(Dr. Ratzka was invited to present this paper at the European Conference on New Technologies and Disability "An Open Market" MCYT/CERMI in Madrid February 6-7, 2002 in connection with Spain's European Union Presidency, but was prevented from traveling by influenza.)
The computer has been called the great equalizer of opportunities. With computers people with disabilities would compete in the labor market with non-disabled people on equal terms. Those were the expectation in the 1980's. Today, we know that this is not the case. For one, computers have become an indispensable tool at many workplaces and what might have meant a competitive edge in 1985 has become a necessity in the year 2002. Worse, people with disabilities use computers, email and internet to a lesser degree than their non-disabled peers.
Yet Information Technology offers fantastic tools to anyone, with or without a disability. Here's an example of how organizations of disabled people and individuals with disabilities can benefit from the internet. I take you on a brief tour through the Website of the Independent Living Institute.
The Institute (pictured above) is housed in a family home in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. We are a small private not-for-profit foundation and finance our operations mainly with public grants for specific projects. Five people - including the director - work with the website part-time:
Miles Goldstick is responsible for site's overall technical functioning and site construction. He is from Canada, has a PhD in Ecology and lives in the countryside 200 km north of Stockholm.
Diane Bengtsson is responsible for html coding and other site work. She is disabled by a rheumatism-like condition and works from her home in the South of Sweden, close to the Danish border.
Sebastian Ferrer is the link exchange manager and responsible for "marketing" the site's resources. He is legally blind and works from his home in Cordoba, Argentina.
Steven E. Brown edits our occasional newsletter and looks for new documents for the library, he has a Ph D in History, is a writer, a wheelchair user and works from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA.
Adolf D. Ratzka, Ph.D., Director, has a background in research on accessibility issues and has contributed to social policy through pilot projects in the area of direct payments for personal assistance and mobility. He uses wheelchair and ventilator and works from his home in Stockholm whose study is the Institute's physical base.
Our database programming is done by a company based in New Delhi, India.
Each of the staff members works at home where he or she has all the necessary equipment and, hopefully, a quiet room. Our most important communication tool is email.
Does the example of the Independent Living Institute show that nowadays anybody with a disability and a computer can work from home and get a job?
Since the experience of disability and its social consequences is an important requirement for working with the Institute, we try to recruit people with disabilities. But we do not always succeed, because other qualifications are also required:
- computer skills (word processing, database, internet, email)
- good command of English for reading and writing
- ability to work by oneself at home in terms of self-direction and ability to structure one's time
- experience with similar work
- project-based employment contracts of 2 to 3 years or consulting contracts
These qualifications are not common among people with or without a disability. Therefore we need to look beyond Stockholm and Sweden to find our staff. Thanks to Information Technology and to the nature of our projects our geographical location has become irrelevant.
Many people, with or without a disability, would not want to sit at home with virtual collegues instead of sharing an office with real people. And, most importantly, Information Technology by itself cannot materially improve our employment situation when for most of us the obstacles on the way to the labor market consist of segregated and inferior education, segregated and inferior housing and transportation, and outright discrimination - the results of centuries of prejudice and marginalization. There are no easy shortcuts to equality and full citizenship!