Contact Us

Access all areas

30 November, 1999

In this series, people who live with disabilities tell us what it’s like to cope in a world that frequently ignores them. Gerry Ellis has a degree in Economics, and works as a software engineer with a major bank in Dublin. Access all areas

People with disabilities make up at least ten per cent of the Irish population. We are a varied group: old and young, tall and small, pretty and plain. Like most people, we have our good days, and others when we want to tear strips off something or someone. We have varying degrees of talent: an abundance in some areas, limited in others. 

In short, we’re just like everyone else in almost everything. Everything, that is, apart from some specific and obvious difference. Yet, we are usually defined by society in terms of that single difference, rather than the myriad similarities. 

One area where people with disabilities are very different from other groups in Ireland is in employment. Ireland is considered to have virtually full employment, with unemployment at less than 5%. Yet the unemployment rate amongst people with disabilities of working age is several times this level. 

Can anything be done to improve this situation? You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is yes. And if it were improved, who would gain? You may be surprised to hear that you stand to gain just as much as we do, would even if you are not disabled. 

nformation and communication technologies (lCTs) are increasingly a part of everyone’s life, and nowhere more than in the area of employment. The European Commission reckons that at least 60% of jobs now require the use of ICTs. But how well equipped are people with disabilities to use them?

Before answering that question, let’s take a look back at some old technologies. Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of deaf people and, indeed, married a former student. His idea in inventing the telephone was to find a tool by which to communicate with his wife. The typewriter was developed to help an Italian countess who was blind to communicate, as she could not write by hand.

But who am I? I have worked as a software engineer for over twenty years. I have used and observed the development of technology from the early days. I not only programme computers, but use them as a means of communication and education,

Computers for blind people
Let me explain. I am blind. I can’t read what appears on a computer screen. Yet I use one every day. I achieve this by running an extra piece of software on my computer called a Screen Reader. This interprets text on the screen, and feeds it into headphones, so that I can literally hear what you can see. Although my software can interpret text, it is lost when it comes to graphics or pictures. Unless there is some text explaining the picture, I lose out. Consider how limiting this is the next time you visit the Internet. 

Luckily, the most influential organization involved with the development of the Internet, the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), has developed guidelines on how websites should be developed and maintained. These include facilitating the needs of people with disabilities. 

Here we come across an example of how something that is good for people with disabilities is good for all of society. A website that is designed according to the W3C guidelines is uncluttered and easy to use for everyone. It contains graphics, but not too many, so it loads faster. Best of all, it is ready for the next generation of websites.

Benefits for everyone
If technology is developed using what are called ‘design-for-all’ criteria, it will be easier to learn and quicker to exploit. These criteria were developed to ensure that all kinds of products are accessible by people with disabilities and by older people. By using them, however, the products involved are easier to use for everyone. 

Let’s move to another example. For many years, people with severe disabilities could not manipulate devices in their homes, such as the television, the curtains, the alarm system. Tools and methods were developed to create what is called the ‘smart house’. This allows all these devices to be hooked up to a single control device. This could be on a table, on the armrest of a wheelchair, or wherever. Without this work, I doubt that you would be able to text a message to your home from anywhere to turn on lights, set the heating or switch on the oven. 

Positive contribution
But now, back to employment. It is certainly to the benefit of society for people like me to be employed rather than unemployed. If I were unemployed, I would be drawing social welfare and would not be paying tax. I would not be contributing to the general economic buoyancy of the economy. 

But what about the cost of providing facilities to allow people with disabilities do their job, such as ramps or specialized technology? There is a myth that these costs are enormous. In the United States, research shows that 69% of provisions provided by a large company cost nothing at all, 28% cost less than $1,000, and only 3% cost more than $1,000. What is more, they find that people with disabilities are more loyal than their non-disabled counterparts. This itself creates a saving for employers, since they do not incur the cost of readvertising jobs, interviewing for new employees, and retraining them.

Common denominators
For many years, people with physical disabilities found it difficult to socialize, because of inaccessible transport and buildings. As well as that, of course, being unemployed, they had little or no disposable income. Because of education and employment, people with disabilities are becoming more likely to socialize and demand accessibility. If a bus is accessible for a wheelchair user, it is also far easier for a parent pushing a pram, or someone with a broken leg, or an elderly person to use.

So next time you come across people with a disability in the workforce, don’t shy away from them. Engage with them, and see how much you have in common with them. You might just recognize a specific need, and the two of you might work on overcoming it together. Who knows, you might even be the next Alexander Graham Bell!

This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2005), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.