New Skills for New Jobs: Challenges and Opportunities for People with Disabilities

 The following blog post was written by James Thurston – Director of International Accessibility Policy at Microsoft. James works with Microsoft’s global subsidiaries, NGOs, and governments around the world to develop public policies that support broad digital inclusion.


People with disabilities of working age are two times as likely to be unemployed as those without disabilities.  When people with disabilities are employed, they are more likely to be working part-time and for significantly lower wages, especially women with disabilities.  That is the sobering reality today as presented in the World Report on Disability, produced jointly by WHO and the World Bank. 

These lower rates of labor market penetration are one of the significant determinants of poverty for people with disabilities.   Layered across this acute lack of opportunity is a severe digital divide that exacerbates the situation.  For example, people with disabilities are far less likely to have access to broadband.  While they make up only 19% of US total population, they make up nearly 40% of those without broadband and that number reaches fully 50% in the UK.

It is with these challenges in mind that today Microsoft partnered with the European Disability Forum (EDF) to explore solutions for moving forward – a roadmap for better employment opportunities.  The event, “New Skills for New Jobs: Challenges and Opportunities for People with Disabilities”, brought together experts from Disabled Persons Organizations, The European Commission and Parliament, and industry.  Here are some highlights of today’s discussion:

  • Ms. Jean Lambert, Member of Parliament, set the stage by declaring that the European Union’s strategy for smart and sustainable growth must also be inclusive of people with disabilities and that there must be a push to utilize all the talent across Europe.  Technology can help achieve those goals.
  • Alejandro Cercas, Member of Parliament, added that investments in inclusive education, digital literacy, and lifelong learning are critical to improving the employment prospects for people with disabilities.  He pointed to the Web Accessibility Directive currently in the European Parliament and the soon to be released European Accessibility Act as examples of policy actions that can promote broader digital inclusion, including in the workplace.
  • Axel Leblois, CEO of G3ICT, shared his organizations data on the progress of signatory countries in implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  When it comes to employment, there is still much work to do.  For example, 44% of the signatory countries have no policies for workplace accommodation of people with disabilities.
  • Daniel Hubbell, Accessibility Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, spoke briefly about the disparity between the numerous programs for students with disabilities and the lesser support for people with disabilities in the workforce.
  • Gerry Ellis, consultant at Feel the BenefIT, explained how the Cloud, mobile technology, and Big Data will be critical to the workplace of the future and to the employment prospects of people with disabilities.
  • Dana Simberkoff, Vice President at AvePoint, focused on the importance of making accessibility part of the trust relationship between companies and their customers and that there is a business rationale for having a corporate commitment to it.
  • Yannis Yallouros, Executive Committee of EDF, reminded the participants that in 2013 there had been significant policy advances that will have a positive impact on the employment of people with disabilities, including the recent ballot approval of the European accessibility standard EN 301549 (M376).
  • Marco Marsella, Deputy Head of Unit at DG Connect, described some of the research and funding programs available to ensure the creation of assistive technologies and the push digital skills.
  • Florian Michaelsen, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at SAP, described his company’s initiative to draw 1% of their employees from people on the autism spectrum.   Making progress on that commitment has required thinking differently about both the recruitment and retention of employees.