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Assistive technology (AT) in the inclusive workplace

Assistive Technology in the Workplace

One of the most important components of being an inclusive employer is the concept of "reasonable accommodations." While the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) provides a more detailed explanation you can review, for purposes here, we'll stick with a simple definition:

Modifications or adjustments that enable a covered and qualified employee with a disability to perform the duties of their work, and enjoy the same benefits as similar employees without disabilities.

What can constitute a reasonable accommodation can be very broad. It could be altering the floorplan of the office or allowing an employee with a disability to occupy a certain office, for example.

In 2019, however, it's hard to deny the power of technology when it comes to empowering employees with disabilities to perform at their full potential. It's progressing exponentially faster — not only do we have smartphones and smart watches, we have quantum computers! As such, employers looking to be inclusive should unlock the power technology holds to create and foster an environment of inclusion.

What is assistive technology?

The Assistive Technology Industry Association defines it as: "products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities." It's often shortened to the acronym AT.

Let's explore a few examples of the powerful assistive technologies that are available to employers today, thanks to the explosive advancement of tech.

Assistive technology for individuals with mobility related disabilities

Mobility related disabilities can be accommodated by employers with a wide variety of technology.

  • These range from what some may call "low-tech" options, such as ADA-compliant automated door openers or wheelchair lifts. While they certainly don't require "new" technology, these options can be essential for many with these types of disabilities.
  • Many employees will spend a good portion of their work day on a computer, and software such as Windows 10 and Microsoft Office 365 have several options available that can assist those with mobility related disabilities. Some examples are Office 365 Dictate, keyboard shortcuts, and even eye-tracking that allows the user to control the mouse pointer with their eyes! There are also numerous additional alternative input devices available to suit a variety of needs.
  • Integrated, voice-activated devices such as Google Home, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and Apple's Siri can empower those who may have difficulty using standard input devices. These technologies are often built into the OS of each device as well as dedicated to IoT (Internet of Things) appliances, and are increasingly being integrated into the workplace.

Assistive technology for neurodiverse individuals or those with learning related disabilities

Accommodating neurodiverse employees or employees with a learning related disability isn't a one-size-fits-all effort; rather, it should be tuned to each employee specifically. Individuals across the neurodiversity spectrum may learn, think, or process information differently from others. As such, many assistive technologies geared towards neurodiversity and learning disabilities are designed to support cognition, memory, and focus.

  • Memory support can be accomplished by a variety of devices, from low-tech to modern smartphones. The WatchMinder is a simple, programmable wearable device designed to provide alerts and reminders. Smartwatches and smartphones — whether Android or Apple's iOS based — can also be used to support memory. The number of alert/reminder apps to choose from is practically limitless.
  • Focus support is another important component for many of those on the neurodiversity spectrum. Along with a similarly large library of mobile apps to choose from, many software providers build functions for focus support into their operating systems. Microsoft Windows 10, for example, features Focus Assist, Reading View, and Tell Me.
  • Sound masking in the office can be indispensable for any employee, whether they have a disability or do not have a disability. A Gallup poll indicated that 75% of workers indicated they "hear frequent noise while working." Another study by sound researchers indicated that improved acoustics can assist with focus and stress reduction. This can help employees who have these types of disabilities to alleviate their symptoms, increase focus and awareness, and reach their full potential.
  • For those who are affected by noisy environments and may have trouble retaining focus — or experience an exacerbation of symptoms — noise-cancelling headphones provide an excellent solution. Bose is particularly known for their noise-cancellation technology, and even produces wellness-oriented, conversation-enhancing headphones specifically tuned for this purpose.

Assistive technology for individuals with hearing related disabilities

Those with hearing related disabilities can be assisted with a variety of technology, both hardware and software-based.

Assistive technology for individuals with vision related disabilities

Vision related disabilities range from those who have difficulty seeing to partial or total blindness.

  • Most operating systems contain accessibility technology to assist those with vision related disabilities. Microsoft Windows 10 has a full portfolio of them, including a built-in Magnifier to make things easier to see and a Color Filter that can assist those with color-blindness or light sensitivity,
  • Screen reader software or services can also assist those with vision impairment to read and process digital content. Many operating systems do this via built-in technology, but there are also many dedicated options available above and beyond what's built-in.
  • Accessible softphones such as Accessaphone assist individuals with disabilities to make and receive phone calls on their computer, as opposed to utilizing a physical phone. This can assist those with vision related disabilities as well as those with reduced mobility or other disabilities.

Assistive technology for individuals with mental health related disabilities

Disabilities related to mental health, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), OCS, anxiety disorders, major depression, and others, affect millions of individuals worldwide. Assistive technology geared toward individuals with mental health related disabilities often helps with enforcing work-life balance, improving cognition and focus, increasing mindfulness, and reducing or managing symptoms.

  • Behavior and mood trackers empowered by technology, such as Moodlytics, help individuals track and manage their emotions and behaviors.
  • Memory and focus support apps, as previously mentioned, are also very beneficial.
  • Applications that support mindfulness — such as meditation apps — allow individuals to manage their emotional wellness and reduce symptoms that may be caused by a wide variety of mental health related disabilities. These can also help to support calmness and provide a soothing influence; they can even help with sleep disorders. Calm and Headspace are two very popular examples.
  • Technology to help track passive symptoms such as pulse, heart rate, or breathing are now widely available. Take, for example, the Apple Watch. It's not only is designed with accessibility in mind, but also provides a variety of applications for physical and mental wellness tracking — including workout tracking, reminders, and heart rate monitoring.