Inclusive Workforce

NDEAM: Recognizing Progress and Potential

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(Image Description: Erich addresses participants at the AI Fairness for People with Disabilities workshop on Oct 4th in Cambridge, MA)

Before October gets away from me, I wanted to recognize and appreciate IBM’s rich history & culture of real inclusion. When a company implements small-but-meaningful practices, rather than just tracking the general diversity numbers of key groups, it makes all the difference.

As you know, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). As one IBMer with a disability, I take pride in IBM’s leadership at focusing first on the promise and potential of each individual, our commitment to removing barriers so that all qualified candidates can be considered, and the opening of doors to allow the broadest spectrum of talent to do their greatest work at IBM.

IBM has pioneered, hiring our first employee with a disability in 1914, and our inclusive hiring initiatives flourish today. IBM is leading the way at recognizing that unique perspectives equal expertise, with resources like IBM Team Able, where colleagues with disabilities work directly with design and development teams. We continue to refine the welcoming workplace, partnering with experts like Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and exploring ways tech like Artificial Intelligence (AI) could push our Accessible Workplace Connections tool even further.

I’d like to share a story:

Earlier in October, IBM Research hosted an “AI Fairness for People with Disabilities” workshop, as part of a broader AI Research Week event. The workshop brought together AI researchers and people with disabilities to identify areas where AI fairness is particularly important, like making sure that autonomous vehicles correctly identify people using wheelchairs as people. The event was kicked off by IBM execs, and included an impressive list of tech and disability leaders and advocates, with attendees from organizations like Google and Microsoft offering praise for the workshop and research.

From my idyllic description, you can tell that the day went extremely well, with very favorable feedback from all in attendance. What I have not mentioned, however, is there were just 2 times during the 7 hour workshop where things did not go so smoothly, and both times involved technical difficulties due to inaccessibility or failures of assistive technology. One was when a low-vision presenter needed to share presentation media to a projection screen to be viewable by the broader audience, and it could not be done with the accessibility features he needs engaged, so he needed to disengage them and struggle, strain and seek assistance to remain effective as a presenter. The other was when a connection to live-streamed captioning for a deaf attendee failed, and it took several minutes to reestablish the connection, the end result being a room full of 40+ people prevented from moving productively ahead, due to the needs of a single attendee. In both cases, the awkwardness was excruciating, and I can assure you neither attendee would have wanted to be the cause for delay or awkwardness.

My point in sharing this story is that, while our work and the workshop topic demonstrate great progress toward access & equality, the fact is that the lines separating accessibility & inclusion from inaccessibility & exclusion are still revealed with relative ease. I would urge us all, as part of our collective mission, to use technology to empower each and every user, with user controls and personalized experiences where possible, in order to move toward fuller, more authentic inclusion.

Accessibility Research

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