Disclaimer: The statements in this post are not generalizations; many people with intellectual disabilities are still able to perform highly at technologically based jobs. Additionally, this post is not intended to discount the numerous intellectual abilities that people with intellectual disabilities do have.
This past weekend, I got a text on my phone from a random number. As everyone does when they receive a text from an unknown number, I had a bit of excitement and curiosity. As I opened the text on my phone, I saw a familiar message, and couldn’t help but smile. “Hey Linds, it’s Peyton”, it read. My younger brother, Peyton, who I had become accustomed to communicating with through Facebook Messenger after he got his first Facebook account a few months ago, had just sent me a text on his first cell phone. For most people, texting their siblings is a normal, daily occurrence, but for me, and for Peyton, this was a major milestone. Peyton is 18 years old, turning 19 in July, and has an intellectual disability called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. For the purpose of this article, an intellectual disability (ID), will refer to a disability characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior that become apparent before the age of 18 and are life-lasting. More specifically, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome is a rather unknown developmental disorder that affects approximately 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 30,000 newborns a year. This disorder is characterized by short stature, intellectual disabilities, physical abnormalities, distinct facial features, and behavioral conditions. While Peyton’s case is mild, cases of the disorder can be severe, causing significant physical disabilities and shortened life span. Because of his condition, Peyton is increasingly reliant on care and support from family and teachers and will be for the rest of his life.
Recently, Peyton started working at a pool club near our home, helping with basic tasks such as kitchen work and food running. He also does similar tasks at a restaurant near our home as part of a special education program through his school. He’s hardworking, patient, and diligent, and I hope (but highly doubt) that I will enjoy going to work once I graduate as much as he does. Because of his work schedule, my parents found it necessary to give him a cell phone. This was a difficult, but necessary decision. While it is challenging for Peyton to navigate a cell phone more complexly, as well as recognize the responsibility behind owning such a device, it was necessary for him to be able to stay in contact with my parents when outside of the house. Those with intellectual disabilities often are disconnected to the scale of digitization that we experience on a daily basis because, while technological adaptation for those with intellectual disabilities is entirely possible, it requires a multitude of cognitive skills such as visual processing, auditory processing, selective attention, and logic and reasoning, all of which are of increased difficulty for an individual with an intellectual disability to develop. Because of this, like the elderly, those with intellectual disabilities are facing a significant technology gap and are often disregarded as digitization continues to rapidly grow.
For example, a study from Influence Central conducted in 2016 found that, on average, kids get their first smartphone at 10.3 years of age, a number that has likely decreased significantly over the past three years. Because of this, young children are being exposed to the responsibility and experience of owning a smartphone at earlier ages than ever before, significantly increasing their adaptability to and awareness of tech and digital innovation. However, Peyton does not fall behind his peers only in the sense of smartphone ownership. Not only are children owning smartphones at a young age, they are also owning tablets, personal computers, and video game consoles, and spending ample amount of time on them. The digitization of our society results in increasing social and occupational isolation of those with intellectual disabilities because advanced understanding of tech is developed and enhanced over the early years of their peers’ childhoods.
While the digital competency of current adolescents provides a distinct advantage in the professional world, as jobs are becoming increasingly automated and tech focused, the careers that Peyton, and others with intellectual disabilities rely on are threatened. An article from McKinsey discussing digitization and automation states that humanoid robots such as Honda’s ASIMO, one of the world’s most advanced humanoids, are “stirring existential anxieties about the future of human labor itself and the potential for major job dislocations by automation based on artificial intelligence”. The jobs referred to in this article, as well as countless articles discussing this risk of automation, largely relate to clerical and administrative work, jobs that are necessary for people like Peyton to make a living. Because of the technology gap previously mentioned, those with intellectual disabilities are often ill-prepared to perform highly at even routine jobs due to the increasing utilization of technology. However, now the existence of these routine jobs is even threatened. Additionally, aside from career opportunities, the increasing prevalence of technology in our everyday lives, such as self-checkout in a grocery store and mobile ordering, is often something that we adapt to subconsciously, taking for granted the digital competency that we have been developing from a young age.
Peyton’s story is not simply anecdotal. According to the Special Olympics, 6.5 million people in the United States and 1-3% of the global population have an intellectual disability. While digital innovation is providing ease and simplicity in many factors of our lives, the technology gap it creates is making jobs that those with intellectual disabilities rely on more difficult to navigate or obsolete. As a result, those will intellectual disabilities are facing social exclusion, something that can only be combated by actively creating opportunity, rather than destroying it. To facilitate this, tech giants, such as Apple and Google, should consider developing assistants within their devices to guide users through their experience, better teaching them the various functionalities of the device and their potential usage. Widespread usage of assistive technologies such as screen readers, voice recognition, switch devices, and reading assistants all make technology more approachable and adaptable for those with disabilities. Additionally, education systems should encourage the use of basic technology from a young age, despite intellectual ability, to better prepare for technological adeptness in adulthood. Furthering these efforts will better expose those with intellectual disabilities to technology and make them more advanced users, therefore becoming better prepared for the future use of technology in their respective career spaces. Finally, employers should provide environments that facilitate the participation of those with intellectual disabilities, and by doing so, broaden our consideration of the people we begin to leave behind as we eliminate jobs and turn towards a world of automation.