Updated: Jun 3, 2021
In the conversations currently taking place about the economy, one theme is clear: we’re in the middle of one of the greatest economic and social shifts in at least 100 years. Exponential technological change, new workplace flexibilities, and remote work and training are increasingly neutralizing biological, physical, and geographical differences between workers. These changes are also accentuating the long-term value of a diverse workforce, creating the circumstances in which the workplace can be totally reimagined for everyone. While technological change has always been coupled with the disruptive displacement of workers, displacement in this particular paradigm shift includes displacement of those job functions that are the most physical, manual, repetitive, and rote. People with disabilities are vastly overrepresented in labor market sectors that rely on these same job functions. Yet, today’s growing industries require workers who can problem-solve in team environments, learn new technologies quickly, work from anywhere, and use their emotional intelligence to collaborate. In the future, flexibility and knowledge will continue to be valued over rigid constructs of physical proximity and productivity. Stephen Hawking famously said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” The economic conditions of this global shift call for thinkers like those with lived experiences of disabilities. What’s at Stake Employment is the most powerful social determinant of health. A worldwide pandemic has reminded us in stark terms that wealth and health are inextricably linked. We also know that global crises like climate change and environmental injustices, unequal access to healthcare, education and caregiving, malnutrition, unjustified institutionalization, over-incarceration, lack of living wages and exploitative working conditions can adversely affect people with disabilities as well as create disability. These problems can be intercepted with meaningful work and measurable improvements in economic participation. Correspondingly, if the 1 billion+ people with disabilities globally are not at the table to negotiate what role they will play in the next century of work, they risk being excluded altogether from new technologies and innovations that have the power now—more than ever before in world history—to dramatically improve their wealth and health. The risk for people with disabilities if they are not at the table is that work, technology, and the labor market will be made more efficient, better designed, and more accessible—for some people, not all. This will lead to consequences for everyone, from widening inequality and increasing poverty to increased costs for publicly funded systems. Indeed, this was the original sin of the last century of employment. Worldwide, the labor market incorrectly assumed that the presence of disability meant a lack of employability. The aptitude for work of many people was (and still is) often misjudged on the basis of medical labels. Instead of merely asking, “Who can do this job?”, we need to inquire whether the design of the job itself places an unnecessary damper on who could perform it. What the Consequences of Inaction Are There is a multi-trillion dollar hole in the worldwide economy where disability labor should be. When it comes to work, humanity continues not to live up to its full potential. We do not even know what innovators and innovations we’ve left out. We can only begin to imagine what products, services, or solutions are out there and may be adopted by the multi-trillion dollar consumer market if entrepreneurs with disability-led solutions can access flexible risk capital and the right kind of business support. The opportunity loss is enormous. It’s time to look for the next great revolution in work. We can do this together by creating better designed, or “smart,” jobs, via investment and support in new skills training, innovative work-related technologies, and giving founders with disabilities access to venture capital. Funding for Early-Stage Companies and Entrepreneurs is Urgently Needed
Large companies like Accenture have caught on to the value of inclusion: they know that diverse workforces and more inclusive workplaces actually increase the long-term value of businesses. Yet large companies alone cannot possibly absorb the sheer number of talented people with disabilities who want to work, grow their own companies and ideas, and contribute. For example, nearly 99.9% of all businesses in the United States are small businesses, and they employ approximately 60 million people. The same trend extends globally, playing a part in the crisis-level unemployment experienced by people with disabilities across the world population. Therefore, a bottom-up strategy is urgently needed. Given the lightning speed of tech innovation and its rapid changes to the way we work, it is an unimaginably high risk not to begin to reinvent work more inclusively now. To do this, we need people with disabilities, and those with disability-led solutions, to be the designers.
The labor market is ripe for disruption, for disability-led innovators to not just participate but to lead the movement to reimagine work, so that it offers workers of all stripes the greatest flexibility, autonomy, and social contribution potential, as well as the opportunity to build equity and wealth. Interested in investing in solutions with the power to close the disability wealth gap? SmartJob is on a mission to transform the labor market by leveraging the power of disability innovation. Sign up now to get new posts delivered directly to your inbox.