Main content

International Day of Persons with Disabilities - why the tech sector has a lot of work to do to level up

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett December 3, 2021
In the first of this two-part series of features to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we explore what the employment situation is like for disabled people in the tech sector.


Disabled people are the world’s largest minority group, currently accounting for around 15% of the global population, or the equivalent of one billion people, according to the World Health Organization.

But while this figure is rising steadily as a result of population growth and medical advances which mean that people are living longer, employment levels are still low. The United Nation’s International Labour Organization estimates that nearly two thirds of disabled people of working age are unemployed, and are twice as likely to be out of work as those without disabilities.

To make matters worse, more disabled people than any other group either lost their jobs or left the workplace at the height of pandemic last year, a report from Intel entitled ‘The Future of Inclusion in an Evolving Workplace’  revealed. Some 54% of the 3,136 business leaders from 17 countries around the world admitted that people with disabilities had been disproportionately affected in this way, even though 37% attested that disability and accessibility is a priority in terms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) expenditure.

The situation does appear to improving somewhat though, with the numbers of disabled people in work in developed countries, such as the US, and UK on the up, not least due to widespread skills and labour shortages across their wider economies. As Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive of not-for-profit membership organization Business Disability Forum, puts it:

Business is realising it can’t afford to overlook any part of the talent pool, so there’s a real opportunity to reframe the narrative. It’s about accessing talent and bringing something new to the business so they’re finding they can’t afford not to take disabled people seriously.

Work remains to be done

Moreover, as Og Maciel, a Senior Software Engineering Manager at IBM’s open source software subsidiary Red Hat, who was born with arthrogryposis, a neurological disorder, points out there are distinct advantages to broadening out the talent pool:

There’s a strong correlation between a diverse and inclusive environment and innovation as it creates more opportunities for people to take risks and experiment, which is important in the IT world. It’s what sets you apart from others and gives you competitive advantage. I see a strong drive in Red Hat to ensure psychological safety so that people can bring their best selves to work, and one of the outcomes of this push is that more people are coming out and sharing about their disabilities too.

But while disability is further up the DEI priority list than it used to be, there is still a lot of work to be done, believes Lightfoot:

It’s higher up the DEI agenda than it’s ever been in my 18 years of working in the area, but disability is still the poor relation. People are nervous about getting it wrong in a way that’s not so marked in other areas, although that is changing because movements like the Valuable 500 have done a great job of winning high-level hearts and minds. But you really can’t say you’re ‘diverse’ if you don’t include disability – it’s not an either/or situation.

Some specific areas of the “disability world”, such as mental health, have gained in profile due to both the pandemic and celebrities talking about their own life situations, she acknowledges. The same applies to neurodiversity, where there is more understanding of the “strengths and skills that lie in difference”, Lightfoot says:

All of these things help to drive disability up the agenda, which is important as it’s not going to go away – it’s part of the human condition. In the UK, 18% of working age people are disabled, but for those aged 65 and over, the figure rises to 44%. So as the population ages, disability can and will happen for many of us, especially as we all hope to live longer and expect to work longer, so there’s also a piece around staff retention.

But Sascha Dietsch, Product Security Associate at SAP in Germany, who is on the spectrum, believes there is still some way to go for neurodiverse people to be fully accepted in the workplace. While he describes SAP as a “role model” in DEI terms, he believes much of the rest of the industry has work to do:

Mainly because people with disabilities in general are seen as either physically or mentally handicapped – at least here in Germany. If you add the prejudice people have about autism, it’s hard to get employed. My personal gut feeling is that it’s mostly lip service because people like to be around those who share their own beliefs and values. That results in the high unemployment rate [of people on the spectrum].

Entering the tech sector

As to how Dietsch found employment himself, he attended one of SAP’s Autism at Work program events in November 2018 having completed his Masters in cybersecurity. He was given an internship while working on his thesis, before being taken on this summer as a permanent staff member with the support of the Austism at Work team.

Maciel, however, is optimistic that the widespread move to remote working among knowledge workers during the various pandemic-based lockdowns has made it easier for many people with disabilities to access work. He explains:

The pandemic levelled the playing field for anyone with access to a faster internet connection and the ability to interact with others. It helped as people don’t need to leave home and so don’t need special accommodations. It’s definitely improved opportunities for everyone - during an interview, I’d go so far as to say that people can’t see the true person behind the screen, which means the first impression is that you’re just like them.

A key problem in this context is the “stigma” associated with physical disabilities, Maciel says:

There seems to be a widespread belief that physical disability affects your mental capacity. Early on in my career, for example, someone said to me that they weren’t sure how I was going to do a certain job as it required brains - even though I have a degree in biochemistry - but they’d give me a chance. So there’s a tendency to associate a disability with an inability to do a job, which means that people are facing a barrier right there.

He personally entered the tech sector by contributing to the open source community as a hobbyist in the mid-1990s, using Internet Relay Chat to communicate with other developers around the world. As Maciel says:

When working in open source, people’s exposure to you doesn’t generally start with your physical appearance or a picture. It’s about your contribution as the code you write or the things you build speak for you. By the time I changed careers and entered the tech sector, I’d already built up a reputation - I was quite prolific with blog posts where I talked about trying new things and showing what open source could do. And I got my first tech job in 2006, which was with a closed source software engineering company, when a guy I met at an open source event recognised me from the blog and said ‘come work for us’ as he appreciated my work and could see past my physical appearance.

The second part of this two-part series will explore what employers can do if they wish to recruit and retain disabled workers more effectively.

A grey colored placeholder image