Chickens and Eggs

Can you imagine a demographic group in the US sitting still for 75-88% (depending on the definitions used) unemployment? I don’t need to imagine it, because I’m part of such a group.

Of course I’m talking about people with disabilities. Or, as they are more commonly called, disabled people. To me, it’s academic what label is attached to the group. What matters to me is the relationship between this group and society as a whole. We are largely silent to levels of discimination that would have Blacks still rioting in the streets. Why is that?

That’s a difficult question to answer, partly because so many factors are involved. I think it has to begin with the group itself. We don’t generally see ourselves as a group with a common set of needs and goals. That’s understandable, to a degree, because you can ask ten disabled people what their needs are and get ten different answers. It’s true that the details of our needs vary with the specifics of our disabilities as well as our situations. Yet, we can’t deny that we do share a set of core needs, and chief among them is the need to be able to earn a decent living, and access to tools truly capable of enabling us to accomplish that goal and effectively participate in society. Working for a living isn’t just a way to get money, it allows us to improve our self-worth by being productive members of society.

Sadly, though, most disabled people aren’t even trying to find work. They sit in homes, barely getting by on government subsidies, and essentially wait to die. That’s not a pretty description of their circumstances, but it is fairly accurate. Being able to earn money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly opens up more possibilities! And, if you’re capable of understanding what I’m saying, there is something productive and employable that you’re capable of doing. This wasn’t always the case, but it is today thanks to computers.

The other requirement for meaningful employment is having tools that work well. There are numerous examples of tools that miss the mark. If you’re like me and need computer assistance to talk, you probably already know there’s nothing currently accepted in the augmented assistive communication market that is capable of carrying on an abstract conversation with a total stranger in nearly real-time. Not even the mighty Dynavox, at $15,000, can meet the last requirement. I was hired by Shell Oil because someone owed someone else a favor. But, I stayed with them for 14 years because I had the programming skill to create a text-to-speech solution they found quite palatable. That’s where the chicken and eggs come from. It seems you can’t get employed without the perfect tools, and you almost have to be employed in order to develop what you really need. The AAC market is very resistant to new ideas.

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