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Disability in the workplace: More than new technology is needed

Disability in the workplace: More than new technology is needed

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Eiríkur Bjørnsson /

Can new technology, and mainly digitalisation, help people with disabilities do better in the labour market? A new report from the Nordic Welfare Centre is not optimistic.

The report “New technology and other digital solutions for increased inclusion in the labour market” was written by Jan Gulliksen from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology with Stefan Johansson and Mia Larsdotter from Begripsam. They write that technical and digital skills are needed in all jobs and workplaces. The development is accelerating.

“As the development took off, the hope was that digitalisation in particular could have an equalising effect. In other words, what used to be a physical and inaccessible society should become a far more equitable society.” 

But so far digitalisation does not appear to have led to any such major changes. 

The authors

Stefan Johansson, Mia Larsdotter and Jan Gulliksen have written the report on new technology and disabilities. 

“When it comes to labour market participation, people with disabilities were a disadvantaged group before digitalisation and there is so far nothing to indicate that digitalisation has changed that in any meaningful way,” write the report’s authors. 

New technology to help make work easier or to increase productivity in various ways is being developed all the time. Yet if people with disabilities are to be granted greater opportunities, the gap between them and people without disabilities must be narrowed.  

“Since all other groups have also improved their digital skills, the relative position between the groups has not changed,” the authors therefore conclude.

There are several explanations for this. Most of the technology developed for people with disabilities is targeted at a specific disability – for instant vision or hearing, navigating your surroundings, reading or writing or understanding social communication. It is rarely dealt with in a holistic manner.  

Many different areas of technology 

The report covers a range of different areas of technology, including:

Artificial intelligence, apps, exoskeletons and prosthetics, virtual reality, hearing technology, cloud-based technology, robots and robot technology, smartphones, language technology, smart home technology and eye control systems.

Haptic braille

The disc emits signals that can be felt like points in the palm of the hand. A more hygienic way to read braille, argues the University of Bayreuth, which has tested the technology on blind people. Photo: YouTube/University of Bayreuth.

There is also less well-known technology, like haptic interfaces. This technology makes it possible for users to feel, touch and control virtual objects in a way that makes it feel like they are handling physical objects. A research group from the German University of Bayreuth has for instance developed this kind of technology in order to read braille without touch. 

Other examples are Sensor-Tech, a smart stick using AI to recognise objects and people, which can also warn of obstacles ahead, and OrCam, which represents a new generation of assistive tech where smart technology combines what used to be several different aids. This product can help the user by reading text aloud or by recognising objects and faces.


OrCam comprises an optical reader which can be attached by magnets to a pair of glasses, or it can be hand-held. It only weighs 22.5 grams. Photo: OrCam. 

Limited studies of various innovations often concluded that experiments show positive results on an individual level. But most technological innovations do not make it to the labour market as assistive technology in the workplace.  

The authors of the report turn the question around: Should it always be the person with a disability who adapts? 

“You could also argue that new technology should be used to adapt the workplace so that employees with disabilities do not have to rely on aids,” they point out. 

Self-driving wheelchair

One example of technological development where assistive tech can be used by everyone is the self-driving wheelchairs now being tested at airports around the world. The wheelchair finds the gate by itself, before returning, sans passenger, to its docking station. Photo: Whill. 

Compared with the major efforts being made to make people’s homes easier to manage, there is not all that much being done to make workplaces function well.

“Many people with disabilities are outside of the labour market. This means the need to introduce aids and assisting technology is often not very obvious. At a particular point in time, there might not be anyone in a particular workplace who would benefit from such technology. 

“People with disabilities might also choose not to come forward. It is not a given that an employee will tell about their problems or that they are motivated to solve them through the use of technology. It is striking how little input people with disabilities have in the ongoing technological development.”

What can be done?

All the Nordic countries have now closed their assistive technology institutes. The overarching level of knowledge disappeared with them, as well as a clear division between what constitutes an aid and what is a consumer product that everyone can use.

“A large proportion of respondents to the 2019 survey Swedes with disabilities and the internet said they considered their smartphone, computer or tablet to be their most important aid. But neither of these are defined as assistive tech in any of the Nordic systems.” 


One example of a product that is solely defined as assistive tech is Itongue. This is a contraption with 18 sensors that sits in the user’s palate. One sensor is secured to the user’s tongue with a piercing, and this allows the user to control the palate unit. But in many cases, the line between assistive tech and a consumer product is blurred. Photo: TKS.   

“It would be very difficult to claim that a smartphone, for instance, should be available on welfare as an aid, even if a modern smartphone’s software will offer loud reading of text, support for hearing aids and other functions which, if they had to be bought as separate aids, would cost more than the smartphone,” point out the report’s authors. 

Their advice for how new technology could be better used to improve the working lives of people with disabilities is centred on the fact that more cooperation is needed, as well as the need to revive a more coherent model for identifying the need for aids, develop these and help products get a foothold in the marketplace. 

The authors also point out that regulations covering what can be subsidies by the authorities are too rigid.

“It does not work when society, on the one hand, sees the potential of the technological development and want more innovation while sticking to a system which maintains the status quo, or when changes are made to who has the right to get the cost of their aid covered every time a new budget is presented. That is why we want to highlight the importance of having generous systems.”


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