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.



Comments (1)


    Every year, the rhetoric and show of solidarity for the disabled return to our various seminar halls on World Disability Day, observed every 3rd December, but the status-quo still remains.

    The theme for World Disability Day celebration, 2013 was "Break barriers, open doors: for an inclusive society for all". Brilliant theme! And I know a more brilliant one will certainly be formed again this year as well. But the irony is; those who formulate these fantastic themes are the same ones who actually perpetrate the acts of exclusion against Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). Now, who is responsible for breaking these barriers and the opening of doors? These are artificial barriers and doors that don’t need any telling to remove but rather some doing. We have had too many very loaded but empty themes over the years, and the time to take any meaningful action is now! What is most intriguing is that, those who are supposed to either break those barriers they themselves have created, and then open or even break the doors they have shut, or at least, instruct people to undertake these exercises on their behalf, are the same persons who are continually discriminating against us. What a PARADOX!

     It is said that before a problem becomes an issue, advocates must first place it on the agenda of those actors who have the power to solve it.

    Already, Persons with disabilities live in a country designed primarily for the able-bodied. We virtually live on the margins of society, deprived of life’s fundamental needs. And as a result, we go through the experience of profound negative emotions, at times accompanied by the feelings of worthlessness and inordinate poverty. All because the state has reneged on its responsibility to provide Equality of Opportunity and Accessibility for PWDs hence, leaving us completely drenched in nothingness. With no hope in sight at least for now, “adapt and adjust” have become the mantra of persons living with disabilities in Ghana.

    It is therefore heart-aching for us to continue experiencing these shockingly-high levels of discrimination. What did we do wrong? After all, we didn’t choose to become what we have become. Circumstances made us what we are.

    With the adoption of one of the above interventions by the state, the disabled would have the enabling platform and environment to prove to this country that, not only do PWDs have experiences which are not available to the abled-bodied; we also will show the world that we can do anything, and that nobody needs to feel sorry for us. We only need support and assistance in other to enjoy and do the things in life that the so-called able-bodied take for granted. We actually want to show that, instead of playing on the tragedy in our lives, we will tell a story of “discrimination and distinction.”

    INCLUSION IS A MUST and the time is NOW!

    Gab Norgah (Ghana Society of the Physically Challenged – New Juaben, Koforidua)

    0208125785 / 0547734007

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