Disability Works

Leveraging Skills and Perspectives of Disabled Employees for Competitive Advantage

Employees with disabilities have unique skills and perspectives on managing tasks. Their creativity is a source of innovation for a broader market strategy.
- By Jeremiah Prince

People with disabilities are entering the mainstream corporate workforce in greater numbers. Culturally speaking, the world of disability has been defined in terms of medical conditions that impair people physically, emotionally or mentally. There is a transformation of attitudes occurring as employers recognize that people with disabilities are as productive as those without impairments, if given a minimum amount of accommodation.

It is a step in the right direction, but the new attitude still fails to recognize that people with disabilities have unique skills and perspectives that can be leveraged to access a broader customer market with new products and services that serve people with and without disabilities. A culture of inclusion in the workplace can generate creative thinking and innovation among all employees, creating a remarkable competitive advantage.

Taking Ownership of Business Success
Employers hiring people with disabilities offer relevant accommodations so employees can be as productive as possible. One of the challenges the disabled face is that non-disabled tend to focus on their disabilities rather than their skills and abilities, unique perspectives, and ability to think creatively.

True inclusion means everyone brings their whole selves to their place of employment, requiring a culture that encourages every employee to take ownership of the success of the business and the employer to provide opportunities to contribute creativity.

It is a matter of accommodation. Accommodation costs money versus accommodation offers a chance to test market new products, or accommodation inside the company versus accessing a potential global market the size of China in terms of population.

Oded Ben Dov developed a video game that uses eye tracking technology. After demonstrating on Israeli TV how it worked, he got a call from someone who said he cannot move his legs or hands and wondered if Dov could develop a smartphone that he could use. Dov went on to invent a smartphone for people who cannot use their hands which is sold through his company Sesame Enable.

There are now companies selling a compartment, similar to a luggage carryall that is placed on top of the car. However, this roof box or roof rack holds a wheelchair and a hoist controlled by a remote—control device. What looks like a typical luggage carrier was turned into a product that makes it much easier for the disabled, and in some cases their caregivers, to load, unload and access a wheelchair.

Voice recognition technology helps millions of people, disabled and non-disabled, better manage their lives. It is used in smartphones, Bluetooth headsets, vehicles and televisions. It enables people to make hands-free calling, browse the Internet without typing, and buy products with voice commands. Despite the millions it helps, there are approximately 9 million disabled people in the U.S. who cannot take advantage of the technology because they have voice disabilities like stuttering, spasmodic dysphonia, and dysarthria. There are admittedly many hurdles to cross to develop voice recognition systems that can process a-typical speech patterns, but the company that succeeds has a whole new market to access.

Endless Opportunities
Products and services designed for the general consumer market can lead to new products and services for the disabled and vice versa. The opportunities are endless, ranging from new mechanical devices to mobile applications that accommodate disabilities. The companies that generate innovation internally to serve a broader market are finding new sources of growth. And, who can understand how technologies can improve the quality of life better than someone with a disability?

There are three ways to look at the market opportunities: the disabled, senior citizens who experience many of the same challenges faced by the disabled, and the general market. In the U.S., one-in-five Americans have some type of visual, hearing or mobility disability. Globally, there are more than 1.3 billion disabled people. Both groups have friends and family who can also use new products and services that simplify life on many levels.

A go-to-market strategy is a plan for reaching customers and creating a competitive advantage. With input from people who are disabled, a business can define the target market and identify existing customers or new customers who would most benefit from the products and services developed. The value proposition is defined for the targeted customers.

Google Accessibility is the gold standard of an initiative meant to ensure the greatest accessibility of its products. There is an accessibility team to monitor the accessibility of Google products and product teams to “incorporate accessibility principles into the design and release of products.” The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities program “advances ideas and emerging technologies that increase independence and opportunity for people with disabilities.” Researchers work with people from all backgrounds and people with various abilities to better understand customer daily lives.

Though smaller companies may not be able to have such an elaborate system, the core principles apply to all businesses that want to move beyond hiring people with disabilities as a compliance or CSR strategy to fully including them in business success.

Moving Beyond Assimilation

Hiring a disabled person without giving them opportunities to fully participate in business success equates to lost opportunities. Creating a culture of inclusion in which everyone brings their whole self to work does not equate to assimilation in which people tend to keep their identities as low key as possible to avoid standing out. A culture that inspires creativity connects people to their work, and people to people, and the joint effort to business success.

People with disabilities add a broader perspective to project teams, should feel free to share their perspectives on working and living with a disability, and have opportunities to contribute creative thinking on topics like reaching the disabled persons market, or adapting technologies for the disabled to general consumer use or vice versa.

People with disabilities should have an equal voice, be able to bring their best ideas, and not simply be accommodated. Helping all employees find purpose in their work supports innovation because it connects the employee’s role to business growth and competitiveness.