Following the death of Stephen Hawking last week, the world is taking a thoughtful look back at the many incredible contributions he made to the body of science. In 1973, Hawking began applying the laws of quantum theory to black holes. His work led to a paradigm shift in the scientific community and his widely read book, “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes” demonstrated that black holes – which were thought to have a gravitational pull so strong that light could not escape them – weren’t black at all. Instead, black holes have a lifespan and eventually dissolve over time to release small light particles during a final burst before collapsing into oblivion. Hawking did all of this after receiving a diagnosis of ALS, that eventually reduced his ability to control his muscles and communicate by voice. Towards the end of his life, Hawking communicated with a cheek switch that tracked minimal muscle movements that then mapped onto a speech generating device attached to his wheelchair. He believed deeply in the importance of work, writing that “work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.”
Hawking is an incredibly unique case, but he reminds us that there are millions of people around that world who are driven and motivated to work, but are unable to do so because of institutional barriers and continued stigmas surrounding disability.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among individuals with disabilities is over two times the national unemployment rate. Millions of Americans are willing and able to study and work, yet, they are lacking a facilitating bridge that will enable them to communicate their thoughts and ideas in a manner that most of us take for granted – verbal communication.
“Two of our folks interviewed for different jobs recently but didn’t get them because they couldn’t be understood”
There is an incredible yet simultaneously unaddressed need for solutions that restore communication channels for all individuals. In the US and Europe, a combined 10.4 million people suffer from speech disabilities, and 8% of all children suffer from a consistent or temporary communications disorder. Cerebral Palsy (CP) affects nearly 700,000 children and adults in the United States, and 90% of individuals with CP will face verbal communication challenges. Although employers could be doing a much better job, encouragingly, employment rates among individuals with CP are higher than the national average spanning across all disabilities. Roughly 20% of people with disabilities of working age are employed, but it is estimated that about 32% of working age individuals with CP are employed. Employment rates are even higher for individuals with CP between the ages of 20 and 24 – with just over half in the US having found employment.
However, despite recent progress, a quarter of employed individuals with CP still feel significant situational barriers in the workplace. Additionally, finding the job is only the first hurtle. Individuals with speech challenge are also severely underemployed. A survey of Assistive and Augmentative Communication (AAC) users in the US was only able to locate 25 respondents who worked 10 hours or more per week.
Becky Adams, a Speech Language Pathologist at United Ability in Birmingham, Alabama, works with individuals with unique abilities and is deeply aware of the challenges associated with connecting people with the right job opportunities. Adams highlighted this remarking that “two of our folks interviewed for different jobs recently but didn’t get them because they couldn’t be understood.” These individuals are motivated, bright, and ready to work. Yet, they cannot land a job because they require alternative means of communication.
No AAC? No Communication
Samantha (name has been changed) has CP and works as a Horse Stable Attendant. Her primary responsibilities include looking after the horses, feeding them, and cleaning the stables. She excels at her work and loves spending time around horses. There is just one problem – if a colleague or peer asks her a question, it can take her up to five minutes to produce an answer. Why? Because Samantha has a speech impairment and uses a Speech Generating Device (SGD) to communicate. Her device, which is the size of a laptop, is thousands of dollars and cannot be kept near the stables. If someone wants to communicate with Samantha, she must stop what she is doing in the stable, run to the office, unlock her SGD, bring it back to the stable, and manually input her response into the device. This entire process can take minutes – and slows down Samantha’s ability to communicate and work effectively. More frustrating still — just because it takes a little extra help for her to communicate verbally — it doesn’t mean she has nothing to say.
Many individuals with speech impairments who are working and are using SGDs (or Assistive and Augmentative Communication devices [AACs]) must already be “really good communication users,” according to Adams. In other words, these individuals already have a lot of experience using a device and have a job that allows the SGD to be nearby. Yet, this restricts both the types of jobs open to people and the overall number of people who can find jobs – since only one in ten individuals who needs a communication device actually has access to one.
The most common barriers to employment for individuals using AAC devices include AAC system barriers and negative societal attitudes towards AAC.
Many people report feeling frustrated at the amount of time it takes to communicate feelings and thoughts with an AAC device. Employers also understand this challenge. With one writing that “’In group situations it is easy for the AAC user to get ‘stepped on’. They really need to work extra hard.’” Challenges like short battery life, size, weight, and technology limitations are all felt by AAC users in the workplace. For individuals working with their hands, or in jobs that have them moving around a job setting (like a kitchen or factory), carrying an AAC is nearly impossible. However, Adams notes that “many of them already have mobile phones in their pockets.”
What if individuals could tap into the power of voice recognition through a device they already own – like a mobile phone or a tablet?
Next level communication
While AAC devices are incredible tools that facilitate communication, and help individuals communicate thoughts and desires, they can add additional barriers to the already high walls surrounding employment opportunities.
Voiceitt is a company working to reduce these barriers through machine learning and artificial intelligence that recognizes non-standard speech and can translate it in real time. Employers have often expressed concern about hiring AAC users for jobs, citing fears that include time management, qualification requirements and productivity. One study showed that a reoccurring concern among employers was a user’s ability to “fit in” with the work culture environment.
While the world could be doing much more to educate people about inclusion and AAC use daily life, the ubiquity of mobile phones opens up pathways that are more visibly recognizable to people less familiar with alternative communication.
Faith Baker, an Employment Services Coordinator at the Resource Center in western New York, has over 20 years of industry expertise and argues that communication at work is very important. “If [AAC users] were able to go to an employer with a device that worked, or have something that provided them with the opportunity to communicate with coworkers during break time, when they otherwise could not, then that would lead to an increased level of social connection and independence.”
A new era for accessibility
After years of promises, the world is finally entering a highly advanced age of voice and speech recognition. Millions of people worldwide now use voice assistants like Siri and Google to connect and communicate, but these innovations are not accessible to everyone. That is why Voiceitt is working to make speech recognition universal in order to reduce barriers, eliminate stigmas, and promote inclusion. The company is already testing its technology in five languages in four different countries, and looks forward to releasing its first commercial product at the end of 2018.
Hawking has written that “I hope to raise the profile of science and to show that physics is not a mystery but can be understood by ordinary people.” There is little doubt that Hawking made great progress in reaching his goal, but he also contributed a great deal to the advancement of disability awareness as well. As we progress towards making technology more accessible for everyone, we hope to see continued progress in the area of employment in which employers put stigma aside and get creative about communication!