A NSF Sponsored Convergence Accelerator Workshop


There are more than one billion persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the world who constitute a source of talent for employment towards the development and offering of products and services. Yet, the labor market participation rate of PWD is significantly lower than persons without disabilities. This underrepresentation is not often reflected in official statistics as many PWD are not even officially registered as unemployed. PWDs are more likely to be in a vulnerable employment situation and paid less, with women with disabilities often in a worse position than their male counterparts. The challenges faced by the disabled population in contributing equally in our society has implications not only to our economies, but also human rights, equality, equity, and diversity.

Current workplaces and the tools used therein are known to pose many accessibility challenges to persons with disabilities (PWD). Such challenges can reduce productivity, and in many cases, even prevent PWD from fully participating in the workforce. Additional challenges exist in terms of the nature of work itself and inadequate enablers within environments, organizations, and society.

Solving these challenges requires a convergent approach across not just disciplines, but also the diverse set of stakeholders that are involved. The short-term goal for the proposed workshop is to bring together an inter-disciplinary team of researchers, industry leaders, educators, nonprofits and other stakeholders to envision what current and emerging technologies can be accelerated to begin making an impact in 3-5 years. The intermediate-term goal for this workshop is to identify pathways for technology to solve or mitigate accessibility and inclusion challenges in current and emerging workplaces; these chosen pathways should be such that they can be pursued by multiple teams to get solutions at least to a prototype stage. The long-term goal for this workshop is to set in motion a paradigm shift that brings the percentage of individuals with disabilities participating in the workforce closer to the general population.

An Opportune Time

Since the beginning of the century, due to the increasing cooperation and interconnection between people and technology, there has been a transformation in not only the means of production, but also the supply and demand of products and services. Sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this transformation represents a series of significant shifts in the way economic, political, and social value is being created, exchanged, and distributed. A major reason for these shifts are new technologies, namely artificial intelligence, digitalization and blockchains enabled by high-speed communication networks. These technological developments will also shape the future of work. The technological revolution, which comprises areas such as, but not limited to, artificial intelligence, digitalization, automation, robotics, biometrics and big data is already causing major changes to the labor markets. These developments will continue to shape the jobs of tomorrow and will require very different skill sets than those that exist today. The future of work will also be impacted by cultural changes. The consequences of the ongoing technological transformation are unclear, but without proper attention, issues such as the rise in inequality will increasingly impact disadvantaged populations that include PWD. It is essential at this time to identify the challenges and opportunities provided by this transformation and prepare for a more inclusive society. With adequate attention, preparation, and tools, the technological transformation can offer PWDs improved chances of being part of the workforce of tomorrow.

Relevant Discussion Themes

Relevant discussion themes will revolve around at least the three following broad areas:

Emerging Technologies

  • Based on the nature of current and emerging work, what technologies will PWD need to be able to participate in the workforce?
  • What roles will AI, digitalization, biometrics, robotics, automation, and big data play in the design of enabling tools?
  • What new challenges are likely to arise with the introduction of more technology into the workplace and how should accessibility issues be addressed?
  • How can we ensure that, in addition to access to new technologies, there are opportunities to train them to gain confidence and skills for use in workplaces?
  • How can we encourage universal design principles to be adopted in the early stages of the technological revolution?
  • How should we keep security and privacy in mind as it relates to PWD as these future technological tools are designed?

Emerging Workers

  • What will the workforce look like in the near, intermediate and long-term?
  • What percentage of the workforce will PWD be? How will PWD participate in the workforce?
  • Will smart and connected home technologies allow PWD to work from home (solving their work commute challenges) as effectively as they can from an office environment?
  • What will work look like for the older adult population who desire encore careers but develop one or more disabilities?
  • Will future transportation, e.g., autonomous cars, improve mobility for PWD and enable them to participate in a broader range of employment options?
  • What will education and training efforts to better integrate PWD better into the workforce of tomorrow look like?
  • How will PWD compete with non-disabled workers given that there may be differences in productivity rates?

Emerging Work

  • How will society change due to the better integration of PWD into the workforce of tomorrow?
  • How will we measure overall benefits of PWD integration to society?
  • How will employers locate and hire PWD?
  • How will the technological tools created to enable PWD in the workforce be funded?
  • Meeting Outcomes

    The proposed workshop theme requires various disabilities, various rehabilitative and recuperative approaches, various organizations that serve the needs of PWD or provide opportunities, and various disciplines that need to integratively solve a part or the whole challenge, to come together. Thus, the need for convergence is clear. Disability inclusion in workplaces through technology is also clearly an use-inspired research area. The assistive technologies and tools that can be created in an accelerated fashion can make an immediate impact on a population that desperately needs such interventions to be part of the workforce for the greater benefit of society. The technology exists, the knowledge of what needs to be done exists; what is needed is a concerted effort to bring diverse stakeholders together to create a research agenda that, if pursued by various teams with adequate funding, can lead to real solutions that can be put to use immediately.

    If you have questions or need additional information, please email our organizing team at Effie Kistner

    For those interested in the disability space, there is another NSF Convergence Accelerator Workshop; see Liberate for more details.