The rise of innovative technologies that allow disabled members of society to chart their own career paths is paying off not only for employees, but also for their employers.
At an event held at BMO Financial Group headquarters in Toronto on Monday, many of those technologies were on display, such as JAWS (Job Access with Speech), a Windows-based reader that converts text to speech, and TTY/TTD machines, telephone devices that allows the deaf, deafened and hard of hearing to communicate more easily with customers and clients.
The Right Honourable David Onley, Ontario’s new Lieutenant Governor, was on hand to give a keynote and to serve as an example of what those with disabilities can accomplish. Onley has lived with polio and post-polio syndrome since the age of three.
According to Stephen McDonnell, senior manager for human resources communications at BMO, technology is opening career doors for the disabled that were previously closed tight.
“Twenty years ago, people who were blind often worked in back-office roles or they were working on endeavours of the [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] in rather protected environments. [JAWS] has allowed people to be in very mainstream roles (with BMO), and even, in some cases, customer-facing roles.”
He called JAWS “a marvelous piece of machinery because it will read either by letter or by word recognition. It has the ability to spell check, too.” Also deployed at BMO are technologies from Bedford, Mass.-based Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc., which builds reading technologies for learning disabilities that allows the learning disabled to be employed effectively. The Kurzweil 3000 offering is a reading, writing and learning software solution for those with individuals with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder or those who are learning English, according to the company.
“Kurzweil puts things in the appropriate order,” said McDonnell. “We have people who work in investment roles who are learning-disabled and they are among our most successful investment people. A couple of them are forever appearing on our silver or bronze winner lists for having achieved the most business success.”
Another encouraging factor for McDonnell is that new technology is allowing younger people to attend post-secondary educational institutions without the special requirements previously employed by earlier generations. Having a greater number of highly qualified grads coming out of universities and colleges will also help alleviate the strains on the economy caused by Canada’s looming skills shortage, he added.
“These students are being regarded as a whole new pool of talent that is anxious to work and has the appropriate skill set,” he said. “Technology allows for their inclusion, and in fact, in many organizations people are almost competing to get them into the workplace because studies indicate they are…as good as anyone else. We want to nab that talent and get ready for the future.”
Another positive future trend that these technologies will help facilitate, McDonnell said, is lengthening the amount of time people will be able to work, should they choose to do so.
“We have an aging workforce, so as people get older they are inclined to acquire a disability,” he said. Many baby boomers will be affected by such ailments as macular degeneration, a condition that can result in the loss of central vision, he said. With technologies that can counteract the impact of such afflictions, individuals will have a greater ability to choose whether they want to continue working and for which organizations.
“Years ago, if you had certain disabilities, you couldn’t choose your own career. It was really chosen for you in a very paternalistic kind of way. Now, technology has created equitable access.”