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The most valuable person you haven’t hired yet

People with disabilities are the original hackers. You should hire them.

The most valuable person you haven’t hired yet
[Photo: Kiwihug/Unsplash]

When you think about disabled people, strength and independence probably do not come to mind. But those of us who live with disabilities must be doing something right. Thirty percent of the U.S. workforce has some kind of disability. That’s a lot of us, many of whom are also living on our own.

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And we’re valuable for a reason that you probably haven’t thought about. The basic definition of a disability is that we all have some way in which the world does not work for us. And we have to figure out new and innovative ways to do things other people take for granted: eat, get dressed, and brush our teeth. We’re the original hackers.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
This constant need for innovative ways of navigating a world that wasn’t designed for them may explain why some 75% of professionals with disabilities report having an idea that would drive value for their company (versus 66% of employees without disabilities).

In 2017, 18.7% of people with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7%. It’s time to debunk myths about hiring people with disabilities so we can bring more value to your business.

My journey on this road started when I was 22 and diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Since then, both of my arms have become paralyzed. But today, I live a very active New York life. I have my own apartment. I go to work every day. And I cofounded Open Style Lab at Parsons, which seeks to make stylish, technology-enabled wearables for people with disabilities. Among other things, I’ve helped invent socks that work with iPhones and a unique phone holder that I can work with my feet.

I’m far from alone in this kind of innovation. While there are many examples from the past, in the modern era, Vincent Cerf was hard of hearing, and that inspired him to push for the invention of email. Wanda Díaz-Merced, who is a blind astronomer, developed a system for turning large data sets into sound—a development that sighted astronomers today use. And I have little doubt that those two innovations were merely two of countless ways they’d figured out how to interact with the world.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
To show you what I mean, I wanted to share some of my top hacks that enable me to live on my own. Below you can find a number of tasks you probably learned as a child, but that I had to relearn or remake in my own way so that I could live life the way I wanted. I hope this will show just how inventive you have to be when you have a disability.

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1. Getting dressed. Even though I can’t use my arms, I get dressed every day by myself. I do this by using an Ikea bed with bedposts. It’s a bit of a trick, but when you do it every day, you can even put on something like a hoodie. I also have strings sewn into my pants that enable me to get them on and off using the bed as well.

2. Tooth brushing. You’d be surprised what you can do with your feet. I have a device I created that enables me to put toothpaste onto a brush, and then I can brush my teeth with a foot.

3. Lights and more. Most of the basic technology in my apartment is set up with voice controls. I did need help setting these things up, but now I can turn on lights, adjust the thermostat, select a radio station, and so on simply by talking.

4. Breakfast. When you can’t use your arms, most of your appliances end up on the floor. But I can make a bagel in a toaster oven or work a microwave quite easily. To eat, I use an Obi robot that controls forks and spoons for me. It’s great when you want to eat out with friends.

5. Getting to work. Like most New Yorkers I rely on the subway to get from here to there. To do this I use Swipe, a device I worked on with students Estee Bruno, Julia Liao, and Claudia Poh (credit goes to them). It made it to the final round of judging in Fast Company‘s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.

6. Using the phone. I have a great hack for this one. I have a little handbag that holds my phone. It has keyrings that are attached to flexible cords that enable me to move the phone to the floor and type with my feet. I also have socks that have conductive thread sewn into them so that I can use it on cold days.

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7. Work. Here, Dragon, a speech-to-text program, is a huge help. I have also learned to type with my feet, so I can use an iPad. I even have an Apple Watch that unlocks my computer when I approach it. But the most important thing I’ve learned is to be very upfront about what I can and can’t do with my colleagues.

8. Shopping. How do I pay for things? I always keep my credit cards in my shoe so they’re readily available if I need them.

9. Going out. The key here is planning. I have to make sure my friends know when I’ll be arriving. That way, if there are any challenges in the environment, I’ll have help.

Of course, none of this means I’ve got it all figured out. Hacking is hard and takes time. Right now, for example, one of my big challenges is how to design a device that lets me put my hair in a ponytail. That one isn’t easy, and it’s just one of many more challenges I have in mind to solve.

I hope I’ve made it clear that people with disabilities have to be inventive by necessity, and hacking is a skill that you develop over time. So the next time you’re thinking about trying something new, you might want to look to us for help. We’ve already done this innovation thing a million times.


Christina Mallon is an account supervisor at POSSIBLE and a board member of  the Open Style Lab at Parsons.

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