PEAT Blog

Disability Driving Innovation: A Dispatch from USBLN 2017

Last month, the PEAT team had the pleasure of attending a conference that was right up our alley. It featured accessible technology experts from leading IT companies, compelling talks on the intersection of employment and accessibility, and an overarching theme that centered on the concept of innovation. If we didn’t know better, we might have thought we were back at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference or the M-Enabling Summit. But we were at the 20th annual conference of the U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN).

If you aren’t familiar with USBLN, it’s a national non-profit that helps employers capitalize on disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain, and marketplace. And this year, its conference drew over 1,200 attendees from businesses and disability advocates of all sizes. We’ve watched the event get better and better over the years, and this year, USBLN took its technology focus to new, exciting levels.

The conference theme itself—“Disability: A Catalyst for Innovation”—showcased accessible technology’s role in fostering business success. And while the event featured a new Technology track this year, we were happy to find the topic interwoven throughout the conference, from breakout sessions on digital accessibility to a plenary on the technology marketplace.

Here’s a taste of what we learned:

  • Accessibility is a journey, not a destination—Jeff Wieland, Facebook’s Head of Accessibility Engineering & Operations, reminded us that by continually tweaking design processes and end products for accessibility, companies will be able to remain ahead of the innovation curve.
  • Secure buy-in from the top down and the bottom up—Clint Covington, a Principal Program Manager at Microsoft, called upon everyone to take a vested interest in accessibility. Even though every one of USBLN’s attendees are at different career levels and points on the accessibility journey, they can all play a role in making the workforce a welcoming place for people with disabilities.
  • Focus on business value and usability—Several speakers, including Mike Paciello, a Founding Partner of the Paciello Group, and Dan Sullivan, AudioEye’s Vice President of Sales, shared tips for communicating the need for accessibility to company leadership. Key insights emphasize the business value of accessibility (versus compliance with the law) and position accessibility as something that will ensure your products can be used by the largest possible group of customers.
  • Accessibility education is key—Shawn Lauriat, a Senior Software Engineer at Google, believes it’s imperative for companies to set standards for accessibility education across the board so that accessibility is non-negotiable throughout an organization. One initiative for accessibility education, highlighted during the conference by Jennison Asuncion, Engineering Manager of Accessibility at LinkedIn, is Teach Access. Teach Access prepares students in technology fields to design with accessibility in mind. 
  • Culture is king—Beyond teaching accessibility, it’s also crucial to bring people with disabilities to the table, both in technology-focused academic settings and in the workplace. This is especially important when it comes to recruiting talent from the highly plugged-in millennial generation. During another fascinating panel, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Jennifer Sheehy emphasized the importance of instilling inclusion and accessibility at every level of technology education and every level of employment. Only then will workplaces be better able to attract and retain a strong talent pool that includes people with disabilities.

Year after year, the USBLN conference serves as a catalyst to create connections between businesses and people with disabilities so that people with disabilities show employers the groundbreaking ideas they can bring to their teams. We at PEAT look forward to continuing the conversations about accessible technology and the ways that people with disabilities can drive innovation. 

About the Author

Josh Christianson photo

Josh Christianson

Josh Christianson is PEAT's Project Director, overseeing its day-to-day activities and strategic initiatives. Prior to his role with PEAT, Josh worked at Deloitte Consulting, leading change management, technology and human capital initiatives at the Department of Health & Human Services as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs.