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For the disability community, tech is the great equalizer

Welcome to Tech Enabled, a new series chronicling the role tech plays in providing new kinds of accessibility.


When it comes to technology, we're often obsessed with the latest and hottest gadget or app.

Here at CNET, where we breathlessly jump from writing about Apple's iPhone 7 one day to trying out Sony's PlayStation VR the next, we know all too well what it's like running on that hamster wheel.

What gets lost at times: the less conventional innovation happening on the periphery of the tech world. These are advances that may only help a small number of people, but they're the kinds of breakthroughs that can change lives.

"Technology is allowing people to do things and access things they could have never imagined before," said accessibility consultant Kevin McGuire.

That's where our new Tech Enabled series comes in. These stories highlight and chronicle the role that tech plays in meeting the particular needs of the disability community or ensuring that something many of us take for granted -- such as simply using a phone -- is an option for everyone. The goal is to bring attention to an area that too often gets ignored.

As October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, what better way to kick off Tech Enabled than with a series of stories looking at how tech factors into how people find jobs and succeed at them?

For many people with disabilities, that's not always so easy. The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 8.7 percent, or nearly twice the rate of people without disabilities, according to the Department of Labor. More worrisome, the percentage of those with disabilities participating in the labor force is just 19.8 percent, compared with 68.7 percent for those without disabilities.

The Labor Department's Jennifer Sheehy has spent her career fighting for more accessibility.

Kevin Kennedy

"The low number reflects people not even looking for jobs, which comes from decades of not having access," said Jennifer Sheehy, the deputy assistant secretary for the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Sheehy, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1994 and has spent her career fighting for accessibility, has seen a "remarkable" increase in participation from tech companies like Microsoft and Oracle.

Sometimes a gain could come from little things like making sure an online job application site has a simple, straightforward design and employs contrasting colors for people with visual impairments.

Web and app developers are starting to understand the value of ensuring more people have access to job resources, according to Josh Christianson, director of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Our first story features a startup using face-tracking technology to let the physically impaired use a phone without their hands. Another looks at the different perspective a blind worker brings to the development of a product. The series will also tackle hot tech topics like virtual reality, as well as a different kind of coding camp -- one that helps children with autism develop skills that can later land them programming jobs.

You'll see a series of stories running over the next two weeks, but that won't be the end of Tech Enabled. We will regularly update this section with more features as new tech emerges.

There is, after all, a wide spectrum of areas in which tech can offer a lending hand. CNET will be there to shed light on those innovations.