilities for how these advances could be used and developed to assist workers with disabilities are truly endless.
Just ask Aleksandra Blaszczuk, a 26-year-old quadriplegic and law student at Columbia University. She was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident a year and a half ago. Before then, Blaszczuk, like most 20-somethings, used her smartphone to access maps to get around, take photos and share them with friends, and Googled tidbits of information for all kinds of situations and conversations. Google Glass gives all that back to her.
“Lots of people with disabilities don’t have an opportunity to share their stories. I couldn’t take pictures before. I would have to ask someone to do that for me,” Blaszczuk said. “With Glass, there is a whole new sense of self-expression. I’ve been taking pictures and taking video.”
Blaszczuk now uses her iPad and iPhone with voice control software and with Siri, and she loves the ability to search with her voice and see the results in front of her right eye.
“My friends are always looking up things on their cellphones, I can do that now too really quickly,” she said.
With Glass, she can search Google by simply saying “O.K. Glass, what is the nearest restaurant to the corner of Main Street and Parkway?” Once she gets through law school, the technology will assist in her career as an attorney.
And the technology is helping Eric LeGrand with his education, too. LeGrand, a defensive tackle from Rutgers University who suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury in 2010, remembers the day that an iPhone aide with voice recognition changed his life.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, hallelujah! I can control my phone!'” LeGrand said. “I can’t move my arms, but I’m going to school and the sky is the limit for me,” he said. “I can open and close the doors to my house through a home security app. I can control my wheelchair. I text message, go on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t have to sit there like a vegetable all the time. Technology can take care of it.”
Take a look at Aleksandra Blaszczuk putting Google Glass to work. What kinds of technology do you use to take care of business?