You would be forgiven for worrying that a robot might steal your job. Entrepreneur Daniel Nadler predicts that between 33 and 50 percent of financiers will lose their jobs to automation software by 2026. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s February 2016 economic report to Congress showed an 0.83 median probability that the lowest-paid workers will see their jobs be automated.
But what if emerging technologies are actually the key to increase employment for those who have often been excluded from the workforce? A new report published by Gartner makes the case that techniques like voice recognition and machine vision will not only help people with disabilities enter the workforce – they will make disability obsolete.
In Maverick* Research: From Disability to Superability, Society and the Workplace Are Changing (content available to Gartner clients), authors Melanie Lougee, Andrew Johnson, and Pete Basiliere write that people with disabilities are benefiting from diverse technologies that are being adapted to their unique needs. This is occurring alongside cultural shifts that prioritize diversity and flexible work. Their projected end result is that emerging technologies will allow 350 million people with disabilities to enter the global workforce over the next decade.
“The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 785 million people of working age (15 to 59 years old) with disabilities,” the report reads. “160 million currently participate in the workforce. 350 million could participate given advances in technology.” If this forecast proves to be correct, emerging technologies will help the global workforce employ a total of 520 million people with disabilities. This number would match the general population’s workforce participation rate.
Lougee is quick to clarify that she believes the issue of technology as a threat to jobs is a separate issue from equally employing people with disabilities. The report also admits that growth will be slow at first, and employment of people with disabilities will vary depending on which countries and sectors people work in.
But Lougee also believes that the rise of remote work – coupled with growth in certain sectors and increased emphasis on diversity initiatives – offers new ways to grow the talents of people with disabilities.
“If certain job markets grow or decline, the impact to both [people with disabilities] and people without disabilities would be the same,” Lougee explains. “So if technology prompts a decline in low-skilled jobs or growth in other areas, everyone would be impacted the same.
“The jobs [for people with disabilities] may not come primarily from low-skilled jobs if those opportunities shrink, but there could be a lot more growth from jobs that can now be done remotely. Customer service reps, freelancers, or claims processors are all high growth job markets which could all be supported by now available accessibility technologies.”
The concept of disability defines the intersection between human limitations and societal barriers. Disabilities range from genetic disorders that begin in utero (like Down syndrome) to physical injuries later in life (like losing a limb in a car crash). It therefore follows that the technologies and processes used to assist people with disabilities at work will be equally diverse. This is not an abstract idea with no proof of concept. Some tools and workforce initiatives are helping people with disabilities prosper at work today.
“HR software vendors are already moving beyond the bare minimum of meeting compliance standards by including features such as voice controlled self-service transactions or virtual reality adapters,” Lougee says. “There is also a proliferation of highly innovative apps being built out for iOS and Android devices that can perform a variety of functions such as translating impaired speech to easily recognizable speech (Talkitt) or translating visual to audio (Aipoly).”
Examples of balancing apprentice training for in-demand roles with holistic HR practices also exist today. The Gartner report cites Autism at Work – a program launched by enterprise software giant SAP – as one example. In 2013, SAP partnered with Danish company Specialisterne to help design and find candidates for the Autism at Work program. Specialisterne provides software testing, quality control, and data conversion for businesses. The company also teaches these same skills to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Together, SAP and Specialisterne designed a holistic program to recruit, onboard, provide peer networks, and offer support to people with ASD. Three years later, SAP has hired more than 100 people with ASD to work in roles across HR, finance, IT, and marketing. One of them filed for a patent within one year of employment.
The report’s most bold claim is its assertion that emerging technologies will erase the concept of disability. The cost of such technologies has already dropped drastically; mechanical hands can now be 3D-printed from home for a mere $25. And Gartner’s 2016 Hype Cycle for Human-Machine Interface predicts that many of the most crucial technologies – including gesture control devices and emotion recognition – will reach mainstream status within 10 years. Mainstream technologies become more affordable and widely integrated into other popular tech tools. Both factors are crucial for people with disabilities.
All of this will lead technology to do the opposite of what many fear: create new employment opportunities and mitigate disabilities via mass adoption. Rather than worrying what machines will take, we should create new tools and nurture company cultures to harness untapped opportunities.
About the author: Lauren Maffeo covers trends in the project management, finance, and accounting software industries for GetApp, a Gartner company. She focuses her research on strategies and tools to help small and midsize businesses create unique value. Lauren previously covered technology trends for The Guardian and The Next Web.