Access to Economic Opportunity

As 2014 winds down, I can’t help but think about the future of computing and our economy. In just five years, analysts predict that only half of the jobs in STEM careers will be filled. The U.S. is facing an overwhelming gap between the number of STEM jobs and the talent needed to fill them. STEM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, is a set of disciplines that “are part of a critical cycle of economic growth fueling the economy and creating more downstream jobs”.[i]

Instead of contemplating the future, let’s be mindful of today and change this trend. A lot of emphasis has been placed on getting girls and women excited about STEM education and careers and rightfully so. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 57 percent of bachelor degree recipients are women, however, only 26 percent of computing professionals today are women.[ii]

Let’s be mindful too of another group underrepresented in this story. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.6 percent of persons with a disability were employed in the United States in 2013[iii]. With assistive technology now so mainstream, it’s time to change these numbers. Let’s include everyone in this opportunity to help close the overall STEM employment gap.

Today we all talk to our phones or have our email read to us without batting an eye. We read the news using the captions on overhead monitors in a noisy airport and zoom our photos so we can see all the details. These are all basic examples of assistive technology. This same technology is essential for persons with disabilities to access information, receive education and start a challenging career in a STEM field or in particular, in Information Communication Technology (ICT) which makes up 49% of STEM careers.[iv]

One of the fastest growing areas of ICT is Data Analytics. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, demand for deep analytical talent in the U.S. could be 50 to 60 percent greater than its projected supply by 2018 (300,000 projected talent, 440,000-490,000 projected need).[v] That’s just 3 years from now.

In July 2010, President Obama signed Executive Order 13548, putting in place practices to hire 100,000 persons with disabilities and measures to retain employees who become disabled during employment. This raises the bar for all employers. Suppose a veteran who is skilled at data analysis becomes injured during service to our country. Wouldn’t you want that same veteran with his or her skills and experience bringing their expertise to the table? By ensuring our data analysis systems are accessible to all, we ensure that the top talent can contribute their ideas and provide the best solutions to keep innovation and our economy moving forward.

Screen readers have been available for decades but now are commonplace. They read on-screen content to blind and low vision users, as well as the rest of us, allowing access to data that may previously have required sight or visual acuity. IBM began developing speech recognition applications in the 1950s. Now speech recognition is so advanced, we use it daily to instruct our devices or answer questions on the phone. For people who have a motor disability or injury, speech recognition provides them a pathway to access critical systems to get their jobs done. Captions and transcripts allow people who are deaf or hard of hearing access to education and training and the ability to participate in online meetings. Captions also assist foreign language speakers in understanding content by providing content in a form that is complementary to any audio they may find difficult to follow.

In addition to including more persons into the labor force to help fill the gap in STEM disciplines, we need to continue to include our aging workforce as more people are working beyond retirement age. As we age we are faced with challenges in sight, hearing and mobility and yet our knowledge and experiences drive innovation and educate a younger workforce. Assistive technologies along with preferences for large fonts, high contrast and easier access ensures our aging population can continue to be a factor in an innovative and competitive workforce.

The trend is clear, with assistive technologies becoming common-place in our daily lives, more of the population has access to essential information, allowing all the best talent to be included in these challenging STEM careers. Let’s continue to be first in innovation and fuel the country’s economy by providing access to information and systems to all including the best and brightest talent for the job.

[i] “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” National Academies Press, 2010.

[ii] “Women and Information Technology by the Numbers,” National Center for Women and Information Technology, 2014.

[iii] “PERSONS WITH A DISABILITY: LABOR FORCE CHARACTERISTICS – 2013,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014.

[iv] “HOW TO FIND (AND KEEP) STEM TALENT,”McAward and Raftery, Kelly Services, Inc. 2012.

[v] “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, 2011.


Technology Talent Initiative,” Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, 2014.

Rising above the gathering storm,” National Academies Gathering Storm committee, National Academies Press, 2010.

Women and Information Technology by the Numbers,” National Center for Women and Information Technology, 2014.


How To Find and Keep STEM Talent”, McAward, Tim and Raftery, Megan, Kelly Services, 2012.

STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Admin, 2011.

Occupational employment projections to 2018,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010.

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, May 2011.

The STEM Workforce: An Occupational Overview,” Department for Professional Employees, AFL CIO, May 2012.

Working Beyond Retirement Age –US Census,” Holder, Kelly A. and Clark, Sandra L., U.S. Census Bureau Housing and Household Economics Division Labor Force Statistics Branch, August 2, 2008.

“Office Diversity and Civil Rights Newsletter Quarterly e-Newsletter,” US Customs and Border Patrol, February 2011.

This blog post is based off a presentation at the Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference CSUN Center on Disabilities 2013 by Holly Nielsen and Maureen. For the latest version see Access to Economic Opportunity v1.2.

About the Author

Maureen (Moe) Kraft is a Technical Consultant for IBM Accessibility in IBM Research where she provides education, training and software development techniques to ensure IBM’s assets and products are accessible to people with disabilities. She is an active member of the W3C WCAG Working Group and the Boston a11y group. She received a B.S. in Computer and Information Science from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA and has been a software engineer at IBM and Lotus Development for 25 years specializing in accessibility.

Learn more about the IBM Accessibility, which works to establish IT accessibility standards, shape government policies, and develop human-centric technology and industry solutions so that all people reach their highest potential in work and life.

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“This blog post and postings on this site are of my own opinion and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.” – Moe Kraft