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Debra Ruh

  Employability & Technology


Accessibility Considerations for a Diverse Workforce

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There are several important market drivers for making Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products, services, information and employment opportunities accessible;

  • Demographics of people with disabilities, including people with age-related limitations, and their associated spending power
  • Workforce/workplace accommodations benefiting employers, employees and customers
  • Legislation, regulations and standards (International, national, and State and Local Government)

Workforce/Workplace Issues

In 2010, US economy will support 167 million jobs, but have only 158 million workers to fill them (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003)

These demographics aren´t limited to the U.S. The number of workers 35 – 44 is expected to decline by 27% in Germany, 10% in the U.K. and 9% in Italy.  In Japan that age group is expected to shrink by 10% and 8% in China. Source:, 2005
As a result, more companies are looking to keep older workers by investing in training programs and flexible work schedules, and offering to hire retiring employees on a consultant basis.

Solutions to the Shrinking Job Market

There is a growing need for skilled employees in the workforce; i.e., teachers, healthcare workers and IT professionals.  Technology has served as an equalizer for people with disabilities, removing workplace barriers, and increasing opportunities for employment.  Employers can look for skilled employees in new and creative ways. 

For instance, while there remains a high degree of unemployment among people with disabilities (over 60%), a trend has been seen in the rising number of people with disabilities graduating from major universities and training programs and entering the job market.  ICT has reduced barriers that may have existed in the past, such as workplace flexibility and assistive technology to communicate. 

In addition, AARP reports that 69% of employees over the age of 45 plan to continue working past 65.  By creating programs targeted at people of retirement age, such as part-time work, flexible schedules, tailored benefits, employers can keep not only retain their knowledge workers, but attract others.

Being an "employer of choice" for these groups will require employer investments in the right resources.

Job Accommodations

Continuing to work is important to many workers with health conditions or disabilities.  They want their jobs to remain a big part of their lives.  Job accommodations can help them stay on the job, in other words, a job accommodation is something that lets you do your job when you have a health condition or a disability.  You change how you do your work or make a change in your work area.  Many, not all, such changes involve using an assistive device.  Accessible technology provides workers with the ability to personalize their computing environment and adapt it to meet their specific needs.

For years, an assortment of technologies designed to let people with disabilities use computers effectively have been available, but at the high cost dictated by the relatively small market. Now that the oldest baby boomers are hitting 60 and increasingly vulnerable to the infirmities of ageing, a niche market is going main stream.

In order for businesses to survive during the ageing transition, companies will need to offer more flexible scheduling, including telecommuting, job sharing or part-time hours in order to tap into the boomer work force.

Other accommodations can be used to attract, maintain and train employees. Many of these options provide the opportunity to balance work and care giving.  These work alternatives include, flexible scheduling, telework, telecommuting, part-time, job sharing and contract work.  Many will trade money for flexibility.

Many workers age 50+ have chronic conditions; for example, carpel tunnel syndrome, arthritis, or back pain.  Changes in vision or hearing are common, and some develop heart conditions or diabetes.  Others have had disabling conditions for a long time and ageing can make these disabilities worse.

Perhaps the greatest reality of the older workplace will be the need for continuing education technology that will enable the older and disabled worker to acquire new skills. As we choose to stay on the job longer or elect to change careers, technology will be instrumental in ensuring that an ageing workforce remains productive and competitive.

Employers need to implement training programs in accessible technologies and establish policies to ensure that accessibility is a criterion in the selection and procurement of information technology.

Benefits of Making Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities

Retaining skilled employees is more cost effective than recruiting new ones and it allows employers to protect their current investment of skilled and valued employees.

For instance, by retaining employees, employers avoid cost of training a new employee and can save on workers compensation or other insurance.

Recent studies have shown that both older workers and workers with disabilities are significantly more loyal and dependable than their younger counterparts.

Save on workers compensation or other insurance

Increase in productivity

Potential Implications of Technology for an Ageing Work Force

Technology reduces the physical demands of jobs.

Technology makes work at home and flexible work schedules and arrangements more likely options.

Adaptive technologies may make work more viable for older people.

Technology such as multi-media systems may be effective learning tools for older adults.

Tax Incentives

In the United States, for example, Congress has made two kinds of tax incentives available to businesses to help them offset the costs of complying with the ADA. Businesses are allowed to take advantage of these incentives year after year to make their facilities, goods, and services more accessible.

The Disabled Access Credit is available to small businesses that have 30 or fewer employees or total revenues of $1,000,000 or less. A credit of up to $5000 a year is available to offset a business´s costs for removing barriers, hiring interpreters or readers needed for effective communication, producing documents in alternate formats such as large print or audiotape, or taking other steps to improve accessibility for customers or employees with disabilities. This provision is found in section 44 of the IRS tax code.

Under section 190 of the IRS tax code, businesses of any size can take a deduction of up to $15,000 each year for the cost of removing barriers in facilities or vehicles.

Industry Response

Industry is responding to this growing market in several areas; customer support, innovation of accessible products, hiring practices and workplace accommodations and corporate social response.

For example, Fidelity Investments recently conducted a study of their Integrated Voice Response (IVR) system to understand the changes we undergo as we age, and how those changes should influence the design of systems that have a significant population of older users.  Fidelity testers learned several lessons including the importance of consistent menu selections throughout the system, pacing of systems (current pace was too fast) avoiding information over load (limit the size of messages).

Cisco has teamed with a language interpretation firm, Significan´t, to develop a product which is a contact center that offers deaf people easy access to sign-language interpreters.  The service provides immediate video access to qualified sign-language interpreters that are able to communicate with local authorities and other public sector organizations on the user´s behalf.

Intel is working on a home healthcare PC, an in-home device with a touch screen and big fonts for the elderly.  It would monitor whether they are taking their medications, blood pressure, weight etc., and send them to the patient´s health care provider.

Eons has launched a new search engine and hopes to generate cash from targeted ads by filtering data for 50-year-old-plus baby boomers that lack the patience to wade through pages of results. expects to be the new age-relevant search engine designed to simplify Web searching by processing requests from the perspective of someone at least 50 years old and determine age-dependent behaviors.  Eons has teamed with Compete Inc., an online market research company, to identify and analyze 5,000 of the most popular Web sites used by a group of 500,000 users aged 45 or older.

Microsoft Corp has provided accessibility innovations in Microsoft(R) Windows Vista(TM) and the 2007 Office system. The products make it easier for all users, and particularly the ageing and people with disabilities, to see, hear and use computers. For example, the new Speech Recognition capability in Windows Vista allows people to interact with their computers using their voice. This is particularly important for people who have difficulty with dexterity or limited use of their hands. Speech Recognition in Windows Vista allows users to dictate documents and e-mail messages, fill out forms on the web using voice commands, and manage Windows Vista and their applications by speaking.

AARP, IBM, The Home Depot, CVS and Borders Books all have hiring programs in place to attract the mature worker.


Many ICT companies´ initial reaction to legislation, both in the U.S. and internationally, may have been to view them as a cost of doing business with the Federal government.  Those companies that were visionaries have realized that accessibility conformance would benefit a larger population segment: the ageing and baby boomer global population of computer users.

In developing solutions and accommodations for the workforce, employers need to consider a comprehensive strategy that includes training policies, technology procurement policies, accommodations, ergonomics and healthy computing practices.  By implementing a strategy for accessible technology, employers will be better equipped to recruit and retain productive and dedicated employees, regardless of age or disability while empowering all employees to realize their full potential.