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Founder of Blind Institute of Technology Says Technology Opens Doors in the Workplace

For Mike Hess, innovative technology will literally help open the door wider for disabled professionals. 

Hess— the founder and executive director of the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT)—will be featured speaker at the 4Front Conference June 15-16, 2021 at the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center in Aurora, Colorado. In a recent 4Front podcast, he talked about the role technology can play in helping people with disabilities to gain a stronger foothold in the workplace. 

Hess knows the landscape first-hand; he’s been blind since his teens due to early-onset macular degeneration. After overcoming multiple challenges to earn a degree in computer programming, he then spent 20 years in the tech industry, including stints at Cisco Systems and Level 3 Communications. Succeeding in the technology world was a matter of “will versus skill,” Hess says, but those challenges also inspired him to found BIT and become an advocate for disabled employees.  

Advocating for the disabled is challenging work. Despite passage 30 years ago of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – which prohibits discrimination based on disability–the unemployment rate for disabled employees has remained stubbornly high. When ADA was passed in 1990, about 70 percent of disabled adults were unemployed. However, 30 years later, the number has stayed around 70 percent, Hess says. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped matters either. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between March and April 2020, nearly a million people with disabilities lost their jobs, representing 20 percent  of the total disabled workforce. At the same time, 14 percent of employees without disabilities lost their jobs. As of July, just 33 percent of disabled employees age 16 to 64 held jobs, compared with 76.4 percent of employees in this age range without disabilities.  

“We’re not going to legislate our way out of this challenge,” Hess says.  

Indeed, according to the National Organization on Disability’s 2020 employment tracker survey, only 13 percent  of companies have reached the target of 7 percent  disability employment set by the U.S. Department of Labor. But the survey also found some encouraging signs, as 70 percent of companies in the survey offered employee resources to address the needs of disabled employees, up from 63 percent in 2019. And 57 percent of companies have a budget to provide ergonomic upgrades for disabled professionals, compared to just 52 percent a year ago. 

For Hess, the key is using technology ranging from automatic doors to voice-controlled devices to giving disabled employees crucial support and access in the workplace. “That is the narrative that we need to shift, and we shift that by recognizing that it’s a technology solution that helps me as a blind person, or people who are deaf, or people who are on the [autism] spectrum,” he says. “It’s a technology solution every single time that will allow us to be productive and deliver.”

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