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How tech means jobs ahead for kids with cognitive disabilities

Individuals with intellectual disabilities have it particularly rough when it comes to getting hired. Here's how some are addressing the problem.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon
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This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

As a special education teacher at a public high school in Philadelphia, Michele McKeone prepared students with autism for life after graduation. But she quickly discovered a glaring hole in the curriculum: a complete lack of digital literacy.

When the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than half of all jobs require some degree of technology skills, that's a problem. McKeone feared her students were destined for menial, low-wage positions, if they could get any jobs at all.

McKeone saw an opportunity to use technology and project-based learning as a way to teach important technical skills, as well as foster the ability to think critically, solve problems and live independently.

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Michele McKeone, a former special education teacher and founder of the educational software startup Digitability, works with a student in an autism support class in Philadelphia to help teach him digital skills.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

She quit her job last year to focus on her startup, Digitability, developer of an online curriculum that teaches those technical skills. Initially, it was called Autism Expressed, but she changed the name after expanding the program to kids with other cognitive disabilities. Her program, which has won several technology contests, is being used throughout the Philadelphia School District, where she used to work, and in schools in several other states, including in New Jersey and California.

Her program is just one way individuals and companies are working to give people with cognitive disabilities a better shot at succeeding in the workplace with higher-skill jobs. Efforts range from promoting more technology education to companies and employers expanding how they look for talent. They help to dispel the misperception that individuals with intellectual disabilities aren't suited to be in tech.

These initiatives address a real problem. The unemployment rate for all people with disabilities is nearly twice the rate of people without disabilities, according to the US Labor Department. People with cognitive or developmental differences, such as autism or Down syndrome, are even worse off.

"Most of us want a meaningful job, and people with intellectual disabilities are no different," said Gary Siperstein, director of the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "But in spite of tens of millions of dollars spent on programs for better outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities, the needle hasn't moved much."

There's reason to be optimistic. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 requires schools and state vocational rehabilitation agencies to provide transition services to students with disabilities to help them find "meaningful work." Agencies must allocate at least 15 percent of their federal funding toward such transition efforts. This push from the feds could help spur more schools to think about including digital and computer skills in their curriculum and transition plans for students with disabilities.

Getting tech in their hands

McKeone is both a pioneer and an evangelist when it comes to getting technology in the hands of children with cognitive disabilities. While schools often see the value of providing technology as a way to assist students with disabilities, it's been a harder sell convincing them that people with cognitive impairments should learn skills like web page development and coding.

Even learning how to use the most basic online apps can have a huge impact on people with cognitive differences. For instance, Google Calendar is the mobile equivalent of the wall calendar that many students in special education use to stay on task.

Digital media lets many students showcase their skills in a way that may not be apparent in traditional assessments.

"I just wanted to teach them everything I learned in art school," McKeone said. "We live in this world where everything is digital and they should be able to participate in that."

The program, designed for middle and high school students, includes 250 separate lessons that use research-based approaches for breaking down concepts and teaching skills in explicit steps. The lessons offer short videos with animation to introduce no more than a couple of concepts at a time. Students are continually asked to demonstrate their knowledge and are rewarded with virtual badges.

The curriculum gives them a foundation to build skills that can be used in the workplace. It's divided into four modules and teaches skills like using Gmail and social media, as well as advanced tasks like coding.

McKeone plans to work with companies to develop certification programs so that Digitability can be tailored for specific workplace skills.

'Food, flowers or filth'

Training people with intellectual disabilities to work with technology is the best way to prepare them for jobs outside of "food, flowers or filth," said Jonathan Lazar, a computer science professor at Towson University in Maryland. Lazar is referring to food service jobs, basic landscaping and janitorial work.

But there needs to be a change in how people perceive people with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism.

"There is this gap in perception, where school boards or rehabilitation service coordinators see providing tech training to people who are blind or deaf as useful, but for people with cognitive impairments they say, Why bother spending the money?" he said.

Lazar has been involved in several research studies looking at how people with Down syndrome use and interact with technology. He found that they're detail-oriented and often more able than their neurotypical peers to quickly decipher Captchas, the scrambled-letter challenge-response tests used online to determine whether a user is a human or a computer bot.

As a result, he said, individuals with Down syndrome are good candidates for many jobs in the IT field, including data entry or web content management.

Companies such as Microsoft and SAP, meanwhile, are beginning to look at the strengths, rather than focusing on the weaknesses, of some individuals on the autism spectrum. The companies have begun tailoring their job applications and hiring practices to recruit people with autism who have technical skills their companies need, but who may never have made it through the interview process because they have quirky social behaviors.

In 2013, SAP committed to recruiting 700 people, or about 1 percent of its workforce, in this way. Microsoft announced a pilot program in 2015 to hire people with autism at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Companies like accounting firm Ernst & Young are following their lead.

While experts such as Lazar are happy that companies are focusing on the strengths of a group of people who are usually overlooked, McKeone is bothered that these companies are focusing only on the abilities of a small subset of people on the autism spectrum who may be considered to have greater intellectual capacity, rather than taking a broader approach that looks for ways to incorporate people of all cognitive abilities into their workforce.

"There are roles that people with intellectual disability can fill in many businesses, if they have the right training and support," she said. "I'm trying to raise the bar to make sure everyone is taught these important skills."

Putting skills to use

Kate Bartlett, a 31-year-old woman who has Down syndrome, is an example of this theory in action.

Kate Bartlett, who has Down syndrome, has been working as a benefits assistant at Aquent for 11 years.

Mark J. Hunt/Disability Images

Nearly 12 years ago, Bartlett's father, Larry, went to his colleagues at Aquent, a staffing agency in Boston that places creative and marketing managers, and asked if they'd hire his daughter on a trial basis. Since then, Kate has been working three days a week on the human resources benefits team and is in charge of processing the company's COBRA health care benefits for former employees.

"I've been writing my whole life and I am a very good typist," Kate said.

Bartlett, who was exposed to computers in high school, is constantly finding new tasks to take on, according to Jennifer Horton, vice president of human resources for Aquent.

"Regardless of whether they have a disability or not, you give people tasks and see how they do with it," Horton said. "If they struggle, it's the manager's responsibility to find out why and make it better."

The point is Bartlett isn't the outlier. As more jobs in our economy move in this direction, it only makes sense to train people with intellectual differences and technology skills.

"There is clear path to better jobs when people have computer training," Lazar said. "The only thing limiting them is the perception that they can't use technology."