Sneaky strategies for promoting assistive technology (AT) for employment from IPAT's executive director
Besides the more common "doors" for getting AT information to employers (think vocational rehabilitation, employment counselors, job developers), the Iowa Program for Assistive Technology (IPAT) is creating interest in AT by slipping through employment's back door.
Case in point: soothing HR
Several years ago IPAT staff member Gary Johnson started doing presentations at the local and state meetings of the State Human Resource Managers organization. Johnson was invited to speak about AT's benefits for retaining older or injured workers, and it was an opportunity he was happy to take. Retention, he understood, was something that addressed their current needs. After all, HR departments want to hang on to trained employees, and talking about retaining employees they already know and value is far less scary than talking about hiring individuals with disabilities they don't yet know, and a lot less scary than talking about complying with the requirements of the ADA.
Once in the door, however, Johnson and IPAT Executive Director Jane Gay realized they could further build trust by providing AT referral information for their employees who are out on Family Medical Leave caring for aging parents or children with disabilities. "In effect, we showed these HR managers that we could help them do their jobs," emphasizes Gay. "We became non-threatening partners, not the cops there to arrest them!"
Developing HR relationships in this way--Gay and Johnson have learned--puts them in a strong position to then move into talking about AT for hiring. Now they are a known and trusted resource, managers have seen accommodations work, and the topic has become more comfortable. "We get in the door on their terms" Gay notes, "and then we get invited back!"
Partnering with Occupational Health and Safety
Last year IPAT slid in another backdoor, this time through Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S). Gay had worked in the field years ago, and those connections lead her to the OH&S nurse at the aeronautics and defense firm, Rockwell Collins. The firm needed technical assistance to improve communications with an employee who is deaf. Little did Gay know the request would eventually lead to the back doors of many employers statewide.
At Rockwell Collins, Gay recommended their employee, "Sarah Peters," wear a simple vibrating pager for emergency notifications. While there, however, Gay learned of a more difficult problem Peters was having: an inability to participate in weekly stand-up team meetings due to a shortage of interpreters. Legally Peters was accommodated, as she was provided with meeting notes later in the afternoon. Gay found, however, that her employer was receptive to learning about better accommodations through voice recognition technology. Indeed, Rockwell was delighted to trial and eventually purchase Interact-AS, software which Peters now uses to communicate in team meetings as well as during one-on-ones--even with colleagues over lunch!
Rockwell's experience learning about, trialing, and selecting technology was so rewarding (Johnson demonstrated both Dragon Naturally Speaking and Interact-AS), Gay was not only invited to talk to staff at another Rockwell plant, but recruited to help present their experience at the 40th Annual Iowa Governor's Safety and Health Conference. Their presentation, "Disabilities: Creating Capabilities in the Workplace," included Gay on a panel with Rockwell's OH&S nurse, Peters, Peter's immediate line supervisor, an ITS staff member, and the safety engineer. Interact-AS was demonstrated by the supervisor and Peters for their portion of the presentation. Gay covered resources available for obtaining assistive technology for workers with disabilities, and again the emphasis was on retention.
Gay is now developing plans for future OH&S conferences. She's thinking of speakers with assistive technology devices that will be attractive to safety engineers and other OH&S staff. She's thinking about their needs, on their terms, confident that when it comes to portals for AT for employment, opportunity knocks at the back door too.