If you are a person with a disability, you know all too well that “stuff happens” that can wreck your schedule. Your bowel routine runs long, your transportation is delayed, you spill coffee on your lap and need to change clothes, your caregiver doesn’t show … the list could go on, and the daily adventures seem endless. All these little adventures can make the prospect of holding down a full-time job seem out of reach. The traditional idea of working 9-to-5 in an office doesn’t offer the flexibility that our lives so often demand. But, what if you could have a job you liked, get paid well and work around your schedule? Thanks to advances in technology, more and more jobs like this are opening up, making the prospect of getting and keeping a fulfilling career more real than ever for people with disabilities.
Home Alone … And Loving It
As telecommuting has grown easier with faster internet speeds, better software and cheaper hardware, some smart companies have moved to allow employees or whole departments to work remotely from home — or a beach that has Wi-Fi. These companies offer at-home support to employees, opportunity to advance and benefits.
If coordinating transportation to work or caregiver schedules is an issue, working from home could be the solution you’ve been looking for. It has been just that for Adam Cale, a C5 quad. Cale lives in a small town in Illinois where disability-friendly jobs are few and far between, but he has worked from home for many years, first for Direct TV, and currently with Apple.
His success shows you don’t have to have a degree in computer science to be able to find a flexible tech job. Before starting at Apple, Cale, whose degree is in graphic arts, went through six weeks of online training in a virtual classroom with other trainees. After only two weeks of mentoring, he was ready to work independently in the company’s tech support department. “It wasn’t until the last week of my training that the instructor realized I had a disability, because I mentioned it,” he says. “I was interviewed and hired remotely.”
Cale now works eight-hour shifts and relies on personal care attendants for much of the day. Working from home has made managing his attendants much easier and increased his independence. “If I worked at an office, it could be really awkward having my PCA just hanging out there,” he says. “They’d get bored too. At home, they can go to the other room and work on other tasks or watch TV in the living room.”
No extensive accommodations are needed because Cale works from home and already has things just how he needs them. “I didn’t really get any special accommodations,” he says. “I do get extended break time. I use my typing stick with a regular keyboard, and I asked for a touchpad mouse, but everyone does. The company provides all sorts of ergonomic equipment for their employees who work from home if they request it. So my request wasn’t a ‘special’ accommodation.”
Working from the comforts of home has been invaluable for Cale. “I’m an introvert and like being alone. I often have music playing or Netflix in the background. And when I crave human interaction, I can video chat with my other teammates who work at home too.”
Beam Me Up
But what if plain-old telecommuting won’t cut it? What if you need — or want — more than just a video or audio connection? What if you need more of a physical presence, but you can’t commute or travel where you need to be? The BEAM from Suitable Technologies is a new option that virtually allows you to be in two places at once. Imagine a video tablet mounted on a 4-foot-tall pedestal on wheels, and you’re pretty close to visualizing the BEAM. BEAM displays your face on the screen and transmits your voice to wherever it is, while recording and relaying the video back to your screen wherever you are. BEAM is the most visible product in a growing communications field called telepresence. Telepresence is defined as using technology to remotely control machinery or a presence in a distant location. You may have seen the widely-publicized image of disability rights activist Alice Wong talking to President Obama using a BEAM and thought, that’s cool but probably out of my price range. Starting at $2,140, BEAM isn’t cheap, but it’s not as expensive as you might expect.
Kavita Krishnaswamy is pursuing her Ph.D. in assistive robotics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and was named one of “25 Women in Robotics You Need to Know About” by the online robotics platform Robohub in 2015. Krishnaswamy, who has spinal muscular atrophy, first used BEAM to attend a conference and saw that it “gave me the ability to have eye-to-eye contact with someone” without actually being there.
Because of the difficulty of getting to campus, Krishnaswamy had been taking classes by Skype or Google Hangouts, but she missed interacting with classmates and networking with professionals. She was fascinated by BEAM and the opportunities it gave her to network. So fascinated that she asked Suitable Technologies if it would be possible to use BEAM for research projects and to advance the research for her Ph.D. “It became possible to use BEAM to present my Ph.D. proposal and collaborate with others to conduct the research I needed,” she says. This technology allowed Krishnaswamy to present at conferences and network following her presentations, as if she were physically present in the room. “I could see people’s reactions and understand my audience better,” she says. Even the little things made a huge difference. “If people raised their hands I could call on them.”
Over the nine years Krishnaswamy has spent in graduate school, she has focused on developing things that will help people with disabilities and has been a passionate defender of the role technology can play in empowering people with disabilities. Her current work is inspired by her own need for around-the-clock personal care attendants, and aims to make it easier for people with disabilities to control an assistive robot for help repositioning limbs, transferring and more. “People should be as independent as possible, and new technology can help accomplish that,” says Krishnaswamy.
Get Connected, Get Work
While technological advances like BEAM can provide that missing element for some job seekers, other times the key lies in simply putting wheels to the ground and getting connected to the right people. Pat Maher, the chair of United Spinal Association’s board of directors, is one of those people. He’s a vocal leader when it comes to getting people with disabilities into tech jobs and building the infrastructure to support them.
“There is a lot of demand in tech jobs, but on the supply side we need to strengthen the pool of candidates with disabilities. They need to be equipped for the professional setting so they can be competitive in the field,” says Maher, a T7 paraplegic himself.
He has been a part of boards and task forces where he has had the opportunity to develop multiple programs related to a disability-centric mission and currently serves as the director of civic engagement for SPR Consulting, a leading provider of information technology, staffing, and consulting services for Fortune 1000 and mid-market companies. He suggests creating “an atmosphere for candidates where they have a network in the tech industry. Go to hacks, participate in civic efforts, go online, and get educated.”
Andre Johnson’s journey into the tech world followed this exact route. It started when Johnson, a T6-7 paraplegic, dropped his water bottle and decided he needed a cup holder on his new wheelchair. He thought finding the right cup holder would be an easy task but quickly discovered it to be harder than he had anticipated. His struggle became the spark to his business idea.
Johnson had graduated with an electronic engineering degree and anticipated the 9-to-5 job, but his journey went in a different direction. “I hadn’t fully grasped the fact that a lot of engineering jobs in Chicagoland are in the north and west suburbs, and how was I going to make that work?” With doctor appointments and physical therapy, he was unsure how he would manage a traditional work schedule, transportation, a commute to the suburbs, and his health.
As he approached graduation, he was invited to Campus 1871, an intense weekend competition where students team up to simulate launching a startup business. The annual event is sponsored by 1871, a Chicago-based tech incubator, and provides students with extensive coaching and mentoring. The weekend concludes with a pitch competition in front of a panel of top leaders in Chicago’s tech community.
“It was a unique opportunity to network with other technology students from other schools,” says Johnson. “Once there I saw the premise of the event was to become more than a worker in tech, but be an entrepreneur and innovator.” At the end of the weekend, Johnson pitched his business idea. He placed third in the competition and won a scholarship and membership to 1871. “This wasn’t my planned route, but it has helped vastly in my personal life and has positioned me to connect with so many people in technology.”
Two years later, Johnson is a young entrepreneur and the brains behind LiveEquipd, an online platform that he hopes will empower people with paralysis and related disabilities to find the medical equipment, supplies and resources they need, while providing health professionals with a unique channel to better equip those they serve.
Johnson’s story is exactly what Maher is advocating for and working toward. To help others find similar success, Maher started the IT Knowledge and Abilities Network. “I launched ITKAN with a few colleagues and the support of the Illinois Technology Association,” he says. “They hosted our meetings for first couple of years to target getting people with disabilities into the tech industry. I wanted people with disabilities to know where the bar was to be a professional in tech, and to drive their passion.”
Programs like ITKAN and Campus 1871 can provide the push that gets deserving job candidates with disabilities over the hill and into the jobs they seek. Through his network at the tech incubator, Johnson is able to gain access to financial and strategic planning for his business and connect with a diverse group of people in technology, like designers and programmers, that continue to help him build his company. “Their mentor resource is large and covers all the needed areas of entrepreneurship,” he says. “Being at 1871 is an opportunity to network and collaborate with the best in Chicago tech, but you also don’t have to be there every day. It provides great flexibility.”
That flexibility has made all the difference for Johnson and could make the difference for other job seekers trying to balance the time constraints and logistical hassles that come with disability.
“Being an entrepreneur allows for me to become successful and still address my health currently,” says Johnson. “I’ve had therapy and several physicians’ appointments during a good portion of this journey. I’m better health-wise now so I can put focus on this venture. Now I can pursue others means of income to help in life and pursuit of my business.”
Leveling the Playing Field
As principal development lead for Microsoft Research, Jay Beavers approaches BEAM and telecommuting from a different perspective: that of the employer. Still, like Krishnaswamy and Cale, he sees limitless potential. He has been thrilled with the results of using BEAM. He is able to manage the team remotely and team members are able to attend conferences and collaborate on projects. “BEAMs have increased the diversity of our team and we have had access to many people with disabilities,” he says. “It puts everyone on an equal level. I worked with one team member for four to five months before realizing he had a disability. All I saw was the brilliant person he is.”