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Supporting people with disabilities into work with robot buddies

(Image credit: Image Credit: Praphan Jampala / Shutterstock)

Disabled people in the UK are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people according to the charity Scope. Perhaps it’s down to the fact that one in three Brits perceive disabled people as less productive.

In a country where low productivity is a serious challenge, it’s no surprise that disabled people face prejudice. This, combined with stagnant wages and higher unemployment, presents a challenging job market for disabled people who want and deserve rewarding work. And yet, this isn’t stopping them striving to achieve that aim.

Disabled people who are out of work report that they want jobs and desire more support to get them. The government is keen to help more disabled people into work, pledging to do so by 2027. The Access to Work scheme is in place to achieve this, providing financial support to employers hiring disabled people. It promises to fund “aid and equipment” as part of the deal.

The emerging technologies available

The question is, what emerging forms of “aid and equipment” are available and will they help? To the latter, the answer is a resounding yes. Analyst firm Gartner predicts the number of disabled people employed will triple due to AI and emerging technologies by 2023. While this claim was made before COVID-19, the fact remains that change is afoot. Whatever the crisis throws at us, if anything, it will accelerate the adoption of certain technologies that can help disabled people.

This isn’t just good for that cohort of workers, it’s also positive for organizations that hire them. As Daryl Plummer, distinguished vice president and Gartner Fellow explained recently, “People with disabilities constitute an untapped pool of critically skilled talent. ” By hiring them, he says, firms can gain new skills, support communities, increase retention rates among staff and boost profitability. 

Software robots to the rescue

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an increasingly useful tool that can support disabled workers. Put simply, this technology allows the creation of virtual robots that take on computer-based tasks. These robots exist within computers and can “see” what’s on screen, copy and paste information, send emails and much more. In short, they take control of the mouse and keyboard (virtually) and do manual and repetitive virtual processes.

For a disabled person, perhaps with a motor disability or impairment, this could be revolutionary. That person might be a PhD-level expert, but if they find physically controlling a computer mouse challenging, having software robots to undertake the copying, pasting and moving elements across applications would support them. They’d be able to direct their robots to complete tasks that needed doing, while maintaining full control of the overall job. It would also free them to focus on more important things, such as problem solving, liaising with customers and building more robots. 

In terms of how this might work, it’s a matter of the disabled person identifying the repetitive and tricky process within the job, recording themselves or a colleague doing it once and then allowing the robot to follow that process on demand. Plus, on the rare occasion the robot didn’t know what to do, it would ask its boss. It’s a bit like having a minion, but perhaps a thousand times more competent than Universal Studios’ brightly colored animations.

The scope to make a disabled person’s working life easier with RPA is undoubtedly huge – and solutions are being implemented across a wide range of sectors, offering new and exciting opportunities in everything from insurance and banking to healthcare and manufacturing. However, perhaps one of the most exciting prospects for disabled people is the wide range of career opportunities already existing within RPA.

It’s a skill that’s high in demand, and it can offer a career path that’s fulfilling and challenging. What’s more, with an extensive range of free training available, pretty much anyone can enter a novice and leave an aspiring expert if they have the motivation to do so.

The age-old issue of accessibility for those with disabilities is no longer an issue, and higher-level roles aren’t strictly London-based either. Building RPA solutions can be done from the comfort of your own home, toppling yet another hurdle that has too-often prevented ambitious people with disabilities from securing the roles they deserve.

At UiPath, we’re continually learning, creating, and collaborating to develop intuitive solutions that change the realities and challenges of employment for people with disabilities – and offer greater career opportunities for them too. We recently built a solution that supports visually impaired people by converting image-based emails into speech, helping them gather full understanding of the email. Launched through a keyboard, our solution performs background automation using Google API and lowers the dependency of those with visual impairments, allowing them to interpret the email and get on with their day.

Levelling the playing field

Robots should be built to work with, rather than against, employees – especially those with disabilities. This is something exemplified by Specialisterren, a Dutch company specializing in software testing and test automation. Founded by Sjoerd van der Maaden, whose son has a form of autism, the company is built upon the idea that people with autism can fulfil their talents – and achieve career success, economic independence and personal growth – when nurtured in the right setting. The skillset of those with autism fits well with building robots, and as Ernst Kolvenbag, commercial director of Specialisterren, discussed, RPA can help bridge the gap for those usually distanced from the job market.

This has certainly been the case for Daniel Munnings, managing director of Munnings Software Solutions. Born with arthrogryposis, a non-degenerative condition limiting the movement of his wrists and elbows, Daniel’s disability meant that repetitive or strenuous physical work was out of the question. Although RPA wasn’t his first career choice, he soon found the sector to be unique in its ability to put disabled people on a path to real progression.

He recently explained: “RPA has true potential to make the lives of those with disabilities easier, and it certainly became a way of life for me. Many people wouldn’t think of it as a tangible option, but with a wide range of free training on offer and the ability to work remotely, RPA can provide a career ladder free from limitations.

“And while many companies across the country now offer accessibility features for disabled employees, these solutions can often have their flaws. Anyone with a disability can do RPA, and with intuitive solutions and communities on offer, workers don’t need to look far for support. RPA is not only making certain jobs much more accessible for disabled people, it’s becoming a career path that puts disabled people on a level playing field with their able-bodied peers.”

An obvious investment

It sounds futuristic, but RPA technologies are available now – and are being used by some of the world’s largest businesses to support staff. With government funding available to provide these tools, there’s an opportunity for organizations wanting to tap into the latent talent pool represented by disabled people.

RPA also presents itself as a serious career opportunity for people with disabilities, offering not only the flexibility, progression, and support that other roles often lack, but most importantly – a level playing field.

It’s important for recruiters to see the person and their skills when hiring, not the disability. Because if disabilities can be overcome through assistive technology, the overall impact could be a highly productive workforce of bright, capable people, teamed with a shadow workforce of robots.

Perhaps it’s the future – and not just for disabled people. A robot for every person – and the productivity to match.

Chris Duddridge, Area Vice President & Managing Director UKI, UiPath (opens in new tab)

Chris Duddridge, Area Vice President and Managing Director of UKI, UiPath.