Success in STEM

Technology Matters: Creating Usable Working Environments

By Gladys Loewen, Project Consultant Photo of Gladys Loewen

The explosion of electronic technology along with the switch from analogue to digital format has created a unique opportunity to expand beyond traditional methods of reading, writing and communicating. Technology, including assistive technology (AT), offers the opportunity to enhance the design of the workplace to create flexible, inclusive environments for a broad range of employees. The primary purpose of using AT is to enhance capabilities and remove barriers to performance based on function rather than a specific disability (Illinois Assistive Technology Program, 2005; Zabala, 1990). In fact, AT can offer the best and sometimes the only way for people with disabilities to perform certain job related tasks that non-disabled employees do in other ways (Illinois Assistive Technology Program, 2005; O’Halloran, 2009).

Employees come from a range of diverse backgrounds that include differences in disability, race, religion, language, family configuration, education, age, and community involvement. This diversity has required employers to establish flexible approaches to hours of work, religious holidays, cultural attire, and childminding. Now it is time to establish flexible approaches to hiring employees with disabilities (Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, 2007). Assistive technology creates opportunities to remove some of the traditional employment barriers for disabled persons by:

  • Reducing the dependence of persons with disabilities on human support for reading, writing and communicating (Barclay, Lilburn, Loewen, Nobel & Tomassetti, 2002; Burgstahler, 2003);
  • Increasing productivity (O’Halloran, 2009);
  • Promoting empowerment (Burgstahler, 2003; Zabala,1990);
  • Offering greater participation in the workforce for disabled adults (Illinois Assistive Technology Program, 2005; Loy & Batiste, 2008).

Using AT to perform work-related tasks is considered an employment accommodation. The definition of employment accommodation includes any modification or support that allows employees to perform tasks which includes the alteration of architectural building features, adaptation of work procedures, reorganization of job duties, and provision of necessary tools to perform job tasks (Illinois Assistive Technology Program, 2005; Minister’s Council on Employment for Persons with Disabilities, 2004).

A Canadian government report on employment equity noted that employers have been more proactive in providing accommodations to persons with disabilities, especially those with physical disabilities (Human Resource and Skills Development Canada, 2005). Employers have offered equipment and devices such as large screen monitors and voice recognition software as well as made building modifications to improve access for individuals with disabilities; however this report did not offer statistics on how employers have implemented the use of assistive technology to enhance job performance. A British Columbia study on recruitment and retention of persons with disabilities identified inadequate workplace accessibility, accommodation, and employment supports as key issues (WCG International Consultants, 2004). Disabled employees are expected to multi-task and handle multiple roles in order to perform a job and retain it. Without access to appropriate AT and training on how to use it to perform job related tasks, disabled employees may find it difficult to obtain and maintain employment. Student users of AT typically utilize basic features of their technology to do research, access the internet, send email, and format text documents in order to do their coursework. However on the job, they may be required to share appointment schedules, respond to customers, use a spreadsheet to manipulate real numbers, organize numbers for a report, utilize relational databases, use accounting software, make decisions on the information, and perform tasks in multiple settings. Different AT may be required to perform these work-related tasks.

An assessment of the employee’s skills as well as the software and hardware used within the company may be necessary to determine the appropriate AT for an employee. The Job Accommodation Network identified five steps in determining the appropriate AT to enhance job performance (Loy & Batiste, 2008):

  • Define the situation: Determine what job functions need to be accommodated by evaluating the individual’s work site, work station, and work activities and job requirements;
  • Explore available AT options: Consult with the employee to identify experience with AT, knowledge of options, and proficiency with AT options and software used by the company;
  • Choose AT: Consider compatibility, local technical support, warranty, training, and upgrade options when finalizing an AT plan;
  • Implement AT: Consider configuration of the equipment, training, and setup of workstation in order to maximize the use of the equipment;
  • Monitor and upgrade AT: Monitor the effectiveness of the technology to ensure that the AT is meeting the needs of the employee and employer. Over time the equipment will require maintenance and upgrade, so this needs to be factored into the monitoring process.

Another key to employment success is the design of the environment. An inaccessible workstation without the appropriate tools positions an employee with a disability for failure; this situation puts the focus on the disability as the source of the problem rather than the design of the workplace environment. Disability scholars and researchers promote the principles of universal design (Burgstahler, 2003; Illinois Assistive Technology Program, 2005; North Carolina State University, 1997) and the Social Model of Disability (Gill, 1994; Oliver, 1990) as these paradigms reframe disability by removing the focus from the person’s impairment, shifting the problem to the design of the environment and the removal of barriers in the environment. These paradigms shift old assumptions that disability is the individual’s problem toward a revised focus on the creation of environments that are usable by the greatest number of people. This new view of environmental design reduces the pressure on the disabled person to fit into an inflexible environment and the need for individualized accommodations. This perspective assumes that:

  • Persons with disabilities fall along a continuum of differences rather than constituting a separate category of learners and workers;
  • Employer adjustments for differences should occur for all employees, not just those with disabilities;
  • Job processes should be made flexible to accommodate worker differences; and
  • The person designing and creating the environment is responsible for making it sustainable, equitable, inclusive and usable.

Since technology is so commonplace in our society today, it is appropriate to explore ways in which technology can be used to increase employment opportunities and promote greater independence for disabled employees. The following solutions are not exhaustive and are meant to stimulate ideas and strategies in order to promote the creation of useable, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable working environments for a diverse group of employees:


  • Employees who cannot read the screen during a presentation can receive the presenter’s PowerPoint file prior to the meeting and follow along with the PowerPoint on a separate laptop during the presentation.
  • Colleagues can post meeting notes on a website to reduce the need for notetaking assistance during company meetings.
  • A lapel mic can be used to record a speaker’s presentation; it can be posted on the website as an audio file for later use or distributed through email. This eliminates poor quality recording of lectures by employees due to the quality of the mic or the distance from the speaker. Smart board technology offers the opportunity to transfer written notes to the employee’s computer for future use.
  • A PDA can be used for notetaking, scheduling, communicating, and documenting reference information.
  • A digital camera can take a photo of a complicated math or science formula or problem for review at a later time.
  • An employee can record a lecture directly on a laptop using special software without having to carry another recording device. The audio files can be saved and managed for future use.


  • Using a soundfield system during meetings and presentations allows employees who have difficulty with hearing, concentration, attention, and understanding language to hear the speaker more directly by reducing the noise to sound ratio.
  • Digital assistive listening devices (ALD) can be attached to many digital hearing aids, making the use of an ALD less obvious and more practical.
  • An employee with speech difficulty can use a computer with a speech output system to do an oral presentation. Alternatively the employee can give the oral presentation and provide a print copy of the outline or document, allowing participants to follow along during the speech.
  • Email and instant messaging options allow a person with speech difficulties (deaf, non-verbal) to communicate with colleagues without the use of an interpreter or another person.
  • A PDA can be used by deaf employees to contact interpreters for changes in work schedules, meetings, appointments, and other situations that require interpreting services. This eliminates the need to access a TTY (telephone for the deaf) or use of a message relay centre.
  • The use of remote captioning transmits an audio presentation over the Internet to a computer used by a deaf employee for a meeting when a local captionist is not available.
  • A portable phone amplification system offers increased hearing with any phone.
  • A vibrating pager can be used to contact with a deaf person in a noisy environment like a factory or laboratory.


  • Mac and PC have accessibility features built into the operating systems that include options such as simple text magnification, screen reader, cursor enhancements, key latch, and keyboard input options. The user is able to customize the settings to meet individual needs for reading, writing and communicating.
  • A language master (hand-held spell checker with pronunciation) can be used when access to a computer is difficult; this ensures that employees with spelling difficulties can produce better quality of written work when away from a computer or a print dictionary.
  • A scanning pen can assist with obtaining the pronunciation and definition of a word while doing research in the library or away from the office for persons with language difficulties.
  • Portable CCTV (closed circuit TV) systems provide employees with vision difficulties the ability to read print documents in multiple environments.
  • E-text books and manuals provide the ability to read documents on MP3 and e-text players in any location.
  • Talking dictionary and thesaurus software programs are useful for employees with a variety of learning or language difficulties.
  • A talking calculator ensures that employees who experience difficulty with print to read the numbers accurately, reducing human error in mixing up numbers.
  • Audio recording of a print document is useful for employees who have difficulty following print instructions.
  • Adapted rulers and measuring tapes can be used to measure accurately with oversized, bold numbers and lines or auditory output.
  • A Braille labeller provides the ability to label items for ease of access.


  • The opportunity to email documents to work colleagues reduces the need to use a printer and carry the printed documents for persons with hearing difficulties, visual impairments and physical disabilities.
  • Organizational software programs provide templates and visual maps to assist with organizing ideas to support the writing process for writing reports and briefs.
  • Text-to-speech software allows for options such as word prediction, highlighting words that are being read, talking dictionary, spell-check, and auditory output.
  • Braille notetakers allow for spell-checking for homophones, names, places, and foreign words.
  • A refreshable Braille display allows for accuracy in reading scientific or mathematical material and equations.
  • Specialized math software allows for dictation of math and science problems into a word processing document for struggling writers.


  • The employee can use a headphone for privacy when using technology with speech output.
  • A refreshable Braille display offers the employee the ability to read confidential material in front of a client while maintaining privacy.
  • Baffles around a workstation offer increased privacy for employees who get distracted easily or need a quiet workspace.


  • Videos and virtual reality programs can offer virtual experiences for employees who are unable to physically perform the task but need to understand how the task is done.
  • Training sessions and meetings can be videotaped and posted on websites for future reference and review; this is also useful for employees who are unable to attend due to illness, health issues or family crisis.
  • Company manuals can be put into digital format in order to use AT for reading the documents.

Ergonomic Options

  • Alternate keyboards and mouse options can be used to offer different angles, reduce repetitive actions, and provide efficiency of reach.
  • Height adjustable tables allow for customization of workstations.
  • A document holder reduces the requirement to hold books and documents and offers an ergonomic angle for reducing tension on the neck.
  • A raised edge around work station prevents items from rolling off.
  • A swivel chair offered ease with face-to-face communication.
  • Good lighting optimizes eye strain and facilitates speech reading.
  • Headlamps offer targeted lighting allowing the person full use of their hands.


As technology devices change and evolve, strategies for using technology on the job advance and improve, allowing a diverse population of disabled adults to achieve increased success on the job and participation in the workforce. Effective and supportive employers allow for opportunities to incorporate technology in new and innovative ways. Blackhurst (2001) sums it up by saying that “while ability to use a technology device is still important, primary emphasis should be placed on arranging circumstances to enable the device to be used in the most effective and efficient manner.”

By changing the design of the job environment to support the diversity of employees, employers will ensure that employees are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a flexible and inclusive environment. Technology matters in ensuring disabled employees have the opportunity for full participation in the workforce.

“There is no question accommodations can be expensive depending on the severity and type of disability and the individual; however employers who experience accommodation will say it’s priceless (e.g. adaptive equipment). I don’t think employers understand technology available – when they become aware, they are blown away. For example, regarding accommodation of two quadriplegic employees at a provincial crown corporation – the employer was amazed at the technology available.”
(Minister’s Council on Employment for Persons with Disabilities, p. 22)


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