World

‘People with disabilities are the greatest untapped resource on the planet’

November 29, 2020

GENEVA — Worldwide, persons with disabilities experience higher levels of unemployment and economic inactivity than non-disabled persons. Ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Mike Hess, US-based entrepreneur and founder of the Blind Institute of Technology, spoke to UN News as part of the International Labour Organization (ILO) photography project "Dignity at Work: The American Experience".

I’ve been legally blind since elementary school, and lost all functional vision by my early thirties. My mother didn’t want me to go to a school for the blind, and was determined to keep me in the public school system: I used the low-vision technologies available at the time, as well as learning how to walk with a cane and read braille.

I describe losing my sight as an inconvenience, nothing more! I’m married, I’m a father to three children, I’ve competed in martial arts, I ski, climb mountains and I’ve had a successful 20-year career in the tech industry.

People with disabilities are the greatest untapped resource on the planet: we are the perfect candidates for what I call ‘desk jockey’ type jobs: today’s technology is so accessible, and people with disabilities are extremely productive and loyal employees.

In some ways, they are more productive than sighted people. For example, some blind people can listen to their screen readers at 300 words a minute. That is faster that a sighted person can consume the same amount of data, looking at a screen.

Let’s face it, big companies don’t hire a person with a disability because it’s a feel-good story. They hire them because they are going to work twice as hard and they are not going to job-hop. They hire them because they know that they are going to deliver.

‘My job is to kick in doors’

There are now tremendous opportunities for gainful employment for persons with disabilities, particularly since the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) came into force. This has helped to bring more persons with disabilities into the workforce, thanks to access ramps to buildings, braille in elevators and accessibility technology built into popular operating systems.

I’m committed to reducing the high unemployment rate among skilled blind and visually impaired IT and tech professionals, and this starts with changing the perceptions of potential employers.

That’s why I started the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT). We’re based in Colorado, and we help those with disabilities, particularly the blind and visually impaired, to find work, through education and placements.

My job is to go out there, kick in doors and let employers know just how easy it is to seamlessly integrate people with disabilities and add value to the bottom line and the corporate culture.

The better we are at getting people with disabilities into the workforce, the more the economy benefits. I call it the "Billion Dollar Initiative".

A blind person over their working lifetime in the United States will consume about a million dollars in public assistance, including disability benefits, food stamps and housing benefits.

If we can get a thousand people with disabilities out of that system and into work, that is around a billion dollars saved in public assistance, and nearly one hundred million dollars of earned income generated every year through employment.

Thriving during a crisis

I’m a glass half full person, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had to ask myself if a small non-profit like ours could survive, as most of revenue comes from placing people with companies.

In fact, we’ve thrived throughout 2020. Things started to turn around in April, when Salesforce, through its Office of Accessibility, offered us a $50,000 grant. After that we received more grants from foundations, and another from Adobe.

I promised the donors that I would use all the money to supplement wages for our students, whose education is geared towards a career. We tell them that we have grant money, we have passionate students, and they need work experience. This is helping us to have more conversations with more companies.

Telecommuting levels the playing field

The fact that so many people are working from home, because of the pandemic, is also an unexpected bonus: for many persons with disabilities, and not just blind and visually impaired people, getting to and from the office is a challenge, and many do not have access to public transport. For now, this problem has gone away.

It’s true that opportunities for social interaction are more limited now but, even in "normal" times, persons with disabilities are often isolated.

To counter this, we’re organizing virtual mentoring in school districts for young people, to let them know there’s a support network out there, and to remind them that resilience is a muscle, that we can exercise together. — UN News


November 29, 2020
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