Future of Work Podcast, Episode 32.

Josh Christianson and Jessica Miller-Merrell highlight predictions made by Future of Work podcast guests regarding anticipated changes resulting from emerging technology and the impact on the workplace and workforce of our future.

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities. It was a collaborative effort of Democrats, Republicans, the legislative and the executive branches, federal and state agencies, and people with and without disabilities.

President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on the White House Lawn July 26, 2020. It was the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. The signing represented an historical benchmark and a milestone in America’s commitment to full and equal opportunity for all of its citizens.

This podcast episode takes a look at bold predictions for what the next thirty years has in store for the workplace and its technology for people with disabilities.

This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work, and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible.



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Intro: [00:00:01.02] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.00] This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities. It was a collaborative effort of Democrats, Republicans, the legislative and the executive branches, Federal and State Agencies, and people with and without disabilities. President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on the White House lawn on July 20th, 1990. It was the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. The signing represented a historical benchmark and a milestone in America’s commitment to full and equal opportunity for all its citizens. This podcast episode takes a look at bold predictions for what the next 30 years has in store for the workplace and its technology for people with disabilities. This episode is part of the Workology podcast, and it’s part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’ve been investigating this year what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work, and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today for this special episode I’m joined again by Josh Christianson. Josh is the co-director for the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. Josh, welcome back to the Workology podcast.

Josh Christianson: [00:02:03.00] Thank you, Jessica. I’m glad to be back a second time in a relatively short period.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:08.00] Yeah, well, so this series or this interview is a little bit different. You and I are more just talking about our favorite predictions that we’ve had as part of this season, I guess, of the Future of Work series. So, we’re going to dive into, I think, five different predictions and take a look. So, the first prediction we have is from Joel Ward. And he had really this to say on emergent, emerging technology and where it’s going to lead.

“I definitely think XR will have a big impact. But I honestly feel like technology, like XR, coupled with tech like artificial intelligence and robotics, will probably have the biggest impact, at least from what we have seen now.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:54.00] Josh, how important is XR in the future of workplace for people with disabilities?

Josh Christianson: [00:03:02.00] Yeah, I think it’s important. I think it’s exciting. And I think it is also potentially damaging or dangerous to a company and their talent if it’s not handled with care, like much of the technology I think we’ll discuss today. But just to give, you know, a nod to what Joel’s saying, which I agree with, XR or extended reality, you know, the mixed reality of virtual and/or augmented, and kind of different overlays, is just rapidly having a big impact on the workplace, specifically around, you know, training and kind of learning and development of employees. And there seems to be kind of limitless potential there in a way, for companies and organizations to design training scenarios, to deliver information in a way that people really absorb it and learn from it. And so, it’s just kind of super exciting to see what that holds. And I think, you know, one of the most exciting things about XR and its importance is it is also, as a general technology or platform, it’s fraught with potential pitfalls for inclusion, for accessibility. It is not an easy thing. It’s not the remediation of a word document. It’s not, you know, alt tag on a picture. You know, we’re talking about this potentially immersive environment, overlaid environments that, you know, is just not simple on its face of how you would include people of various abilities. And so, you know, I think the easiest way to think about that is when I think about XR, you know, I think of a big headset covering someone’s eyes. Well, what does that mean for someone that’s blind or, or has low vision? And how do you make that a tool in which they could learn, or accessible? So, it is important because we’re already seeing it shape the work world. And for me, the second layer of its importance really comes is how can we, not we because I’m not involved in technology, not me, we because I’m hiring people, but how can we as kind of as a society, make sure that this tool is inclusive? And the exciting part for me is if we can make XR accessible, which people are working on right now and making great gains, it can be a template for how we make other emerging technologies that we have yet to even imagine, how we can make those accessible. So, I think that for me is kind of the importance of XR, not just in its functional value and how it is and will be used. That will definitely grow. And I think we’ll talk a little bit more about where we’ll see that. But it’s really the opportunity for a group to tackle the issue of making an emerging technology accessible when traditionally we have always retrofitted technology to make it accessible. Now we can look at how we design it, how do we, even just imagine its use in applications in a way that would be more inclusive.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:25.00] I like the approach that so many of the developers and thought leaders and inclusion advocates are taking in terms of trying to work and collaborate together to develop a future that is accessible and inclusive for everyone when it comes to XR.

Josh Christianson: [00:06:41.00] Yeah, and I think, you know, you’ve had some guests on and I think it’s been spoken about, this group in particular called XR Access. It’s one that we at PEAT are heavily involved in and it’s got academics and technology developers and companies really focused on XR all together at the table, coming together to make sure that this is accessible, and they’re making great gains and they’re designing a process, a playbook for how to make emerging technology accessible that’s kind of agnostic of the tool or technology itself. And so that is super exciting to see. We’re actually on the heels of releasing what’s called the XR playbook, which is out of this group and their thoughts and their designs and their work on how they have come together as a group to address creating this tool, this new nascent technology that’s going to have a big impact. How can they on the front end, on the cusp of this ensure that they’re doing what they can to develop it as they go, as they learn in real time, and make it accessible and inclusive for all.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:56.00] AI was a popular topic for our podcast series this year with PEAT. One of my favorite interviews was with Chancey Fleet. She’s an assistive technology librarian in New York. Let’s hear her prediction, shall we?

“I really think that these tools that claim to make hiring decisions more seamless and frictionless for you are actually creating a tremendous legal liability and having a chilling effect on diversity inclusion. So, I would recommend against using them in their current form. And if you think that they have a future, engage really strongly with vendors to explore how their AI models are redefining existing biases and the culture.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:44.00] Josh, what do you think about Chancey’s thoughts on AI and how is it redefining existing biases?

Josh Christianson: [00:08:51.00] Well, first of all, it’s great to hear from Chancey. She is a brilliant and passionate advocate in this area. And, you know, she’s right. This has potential positive power, but it is fraught with pitfalls. And that’s something which, you know, multiple players in this, you know, growing field are really dealing with, but probably not enough. The rapid growth of AI models are so big that some of it’s being ignored and there are product people that are looking at that. But, you know, if I were to kind of step back and talk about AI in general and how it might redefine existing biases, you know, it’s important for people to realize that of all the different ways that you can structure machine learning and artificial intelligence, there still is a beginning. That is at least a beginning. It should happen frequently, but there is a beginning in which a person is programming in the parameters, the processes to evaluate data, how, what to be compared with what. And so, you know, any fault and flaw that a human has around biases is going to be translated and put into the initial designs of artificial intelligence. So, you know, a common phrase you sometimes hear is garbage in, garbage out. If you have an error or problem in setting up your machine learning, you’re going to see that on the other end. But the tricky part, I think, specifically about AI, that relates to this is twofold. The first is that there is this perceived objectivity around AI, right? If a machine, a computer decided who we hire or who we interview and/or who we hire and supports in that, then how could it be biased, right? How could it be discriminatory if it was just a machine? And so, people have a little bit too much blind faith that the machine is being objective when again, it can be extremely discriminatory. And depending upon what was put in there, you know, it can be problematic. But then people can be kind of once removed, shielded and have a feeling of, oh, you know, we’ve been fair. We’ve been, you know, we’ve thought about equity and this is what the computer said. So they can kind of provide a shield to people, whether conscious or unconscious around, you know, issues of equity and fairness that is a little bit dangerous, that I think we need to be mindful of as we are utilizing and including AI. The second is, and I probably should have mentioned it first, really, but it has the power and we’ve seen it do artificial intelligence to replicate the status quo. I think it was a guest on our podcast here that talked about if you say, hey, we’re going to put out, we want to figure out how to make the best product manager, some generic product manager. And, hey, look, we’ve got these five people. They are awesome at this job. So, let’s figure out what it is that makes them awesome and how we can go get more of these awesome people. Well, if you’re not careful, a machine is going to look at whatever data you give it, including background, education, sometimes even demographics get folded in there, consciously or not. And if your product managers today all look like 40 year old white males that went to elite college institutions, you have a strong potential for AI to replicate that and say, oh, if you, you want to, you want to see people that are successful, we should just go hire these people because they are shown successful. And so it has the danger of really replicating the status quo based on certain data or metrics or demographics or experience that will leave a lot of people out and will not include people and will not allow the space to interview or hire people that could be the best fit for your company.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:11.00] And we’ve seen that, and Amazon is a great case study example of how an AI technology can discriminate in the hiring and screening process.

Josh Christianson: [00:13:23.00] Yeah. So speaking of the interviews, we’ve also talked to another number of people, including Alex, Alexandra Givens, who’s the founding executive director of the Institute for Technology, Law and Policy at Georgetown Law, a big group that really looks at, you know, technology and its legal implications. And they have a specific new group that’s looking at artificial intelligence and its impact on people with disabilities. She’s an attorney. Her work is focused on helping people protect people with disabilities from discrimination, specifically with this group. And here’s a quote she had to say when you interviewed her, I’d love to listen to.

“When we start thinking about remote technologies, it really should and can be improving workplace opportunities as well. There’s a clear shift in workplace culture, a more open understanding now about teleworking and flexible schedules. And in my mind, that is all for the good and can be really enormously helpful, the more that we make those opportunities available for people. I will say that that’s the good stuff. I do still think there’s a lot to be done, right. The unemployment rate for workers with disabilities is still more than twice that of non-disabled workers. And anybody who cares or thinks about this space needs to own that and think about our roles in trying to transform that reality. We have these massive systemic problems that technology is just not going to fix.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:55.00] We need to address systemic problems first before we can influence and change artificial Intelligence algorithms and technology. She’s really spot on and I love the work that she’s doing at Georgetown.

Break: [00:15:06.00] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology Podcast. Today we are talking with Josh Christianson from PEAT. And we’re taking a look forward at what the next 30 years will have in store in the workplace when it comes to accessibility and people with disabilities. This podcast is sponsored by Workology, and it’s part of our Future of Work podcast series in partnership with PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Break: [00:15:35.00] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at peatworks.org. That’s peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:04.00] Our next prediction comes from one of my favorite podcast interviews. Josh, in our series with Chris Baumgart from Imagine Colorado, here’s his prediction. Let’s listen here.

“One thing that I will say that I think that we’re seeing is already becoming a trend with a lot of potential is machine learning and augmented reality or smart glasses. I know we’re all aware of the big snafu of the Google glasses from years of yore. And there are a lot of people who speculate as to why they didn’t really take on the way that they did. But what we’re seeing now is with machine learning, we can actually, essentially use the tools around us to teach in real time.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:49.00] Josh, what are your thoughts about augmented reality and smart glasses to continue to influence and enhance workplace accessibility?
Josh Christianson: [00:16:58.00] You know, it has just great potential. It has great potential, if you can imagine how we use computers or our phone to access information. Imagine something that is just kind of sitting there as an overlay in real time with important information you need to access with problem solving capabilities with, you know, the ability to highlight relevant and related information in real time. It could be like the ultimate assistant, you know. I mean, it could really be the ultimate assistant in regard to information and access to that information, whether that’s internal within a company or external, you know, writ large into the broader Internets. And so just beginning to scratch the surface of how this will really impact the workplace. And so likewise, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface around accessibility. But there are many examples we’re already seeing where, you know, people are using these as a tool that is just extraordinarily helpful for them as individuals to be able to bring their capacities and talents to the workplace. Various technologies that, you know, have a camera in them and people that are blind or have low vision can look around. And then they’ve got it, you know, connected to a kind of an earpiece that’s back in their ear and someone is on the other end can see and translate and describe what’s going on and what they’re seeing, which has allowed many people to engage, interact with the world in ways they had previously thought undoable. And so you could see that coming into the workplace, too, and the accommodations that might have been needed for someone that was blind, that extra support or help that a company needed to think about and produce, you know, the kind of legal and HR issues that companies have struggled with traditionally when it comes to including people with disabilities could in large part be alleviated by some of the technology that’s, that’s growing. It’s called Aira. And they have a service that’s been growing where they have a group of people at the ready to provide information real time through these glasses. And it’s exciting how that’s accelerated. The company has grown, and they’ve had some growing pains. But as an example of what and how augmented reality could boost inclusion, it’s been exciting to see. So, you know, Jessica, it’s not just the workplace in terms of working that will change. But, you know, everything will evolve over the next 30 years when it comes to accessibility and inclusion. But specifically, within the workplace, we’re talking about the hiring, training, onboarding process as having a place that will have, you know, really be impacted by this. One of, one of my favorite predictions from your interviews, it came from George Karalis, from STRIVR, who had a great prediction. Great quote. Let’s listen to this.

“There’s a few things I would say about immersive technology and the Future of Work. So first, there’s the hiring process. We know that your performance in a job interview is often not a good predictor of how you’ll actually do on the job. So, I hope that in the future we’ll use immersive technology and also AI for skills assessments in simulated work environments that will ultimately result in better and more equitable hiring practices.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:42.00] Yes. I love talking with George. This is why we are here and helping to educate, train and share resources. As we move forward in this evolution, hiring and training are an important part of that. What type of simulated work environments are you most interested in, Josh?

Josh Christianson: [00:21:00.00] Well, you know, it is already being applied broadly from surgery to inventory logistics, from customer service to security details to teaching. There are just a blossoming number of ways that companies and organizations are using this technology to really help in kind of a training, education, professional development process. I think what I’m most excited about and most interested in. So, I think an area where we’re seeing it applied already and growing in use that I’m most interested in is really just in onboarding. So, you know, companies are forever trying to improve their iterations of onboarding. How can they best get people up to speed with their knowledge of, you know, the administrative stuff they need to learn, the culture of a company, much less and including, obviously, the responsibilities of that particular hire. And so, I think the onboarding capabilities that are, and potential that is there around kind of XR and its overlay with AI and machine learning is just huge. And so, for, for companies to be able to hire people and quickly get them up to speed and for a person to feel like they’re getting the information they need, they’re getting into the mix. They’re understanding, whether it’s administrative processes or cultural norms, XR with the overlay of AI just has a potential ability to really revolutionize, maybe that’s too strong of a word, but just really change for the better how people are brought into a company. And I think, you know, as your HR audience knows, that kind of engagement, that kind of morale, the power of feeling informed and included within a company really is a two-way street of benefits. And I look forward to seeing how that will play out.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:09.00] I really loved George’s interview and my retail HR background was just going crazy because I see so much potential in terms of simulations and training opportunities that might not happen very often.

Josh Christianson: [00:23:26.00] Yeah. Think about sales and the kind of coaching or interaction that happens in a sales environment, which is such a big part of what so many do. How well you can kind of train real time, you know, examples and, and really work with people to enhance and refine their own kind of approach and pitch to a company or a product. It could be exciting.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:52.00] As technology adoption and its evolution grows, it’s our responsibility, especially in HR, to keep up with these changes and focus on how they’re influencing accessibility and inclusion for every employee, especially those with disabilities. I wanted to ask you, Josh, what’s your prediction for the next 30 years?

Josh Christianson: [00:24:13.00] So I’m excited. The next 30 years, I think we have the potential to really demonstrate the power of universal design. And so, if we keep in mind that technology is a tool, it’s not the answer itself, but a tool that provides us with solutions. And we design those tools in a way that allow people to be included and to engage, I think that outcomes and the benefits are going to be huge. And I know from experience in my work, tech companies are really leading this. And maybe you know, not everyone sees it yet, but they have pockets of innovation that are working on accessibility and emerging technology that are really astounding. And so I think, you know, I’m just excited to see their continued growth and development in these areas as technologies, new ones will be born and, you know, powerful tools we have yet to imagine will come to the forefront. And it’ll be great to see what they develop. The part of that also then is incumbent upon us and companies to make sure that we’re paying attention to standards and guidelines and that we’re buying the platforms that meet the challenge of inclusivity. And so from a procurement perspective, whether it’s HR or the chief information officer or whoever, you know, paying attention to what, what tools we’re buying is going to have a resounding effect kind of on a company and on the employees, allowing people to just participate and bring their strengths and gifts to the workplace and work with others to kind of bring to fruition. So, you know, you read the Harvard Business Reviews of the diverse teams with the best answers. But how do we really create spaces where these diverse teams might be able to share and build ideas and answers? And so, I see the next 30 years, probably what has been the previous 30 years, but now it’s kind of growing exponentially as technology does. But I see in the next 30 years around digital inclusion and universal design and creating tools that allow people to engage is kind of a microcosm or laboratory for how we as society can do that. How we as society can engage people and incorporate others in all. Technology really has the ability to lift voices that were previously unheard, to see people that were unseen and pay attention to pockets of humanity, intelligence that were often ignored. And I think that’s super exciting, both for work and beyond. And so my prediction is positive that digital accessibility will lead the way in including others, to develop specific solutions, to develop overarching processes in a way that we can design a world that allows everyone to participate in the fullest. I think we’re going to see so much of that over the next thirty years and I’m personally excited to witness it and be any part I can be in ushering that in.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:32.00] Well, thank you so much for kind of being my co-pilot on this special episode, Josh. I’ve had a lot of fun and I appreciate you joining me again. Where can people go to connect with you and learn more about what PEAT does?

Josh Christianson: [00:27:44.00] Yeah, so the real repository of all our information and resources, the first stop for anyone that wants to learn more is the website. So PEATworks.org, or www.peatworks.org. And really from there you would be able to launch or engage into any way to get more information. There’s, you know, you can email there, it’s info@peatworks.org. You’re going to be able to click around and find a number of resources on different topics that you can pick and choose from. And so, I would encourage people to go there and engage. Let us know what’s missing, what we could add, and I would just say broadly, and PEAT is, as we are demonstrating right now, Jessica, really a collaborative entity. We are not big enough to have an impact by ourselves. We look to partner with people, to form partnerships and collaborations in a way that can magnify our goal and mission. And so, I would say when you go there and you learn more and you get some information or maybe you email us ideas, suggestions, keep in mind we are looking to collaborate. We want to highlight things. We want to work with people to solve problems. And so, I would encourage people to take us up on that and engage us in ways that we can spread the word of digital accessibility.

Closing: [00:29:10.00] Are you tired of putting your professional development on the back burner? It’s time for you to invest in yourself with UpSkill HR by Workology. We’re a membership community focused on personal development for HR. Gain access to our elite community, training, coaching and events. Learn more at UpSkillHR.com.

Closing: [00:29:36.00] This July is the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can follow along on Twitter with the hashtags #ADANext30 and #ADA30. I’ll be linking to each of the podcast interviews we took the snippets from and the predictions in the podcast transcript, along with recommended resources for you to get up to speed on ADA 30. Thank you again to Josh Christianson for joining us as my special podcast guest and host of this special episode. It’s been fun to look back and think about where we’re moving forward in the next 30 years. Thank you for joining the Workology podcast sponsored by Workology. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time you can visit workology.com to listen to all our Workology podcast episodes.