In today’s digitally-driven world, technology is vital to people’s engagement, education, and employment. But if the technology we use is inaccessible, people with disabilities could easily miss out. While discussions of accessible technology often focus on physical access, it’s crucial to factor access for people with cognitive disabilities into the equation.

Last month, Dr. Shea Tanis, Associate Director of the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, joined us for a PEAT Talks webinar to discuss why technology and information access are everyone’s right. Shea explored exciting technology solutions that are changing employment opportunities for people with cognitive disabilities.

Valuing Neurodiversity

The Coleman Institute’s mission, Shea described, is “to catalyze and integrate advances in technology to promote meaningful quality of life for people with cognitive disabilities and their families.” Central to this idea is reframing perceptions of cognitive disabilities through the lens of neurodiversity. From a biological standpoint, “neurodiversity” refers to the fact that everybody’s mind is wired differently. The neurodiversity movement recognizes and celebrates the value of diverse minds.

Shea called upon employers to embrace neurodiversity as an asset, and “to actively seek out people who are uniquely positioned to bring natural strengths and talents to benefit a company or business.” In order to be fully inclusive of neurodiverse talent, businesses must ensure that the technology they use at all phases of the employment lifecycle is accessible.

Applied Cognitive Technology

Accessible workplace technology is a key facet of the work that Shea and her colleagues are doing in a field known as applied cognitive technology—research and development that allows people with cognitive disabilities to successfully participate in inclusive environments. In particular, Shea highlighted how technology can adapt a person’s environment to meet their strengths. Many workplace environments are at first, as Shea discussed, “too rigid to include all people.” By using technology to change the rigidity of the environment, employers can ensure the most productive outcomes throughout the employment lifecycle. And rather than developing specialized technologies for this purpose, the focus of applied cognitive technology is building cognitive supports into technologies that already exist.

Technologies that Provide Access

Shea applauded mainstream technology companies for making great strides in accessibility, which helps people with disabilities find and maintain employment. For instance, as eRecruiting becomes an increasingly popular means of connecting with candidates, it’s critical that social media platforms and online job application programs are accessible to everyone, including people with cognitive disabilities. Other examples of technology supports for employment include:

  • Video resumes—recording a video instead of filling in a job application;
  • Working remotely—using technology to connect with colleagues rather than going into an office;
  • Sound virtualizers—systems that direct sounds to a person’s ears, helping to eliminate distractions;
  • Virtual training and coaching—using augmented reality and simulators to teach job skills;
  • Tactile reminders—wearable devices that vibrate or make sounds to prompt next steps or remind the wearer of an event;
  • Virtual reminders;
  • Programs to modify content that’s difficult to read into plain language;
  • Machine learning—using algorithms to simplify and automate certain tasks; and
  • Smartphone apps.

Even with the existence of such a wealth of technology to support employment, Shea noted that barriers to inclusion still remain. Workplaces must prioritize universal design, provide equal opportunities, and recognize the strengths and values of people with disabilities. Shea and her colleagues at the Coleman Institute are striving tirelessly toward workplace inclusion for people with cognitive disabilities, and have launched an official declaration, entitled, “The Rights of People with Cognitive Disabilities to Technology and Information Access”.

To learn more about the Coleman Institute and the importance of accessible workplace technology to support neurodiverse employees, check out the archived PEAT Talk. And we want to hear from you, so share your comments below about steps your business has taken to foster a cognitively accessible environment.