A New Recipe for Creating an Inclusive Future of Work

If you were hosting a dinner party to discuss the future of work, who would you invite? 

Given that the changing nature of work has become the subject of significant public attention, the choice would be difficult. Fuelled by the accelerating rise of technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence, business leaders are grappling with the reality that people may not hold the skill sets that jobs will one day require; philanthropies and investors are pooling capital to bring economic revitalization to communities left behind by declining industries; and public sector leaders are debating which policy levers will ensure the United States remains globally competitive. With so many voices in the conversation, the choice of who comes to the table can be a daunting one. 

But asking, who should come to the dinner table, is actually the wrong question. The right one? Who should take part in cooking the meal? 

The case for inclusion: the under-tapped potential of the disability community

Alongside fellow advocates, Shane Kanady has spent over a decade fighting for people with disabilities to be included in the labor force. As the Vice President of Workforce Development at SourceAmerica, a non-profit that creates employment opportunities for people with disabilities, Shane knows that the disability community is often left behind when thinking about workforce development policy. He adds: 

All too often, people with disabilities are an afterthought in the formation of policy and programmatic interventions.

With a transforming global economy, the importance of addressing the needs of the disability community are as urgent as ever. Since 1990, the percentage of people with disabilities participating in the labor market has decreased by more than 50 percent. Today, just 30% of people with disabilities ages 16-64 are employed, compared to 74% of their non-disabled peers, leaving 10.2 million working-age people with disabilities out of the U.S. labor market.

The rise of under-employment among the disability community has serious consequences, not just to our economy and to one’s earnings, but to one’s fulfilment, connectedness, and community. People with disabilities are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation, which is exacerbated when people have reduced access to the human connections afforded by work. 

However, the future of work present both risks and opportunities for many people with disabilities. Automation, for example, will disproportionately impact jobs with a high degree of routine tasks. This may acutely impact people with disabilities because access to higher-skilled, non-automatable work is often limited by stigma and biases. Many facing job displacement will have to learn new skills or travel farther to access new types of work, demands that already pose obstacles for many people with constraints such as limited physical mobility.

Yet, other types of technological advancement could stand to benefit people with disabilities. Assistive technology – such as voice recognition and screen magnifiers – can improve visual, auditory, cognitive and mobility barriers experienced by some people with disabilities in the workplace. 

The rise of contract and gig work is yet another example of both opportunity and risk posed by the changing nature of work. Online platforms that connect freelance workers to employers could open doors to people whose disabilities might otherwise limit access to traditional workplaces. Yet, absent new ways to ensure these platforms are user-friendly and that non-traditional workers can access benefits that are typically provided only to full-time W-2 employees, people forced into the contract and gig economy could experience additional economic vulnerability.  

From theory to action

So, how do policymakers and other change agents ensure the future of work is actually inclusive? Let’s return to our dinner party scenario. Those invited only to the dinner table can’t affect the meal – perhaps only adding salt and pepper to mask an already bland quiche. But those invited into the kitchen can, instead, make critical decisions about the meal’s ingredients – perhaps advocating for a vegetarian option in a kitchen dominated by meat-eaters. For the future of work to open pathways to economic opportunity for historically under-represented populations, policymakers must open their kitchens to the co-creation process. 

The ‘get-your-hands-dirty’ approach to problem-solving is central to the work of organizations like the Lab at OPM, a human-centered design laboratory housed within the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The Lab helps organizations across sectors respond to challenges by putting people at the center of the problem-solving process. Designing interventions with people, rather than for people, re-invents the conventional process of policymaking and program design. This new human-centered recipe relies on experience as well as expertise and co-creation rather than consultation

If you design for people, rather than with people, it’s a recipe for disaster and it could be totally rejected by the populations you think you’re serving. – Shane Kanady, SourceAmerica

The Lab at OPM and SourceAmerica recently teamed up to put this human-centered approach in action. Their Immersive Design Studio brought together public officials, community organizers, and advocacy organizations (the impacts of disability were represented throughout each of these groups) to both map the employment-related systems most subject to transformation and design interventions to create an inclusive labor market. From hiring practices to transportation access to education and media representation, the team of diverse participants unraveled the intersecting ways that the future of work might come to life for the people like those in the room. 

It comes down to trust

This method of problem-solving aims to improve trust between those who have the power to enact change and those who stand to benefit from that change. Rather than a removed process of policymaking, co-creation opens the invitation of participation beyond the discussion table and brings experimentation and design into the kitchen. 

How the future of work will take shape for people with disabilities remains to be seen, but re-inventing the old recipe books of policymaking may give traditionally overlooked people a voice in how we get there.