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Disability Tech: Increasing Opportunities to Close Equity Gaps and Serve the Underserved

by Megan Wery, Senior Associate, Education Innovation Ventures

March 19, 2024

Today, an estimated 1.3 billion people are living with a significant disability, and in the U.S. and European Union, people with disabilities represent 1 in 4 adults. However, this statistic is likely much higher, as fear of disclosure, negative stereotypes and stigmas, and lack of knowledge around what disability is, leads many to not identify or choose not to disclose their conditions. In fact, almost 90% of all disabilities are hidden and not apparent. While some strong progress has been made in recent years to support people with disabilities, there’s overwhelming agreement that a lot more can be done.

One change that’s long overdue is helping people with disabilities overcome barriers to education, skills training and career paths in the workplace.

Case in point: Education rates for students with disabilities are often far lower than for students without disabilities. In 2019, high school students served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) averaged a 67% graduation rate, compared to the overall 84.6% completion rate.

Equity gaps for individuals with disabilities are also prominent in the workplace. In 2022, only 21% of people with disabilities were employed, with a median salary of $30,885, significantly lower than the median U.S. income of $42,609. These disparities and inequalities are even further exacerbated for those that come from marginalized communities, such as communities of color. Within work and education systems built for ableism, employers and institutions have often failed to meet basic needs for this community, such as communication tools, transportation and critical social services.

New trends, same barriers
In some ways, the pandemic opened new doors for jobseekers with disabilities. Historically, people with disabilities had been limited to part-time jobs, often frontline worker positions that provide greater flexibility to manage needs.

However, the shift towards more remote and hybrid work options today has provided jobseekers with disabilities new opportunities to participate in the economy with better accommodations and a more flexible work environment, which is especially crucial for people with ambulatory or cognitive disabilities.

In recent years, the U.S. has seen the highest participation of people with disabilities in the workforce. Yet flexible job options are just one part of the equation. Once hired, people with disabilities face additional barriers around accessibility and accommodations, as well as potential impacts on mental health and a lack of inclusivity in workplace culture.

It’s time for change—and ECMC Foundation is making bold investments to help it happen.

Disability tech can be a game-changer
As more people with disabilities enter the workforce, there is a new opportunity to create assistive technology that can better support employees in their pursuit of long-term careers. Advances in technology—including mobility devices as well as hardware, software and peripherals—are making huge strides to improve the lives of people with disabilities. With the rise of Generative AI, possibilities for more accessible technologies are now more attainable than ever. For example, people with cognitive impairments that impact their ability to read or write could benefit from voice recognition, speech-to-text or image-to-speech conversion, adaptive text and AI-assisted notetaking tools in an office environment.

Until now, this rapidly growing sector—called disability tech—has been an overlooked multi-trillion-dollar global market (bigger than China) though it’s a throughline for the entire global population. As people age and the rate of non-communicable disease rises, the global disability community is expected to rise 130% (to 3.5 billion people) by 2050—making the need for solutions in disability tech even stronger.

Our investments in new learning platforms
Consistent with our mission to improve outcomes for underserved populations, ECMC Foundation recently invested in Making Space, an accessible learning experience platform that identifies, pre-qualifies and trains talent with disabilities for corporate roles. The Company’s mission is to bridge the unemployment gap and create new career paths for workers living with a disability.

After her own personal experience of losing work due to disability discrimination and lack of accommodations, founder Keely Cat-Wells was motivated to create Making Space and provide a platform for greater representation of talent with disabilities in the workforce.

Making Space: How it works
Working in collaboration with employers, Making Space develops highly accessible, high quality training modules filled with curated insights to address knowledge gaps and support a smooth transition into employment.

Making Space is currently focused on roles in media and entertainment such as VFX, animation and digital media. The Company prioritizes providing jobseekers with the skills and education they need for career growth and mobility that they have historically not had access to.

Within their platform, jobseekers experience high quality, interactive and digitally accessible courses that are beyond standard accessibility compliance, including features such as audio transcript, sign language options that can be toggled on and off, closed captioning with color adjustments and audio descriptions for information that isn’t described or spoken.

Leveraging network partners such as nonprofits like the National Federation of the Blind, Making Space ensures more people with disabilities are given better opportunities to earn family-sustaining wages and achieve career mobility.

Creating new pathways to employment
Today, the Making Space platform provides value by bridging the gap between talented, qualified jobseekers with disabilities and employers seeking more diverse candidates.

This approach accelerates hiring cycles, aligns job-candidate matches and boosts retention, which is important because onboarding new employees can take up to six months and often involves team productivity loss during that time. Making Space aims to reduce that burden by supporting training ahead of hiring, so employees are already equipped with role-specific knowledge.

Notably, Making Space recently partnered with Netflix to create new accessible pathways into entertainment through graphic designer roles. Historically, barriers like prioritizing stamina over skills, lack of existing connections and location have blocked entry for designers with a disability. The Making Space platform focuses on developing relevant industry knowledge, tailoring training directly to Netflix’s design standards and creating new, tangible pathways to employment.

A bright future with promising possibilities
As the product solution evolves, more opportunities for customized educational programs will evolve, increasing opportunities for new and incumbent employees of all abilities to upskill and obtain family-sustaining wages.

Going forward, ECMC Foundation is confident that disability tech platforms like these will continue to evolve and expand. These solutions will go a long way toward closing equity gaps across workplaces, postsecondary education and K-12, while opening new doors of opportunity for people with disabilities today, tomorrow and in the future.

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