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Digital Inclusion of People with Disabilities - NCD Report

  • Published: 2011-10-08 - Contact: Wendy Taormina-Weiss
  • Synopsis: Report on digital technologies or processes that have potential to enhance social engagement of people with disabilities.

Main Document

The National Council on Disability (NCD) has reviewed six key digital technologies or processes that have the potential to enhance the social engagement of people with disabilities while increasing opportunities for workplace participation.

The technologies can heighten employment prospects for us and/or create new employment opportunities for us. The NCD found that networks might be even more important for people with disabilities than for people in the general population, with young people who experience disabilities being more open to these networks and close to their non-disabled cohorts in society in terms of Internet access.

The report by the NCD has fourteen recommendations, far more than an article of this size can cover. The recommendations are aimed at improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities while encouraging the forms of proactive social interactions that are needed to realize the potential of the new and networked economy.

The recommendations focus on specific areas which include:

Internet access
A variety of awareness campaigns
Working with industry partnerships
Improvements in assistive technology
Education, through the current infrastructure of community and technical colleges

A Problem, as well as Opportunity

Employment rates for people with self-reported, work-related disabilities have fallen nearly continuously since the 1990's - despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with disabilities have historically been a contingent work force; in other words, when industries in America, 'retrench,' people with disabilities are the first ones to lose their jobs. When industries grow, people with disabilities are the last to be hired. The active employment gap between men and women with and without work-related disabilities has increased over the last two decades. By 2009 the largest gap on record was measured. Jobs for people with disabilities have tended to be located in secondary labor markets that have been characterized by:

  • Subsistence pay
  • Low skill requirements
  • A high number of part-time jobs
  • Few opportunities for advancement

While this has been going on, new digital media technologies and electronic networks have been transforming the ways people collaborate. The new economy is based on the networking of human knowledge. The structural and social characteristics of these networks, particularly interdependence, connectivity, and communications, have implications not just for the economy, but also for the workplace.

Networks are very likely more important for people with disabilities than they are for non-disabled members of society. At the same time, the social capital underpinning these networks among people with disabilities is commonly weaker, with a matching mechanism between employer and employee that is less effective. The situation presents the context for examination of six technological pathways or, 'vectors,' which the National Council on Disability presents through their report.

The technologies or vectors are of specific interest for their potential as pathways to social capital, through networks, and therefore to employment. These vectors belong in three groups:

Social Networking and Tools
Vector 1: Wireless Communication Platforms
Vector 2: Social Networking

Immersive Digital Environments
Vector 3: Virtual Worlds and Serious Gaming
Vector 4: Tiered Digital Interactions and Electronic Games

Commons-based Peer Production
Vector 5: Open Publishing
Vector 6: Open-Source Process

Vector One

Wireless communication platforms are objects, not processes or channels such as those presented in the other five vectors. As a result, the success or failure of different aspects of mobile platforms in regards to facilitating people with disabilities in employment or in finding work depends upon their ability to accommodate the specific needs of the person. Research has revealed two issues; 'high costs and fees,' and, 'need for wireless Internet access,' which can be barriers to the usefulness of wireless communications. There was; however, a common appreciation for the platforms and their communications options, particularly for people who experience sensory disabilities. Functions such as electronic scheduling and personal information organization may be helpful for people who have cognitive or information-processing disabilities.

Vector Two

Social networking has become a potential game changer. An incredible amount of potential, suggested by collaborative communities based upon social networks, to supersede both markets and hierarchies as a means of organizing work now exists. There are forms of technologies that have been emerging which not only promote the adoption of the collaborative community model, they energize social networks while opening up prospects for work opportunities for people with disabilities.

The emergence of various aspects of common themes of networking was not surprising. Themes such as:

  • Making connections
  • Connecting for particular work or education functions
  • Access to advice and information for problem resolution
  • The ability to share large amounts of data and information

Privacy and security concerns is a theme that also emerged. It is a theme that might have extra force where people with disabilities are concerned.

Vectors Three and Four

Digital environments that are immersive can provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities, ones that might not be available to them otherwise. These environments can provide a functionally accessible work environment while removing cost and distance barriers, permitting more flexible, open, and satisfying relationships. Research and facilitators found immersive environments remove constraints of physical work environments. They found that people with disabilities have the choice of self-representation. People with disabilities have the opportunities to pursue entrepreneurship, training and education, and have space to collaborate with others through group meetings.

Concerns once again were related to security and privacy. Other concerns involved the steep learning curves that gaming and virtual worlds at times require, as well as the need to access high computing power and networks that are powerful. There is also some concern about accessibility and affordability.

Vector Five

Open publishing, through access to networks and information, opens the way to the most important factors of production in the networked information economy. In addition, the value created through a commons-based model of peer production is not only economic - it is also personal and social. The model implies more open and accountable relationships, as well as a respect for personal autonomy, and is an important facilitator for people with disabilities.

Research has shown the need for high rates of education, literacy, and technical savvy might be drawbacks, as well as fees and high costs. There was also an appreciation that commons-based publishing implies the removal or diminished participation of professional middlemen from communications, while opening up possibilities for catering to niche interests. These niche interests include those of people with disabilities ourselves, as well as personal communications such as blogs which may assist in personal career development.

Vector Six

Open-Source processes have radically changed the way in which people collaborate with one another. The situation offers immense promise to some sectors of the disability community through creation of technological benefits, while at the same time allowing people with special needs to collaborate on projects that showcase their abilities for future employers. Research found one major barrier to the success of open-source processes, the need for substantial technical skill or tech savvy. Yet the promise of this particular vector has been recognized as the diversity of the contribution and the creativity of the solutions; as well as the resources, access to information, and tools.

July of 2010 found reports being released indicating that people with disabilities continue to be disproportionately hurt by the recession. The U.S. Department of Labor has stated that the rate of unemployment among people with disabilities has increased, while the employment rate of people in America in general has stabilized and decreased over the past few months. The rate of unemployment for people with disabilities in July of 2010 was 16.4 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for non-disabled persons. The statistics support the view of people with disabilities as a, 'contingent labor force,' with us being the first to be let go, the last to be hired when there is growth. Instead of social exclusion, is there potential for digital inclusion

The Power of Digital Inclusion (PDF - www.ncd.gov/rawmedia_repository/de3e60f1_e3ed_45eb_b042_bff6343c2974document.pdf

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