Telework: The Accommodation that Opens New Doors to People with Disabilities

henry-kavita-blog2cropped

Organizations around the world are employing remote workers for services such as customer support, software development, writing, design and media. But there still remains a stigma for people with office jobs who request the option to work from home.

Today’s news of telework features headlines about men utilizing the privilege more than women, questions about telework practices at the USPTO, and tactics on how to convince your boss that it’s a good idea. These articles tend to focus on workers and managers who have choices about exactly where and when they can get to an office. But they overlook a potentially valuable source of labor – people with disabilities – who can use new technologies to communicate, attend meetings and interact within office settings. While these people may find their conditions restrict their physical movement, technologies can connect them to professional settings, freeing them to contribute.

Technology’s Role in Advancing the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990 to grant people with disabilities “the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in mainstream American life – to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services.” This year marks the ADA’s 25th anniversary, an occasion that included an event at The White House in July 2015.

Even as the ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities to work effectively, many people with severe physical limitations cannot enjoy the fulfillment that work provides. There have been many advances, from motorized wheelchairs to speech generating apps that help people move and communicate. What if technology could push those boundaries even further, to open up even more possibilities?

The examples of two remarkable people, Henry Evans and Kavita Krishnaswamy, demonstrate the power of technology to lower barriers, cultivate connections and bring to life the potential of people whose intelligence illuminates what they can do, rather than what they cannot.

Seeing and Hearing Henry as an Equal

Henry Evans of Los Altos, Calif., is a Stanford MBA with experience working at Silicon Valley tech companies until a stroke-like event struck him at forty years old. Henry is now mute, quadriplegic, and is cared for by his family at home. He often explains that, for an important percentage of the disabled population, leaving home and traveling (even to an ADA compliant building) is often unsafe, inconvenient, or impossible. To extend his own personal experiences beyond his home, Henry started a program called Robots4Humanity to test new technologies and raise awareness about their potential to bring new capabilities to the disabled community. In his TEDx talk, which Henry presented using a Beam Smart Presence System from Suitable Technologies, he describes his elation to feel equal with his friends once again:

“The primary reason Smart Presence is so important for disabled people is that, if you can speak, no one has to know you are disabled and they don’t have a chance to treat you differently (even subconsciously). This is even more so the case when a lot of able-bodied people also use Smart Presence devices. These devices, which show only your head, create for the first time a truly level playing field for people with physical disabilities.”Henry Evans

Henry hopes the technologies that enable telework, like telepresence, give employers additional tools to maximize the productivity of a person with a disability – as well as the incentive to find tasks suitable for those individuals. They provide both parties – worker and organization – the opportunity to optimize a person’s net contribution. In Henry’s view, this can only encourage employers to proactively target people with disabilities for employment. And he’s not alone in his belief, gained through experience, that these technologies can make a life-changing – and work-enabling – impact.

A Catalyst for Kavita’s Doctoral Thesis

Kavita Krishnaswamy, who lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), has never walked or crawled. Though she relies on 24/7 care in her Maryland home, Kavita is a Computer Science doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and her research goals include increasing independence for people with disabilities using machine learning, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), telepresence, speech recognition, and other robotic technologies to improve quality of life.

Kavita requires physical assistance from her mother, Pushpa Krishnaswamy, and other caregivers. She was able to physically go to campus in her undergraduate years, with her mother in attendance for each class, but at home her mother cares for the whole family and struggles to both fund and find reliable caregivers who can work around the clock. Kavita has been unable to leave her home in recent days, leaving her only with a laptop computer as means to participate in her world.

Despite these difficult circumstances, and with her mother’s help and dedication, Kavita has managed to work at IBM, Silver Hill Technology, Knexus Research, and the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The key accommodations that helped her to effectively fulfill her responsibilities were the ability to telecommute, have a flexible schedule, and utilize highly collaborative tools such as video calling, distributed revision control systems, chat messengers, and email.

Recently, Kavita has been using Beam Smart Presence on the UMBC campus to attend class and defend her thesis. The Beam provides her the face-to-face interaction and ambulation needed to attend events talks, seminars, and conferences in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Barcelona. (She has even attended museum exhibits.) The telepresence capability empowers her to contribute her skills and experience to a variety of organizations:

“The Beam gives me independence to be visible in the community to explore and expand technological boundaries from my home; to exchange ideas with high-achieving entrepreneurs, innovative researchers, and industry leaders to make progress in my research. The Beam bridges the physical gaps between my home and any other location in the world in an immersive real-time experience to meet, learn, and network with professionals all over the world. I can best contribute to the human capacity to achieve the highest potential in the field of computing with assistive technologies society to develop robotic technologies to make life better and inclusive for all. Together, we can change the world with increased accessibility.”Kavita Krishnaswamy

A Life-Changing Impact

By deploying collaborative technology and telepresence, Henry and Kavita are realizing opportunities to act upon their passions. Both bestow the hope that everyone with a disability can contribute their knowledge and skills to more employers.

As Internet-based technologies continue to redefine where work happens, Kavita and Henry will continue to encourage people who live with disability to use technology for expanding their interactions with the world, so that new doors may open to them, and so they can achieve career advancement with meaningful employment and independence.

Contributors:
Henry Evans (Robots4Humanity)
Kavita Krishnaswamy (UMBC Computer Science)
Erin Rapacki (Director of Marketing, Suitable Technologies, Inc.)

Working (and Thinking) Outside the Box

Atardecer_(8585960400)

We have all heard the phrase, “stroke of genius.” Hearing this phrase likely conjures up images of people like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, forward thinkers and innovators who have impacted the future as we know it.  In today’s world, we need more of these types of thinkers, but what sets them apart?  The answer is a willingness to look at the future to find solutions for today. The answer is imagination.

Traditionally, the workplace has been a think tank for grand ideas that keep companies in business. But what if the workplace of the future is different than our parents’ generations, and even our own? The office will not be defined by history’s concepts of what it should be; it no longer has to be defined or confined by cubicles or walls. Today, the possibility of imagination needs to be broadened outside the meeting room.

Re-imagine “Outside the Box”

“Thinking outside the box” is a phrase most employees have heard. Let’s consider that phrase in the literal sense – removing the physical barriers of the “office box.” It’s time to recognize where ideas happen and where imagination flourishes. It is true that ideas can happen within the workplace, but it is equally true that they can happen anywhere one finds inspiration. According to research from Forrester, “It’s imperative that business leaders initiate programs that keep their workforce productive and connected while mobile and remote.” People may need to work from places of inspiration such as their family home or on the road.

The reasoning is two-fold: more workers choose to work remotely everyday, and flexible work arrangements offer workers freedom from the confines of an office to think more creatively. Often, the confines of a stagnate work environment can fail to ignite innovative thinking due to lack of outside stimulation. In addition, workers can feel hampered by unspoken rules of etiquette and procedure within the formality of a rigid office space. A corporate hierarchy inhibits free flowing ideas and imagination by limiting workers from approaching superiors they might have approached in an otherwise less formal environment – a reason many companies have internal networking events. Thus, organizations are presented a challenge where internal office employees may feel isolated or under-inspired, while employees outside the office have ideas that require discussion among colleagues. To help solve this challenge, today’s workers need to be empowered with the tools that break down barriers of remoteness and access to help eliminate the limitations offices can create: both internally and externally. If we want to inspire workers to think outside of the box, then we need to do just that – get them outside the box – to comfortable environments where ideas flourish, but let them be freely available to the office when an idea needs to come to fruition.

The End of Office Silos

Technology has long been heralded as the future of business, from the advent of the printing press to the breakthrough of the modern computer, it has enhanced the business world. As technology progresses so do workers, but exactly how does technology un-confine? It creates and strengthens the opportunities for collaboration and people are beginning to take advantage.

When asked what their primary concern was for their first job, 57 percent of younger Americans wanted to do something enjoyable or make a difference in society. For example, a group of Millennials are working remotely while traveling around the globe on a program called Remote Year. The younger generation is embracing flexibility because they will need to always be on the hunt for new work during their careers; and for those who are successful at finding new work, their ability to learn new roles and organizations helps make them more nimble and competitive to an industry’s changing demands. According to the U.S Department of Labor, the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 was more than three times that of workers ages 25 to 34 years. Younger workers are spending less time at the same job and contracting more, leading to fluidity within the work market.  Technology platforms make it easy for employees and contractors to work from around the globe, enabling workers to literally “work outside the box”.

Look at any modern day office and you will see people connected by emails, phones, online chat groups, and more.  Collaboration is happening all around us in real time.  However, technology is also creating limitations. Emails go unanswered or unseen. Phone messages don’t always get relayed, and people connect to the physical office space by wires and walls. Workers need to be certain their message was received, so smartphones, Google Hangouts, and video conferencing has been added to the mix. Telepresence technology has advanced to the point where workers may connect their computer to a telepresence device in the workplace from anywhere around the globe – giving them a physical presence within the office space and “being there” for colleagues. Suitable Technologies and our Beam telepresence devices focus on allowing companies to tear down the silos that previously existed between remote workers and their offices – encouraging more collaboration and brainstorming, more efficiency and more real-time interaction and synergy between colleagues. The abundance of these kinds of technologies gives workers the flexibility they need to work and think beyond the limitations of generations past and let imagination flourish.

Allowing Imagination to Thrive

It is clear that as imagination grows, and technology is embraced, the future office will look vastly different. Research has long shown that geographical diversification within the workforce is happening, and businesses that want to succeed need to support the future workplace now.  Employees are demanding more flexibility as schedules become increasingly more hectic and work days get longer; they want the quiet comfort of home on some days, the intense collaboration of the office on others, or the inspirational experience of working while traveling abroad. If organizations want to propel imagination and inspiration forward, then they need to look at technology to solve these challenges, so everyone may enjoy a future where workplace imagination leads to inspiration and true genius thrives.

Contributor: Erin Rapacki
Director of Marketing, Suitable Technologies, Inc.

The Pillars of Video Collaboration

PillarsVidCollab-remotepresence

Companies have expanded globally and wish to work with the best of the best: have the best teammates, use the best vendors, and hire the best consultants. However, business operations take place in many different, often unique, facilities and keeping those locations connected is a constant challenge. Nearly every company has a team member who is vital to the success of the organization that is not co-located at headquarters or a central hub of activity. In fact, Forrester predicts that 43% of the US the workforce will be working remotely by 2016. To resolve this challenge, companies have invested heavily in promoting healthy communication between their remote and local teams with various technologies: the telephone, file sharing and project management software, and video communication when travel is not an option.

When purchasing a video communication tool people must consider its purpose: do they want it to be used in all collaboration spaces? Is video needed for colleagues who work from home? Will conferencing be used for formal meetings between multiple facilities? Companies have many options to select from, but they must consider how it benefits their unique organizational challenges. As a guide, here are the technologies we recommend for various methods of remote collaboration:

1. Video Calling (e.g. Google Hangouts and Skype) offers an informal ubiquitous video service over a low bandwidth connection. These services are best used for casual desk-to-desk calling or for distributed teams who work without a central office.

2. Video Conferencing (e.g. high–definition room systems) offers groups an ability to be face-to-face for a formal meeting. The technology is optimized for scheduled, multi-point, and room-to-room conferencing.

3. Remote Presence (e.g. a self contained, remote controlled, video conferencing device on wheels) is a new tool for natural collaboration in all workspaces outside the meeting room or office: labs, white board areas, factory floors, shops, cafeterias, manufacturing plants, showcases, tech centers, and more. Remote presence devices implement their video conferencing software differently in order to optimize for low latency, over a relatively low bandwidth internet connection, for proactive driving control. They come complete with cameras, a microphone array, speakers, a battery, and digital display.

Workplace interactions range from the very formal to the informal, from quick chats between colleagues to large presentations. Remote presence it is a distinct “third pillar” that adds to a company’s strategy where experts may be invited to join in team collaboration anywhere the action is happening. Removing geography as a barrier to recruiting helps teams hire the right people; especially small companies like startups who require the best. Notably, as referenced in a 2014 study from CB Insights 46% of the startups listed failed due to not having the right management team. In addition, remote presence is capable of connecting users to their teams throughout multiple operating locations a day, so those who find it most valuable are remote employees, consultants, clients, vendors, operations managers, and business travelers who wish to connect back to their headquarters while away.

When successful team dynamics require spontaneity, collaboration, or attendance at an event – only remote presence enables people to come together without boundaries. Video collaboration is required among global teams everywhere, including meetings between desks and conference rooms, but now this “third pillar” makes it easier for a person’s presence to be made available in all workspaces; thereby creating a healthy, transparent, and positive collaboration environment that mobilizes the workforce and provides a way for teams to have equal access to everyone.

Contributor: Erin Rapacki
Director of Marketing, Suitable Technologies, Inc.