Submissions List TBI Interagency Conference

Digital Technologies and the Employment of Americans with Disabilities: Findings from a Focus Group Study

  • Baker, Paul


Bridging Science and Practice – Application of Technology to the Needs of People with Disabilities


We present findings from a focus group study to understand how six digital technology vectors may serve as facilitators and barriers to the entry of Americans with disabilities into the knowledge economy and workforce.  We conclude by considering factors of accessibility, awareness, organizational inertia, learning, privacy, and cost.


Studies of technology and disability commonly focus on concerns related to human capital, such as workplace accommodations or perceived deficits in the skills and talents of potential employees with disabilities.  Moreover, explanations for high unemployment among people with disabilities often emphasize the scarcity of job opportunities, or the job seeker, assuming that people with disabilities are at a competitive disadvantage.  These assumptions underemphasize the mechanism that matches job opportunity and job seekers, and its dependence on social capital.  The dearth of social capital that characterizes many people with disabilities puts them at a disadvantage in job networks, actual or potential. Because knowledge is generated largely through social interaction, social capital may be more significant than human capital.  The knowledge economy’s dependence on digital technologies for the creation and transmission of this social capital through networked social connections is particularly relevant for people with disabilities. 

                  Six vectors have been identified as coordinators or conduits of these networks: 1) wireless communication platforms, 2) social networking, 3) virtual worlds and serious gaming, 4) tiered digital interactions and electronic games, 5) open publishing, and 6) open-source processes.  To understand how these digital might serve as barriers or facilitators into the knowledge economy and workforce by people with disabilities, we undertook a focus group study that builds upon and complements other research done as part of a larger project in this area. Three focus groups, with six to eight participants in each group, were conducted during May and June 2010, for a total of 21 participants. People with sensory, motor, learning, and intellectual disabilities were represented.

                  Our focus group study probed on the barriers and opportunities associated with each of the identified technologies.  While all participants were generally familiar with the range of digital technologies represented, there was a rather significant difference among the three groups, which we believe to be a function of the disability-related characteristics of the different groups. The most commonly mentioned technology related to wireless communications platforms was the smart phone. One topic that several participants identified, which we did not anticipate, was telework, referring to the application of new technologies rather than the underlying technologies. Most participants spend a sizable portion of their workweek on a computer. Technologies that allowed the user to control the interaction, or made information more manageable (wireless platforms, social media) or had reference utility (open peer publishing), were perceived to have the most use and were believed to be the technologies most immediately able to increase workplace engagement, and hence opportunity. There was familiarity with virtual worlds and tiered digital interactions, but these were not seen as particularly engaging other than recreationally.

                  We concluded that many of the digital technologies covered in the study are familiar to technologically savvy people with disabilities.  Regarding new vectors for employment opportunities, we believe there is employment potential, but that barriers involve the technical skill sets required to produce these technologies and the absence of widespread established locales for the convenient participation in these technologies and new employment sectors.