Amid concerns that AI-driven transformation will leave some of us behind in the workforce, there's promise that it will bring many of us more fully on board. This October, as the U.S. Department of Labor highlights the theme of “Advancing Access and Equity” for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it seems a fitting time to take a closer look at AI’s potential impact on workplace accessibility.
In the US, one in four adults has some form of disability. Globally, people with disabilities make up the world’s largest minority group, with estimates as high as 16% of the world’s population, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The WEF further notes that these numbers continue to rise, due in part to an aging population. Given the sheer numbers and diversity of people with disabilities, it is clear that bringing the talents, passion, and perspectives of this significant population can make a tremendous impact in industry and society.
The business case for workplace diversity and inclusion has long been recognized, and it holds true when it comes to representation across ability levels. People with disabilities—ranging from visual, hearing, or mobility challenges to neurodivergence—can bring exceptional strengths to teams and considerable value to employers. This value is reflected in current statistics. For example, organizations that champion disability inclusion in their workforces have 28% higher revenues. In addition, according to Gartner, these companies enjoy 89% higher retention rates, a 72% increase in employee productivity, and a 29% increase in profitability.
Yet, we have much work to do in order to realize the full extent of this potential. People with disabilities are 50% less likely to get jobs, and according to US disability employment statistics, the nation’s labor force participation rate among people with disabilities ages 16-64 is 41.2%, compared to 78.2% among their counterparts who don’t have disabilities.
Emerging solutions made possible by AI can either further perpetuate the exclusionary practices that drive these statistics or dramatically increase workplace participation through improved accessibility. With thoughtful consideration and the guidance of best practices, organizations can harness the power of AI in several areas to create inclusive and supportive workplaces for employees with disabilities. Here are just a few more examples of ways that AI-driven technologies can support workplace accessibility:
Transcription tools can help workers with conditions that impact speech—such as stuttering, Parkinsons, and aphasia—produce fluid communications to facilitate collaboration with co-workers and participation in meetings.
Audio description tools can generate real-time captions and contextualize dialogue in videos and meetings for workers with hearing loss.
Visibility tools can use image and facial recognition to generate detailed verbal descriptions of items, documents, and environments, and can even identify people present, giving workers with visual impairments a narrative picture of their surroundings. There are even tools that can generate text based on lip-reading algorithms.
These examples of how AI is making workplaces more accessible are encouraging. Still, in order for organizations to make sure their employees with disabilities benefit from assistive technologies, they must have insights into their workers' specific needs and challenges. This presents another challenge AI can help address. For example, embedded sensors can track and identify areas in the workplace that present challenges to workers with different disabilities and provide recommendations to accommodate needs. However, while these technologies can support the workplace success of employees with disabilities, inclusion in the workplace starts with access to opportunity, which presents another barrier that AI can either reduce or exacerbate.
In any quest for workforce participation, the first hurdle to overcome is landing a job offer. This requires access to information about relevant opportunities, passing initial screening, and successfully completing the application process. For job seekers with disabilities, the traditional approach to job searches can be riddled with exclusionary obstacles that tend to exclude candidates who don’t conform to narrowly defined criteria for social and behavioral traits.
Given that an estimated 83% of employers currently use automated tools for screening applicants, concerns surrounding how these systems can perpetuate bias in candidate screening are valid. Making these processes inclusive requires attention to such considerations as whether algorithms have been trained with data that takes into account historic exclusion. It’s also important to take into account whether personality testing and video screening tools that analyze such patterns as facial expression are unfairly eliminating people with hearing, speech, or neurodivergence issues.
AI-driven platforms, such as Jobs Ability, are accessible tools developed by people with disabilities to account for accessibility and diversity of abilities when matching candidates with job opportunities. The Mentra platform, for example, uses AI to support the needs of neurodivergent jobseekers throughout the various steps of the process, from discovering opportunities where they can apply their strengths to applying, interviewing, and onboarding.
Developing assistive technologies that effectively support accessibility requires insights from diverse users with a variety of challenges. In addition, to meet the challenge of training algorithms that are more inclusive, data sets must accurately represent the needs of people with disabilities.
The catch is that such representation is only possible to the extent that people with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their conditions. 70% of disabilities are invisible, and 76% of employees with disabilities report that they don’t fully reveal their disabilities at work. To support progress in this area, it is also important to cultivate environments in which people can be open about their challenges and needs without fear of stigmatization.
Workplace accessibility relies upon organizational commitment to understanding the needs of people with disabilities and creating a workplace that supports them. There are several approaches employers can take to providing this support. For example, according to the 2023 Disability Equality Index (DEI) report. 62% of participating companies have an accessibility expert to address issues related to accessibility for employees with disabilities using internal facing digital products. In addition, resources such as The Equitable AI Playbook of the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) offer guidelines for nurturing cultures of authentic inclusivity while implementing AI solutions in the workplace.
AI has already helped increase the workplace engagement of people with disabilities. However, technology is only part of the solution. As we invest more effort into gathering data and insights from the communities that seek greater access to and in the workforce, we also need to cultivate inclusive cultures. Only then will these tools become more effective at helping organizations meet their needs, support their success, and reap the incalculable rewards of increased accessibility and equity in their teams.
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