Sunday, January 2, 2011

Chicago technology group works to give more employment opportunities to people with disabilities

From The Chicago Sun-Times:

A business model that empowers leaders, develops teamwork and promotes a strategic vision is part of a Chicago technology group’s efforts to network, update members’ skills and gain greater employment opportunities.

Steven Luker (pictured), a Portage Park native who lives in Wheaton, says the group, called ITKAN for IT Knowledge Abilities Network, has introduced him to new opportunities and given him greater confidence to “get out there and talk to people in the industry.”

The methodical effort sounds like that of many Chicago business networks. Yet ITKAN advocates for people with disabilities — some profound enough to require extra efforts to overcome others’ preconceived notions.

Luker, who has lived his entire life with severe spastic cerebral palsy, communicates with the manual alphabet, part of the American Sign Language, and with the aid of a netbook and a computer.

Luker has written brutally honest columns online about how he feels pigeonholed at times by potential employers who don’t see his capabilities and who assume he would work for minimum wage.

He is out to change those perceptions by taking a leadership role in ITKAN.

“As a person with a disability, I realized it’s time to network with people in business — an opportunity I wouldn’t ordinarily have,” Luker said. “I get to meet people and have them leave with a completely different opinion than their first impressions.”

Besides gaining contacts, Luker wants ITKAN members to be known as “go-to” workers with specific tech skills, such as quality assurance and testing, Web and mobile app development, and supporting Microsoft SharePoint, a business collaboration platform, to help drive the platform’s adoption and maintain its websites, passwords and document integrity.

The group intends to train members or point them to training opportunities in other technologies, too, such as working with Web 2.0 technologies and business management software and using social media strategies to support businesses. ITKAN hopes its members can also recommend how today’s e-books, mobile apps and Web graphics can be developed in new ways to meet the needs of people with a variety of disabilities.

“It’s our hope to present consistent, valuable candidates to the business community, with every expectation that our candidates will be successful,” Luker said.

The strategy is borne out by research. A report published in the December issue of the “Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation” revealed that employers in the Midwest “were not overly enthusiastic about people with disabilities as reliable and productive employees.” Despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is 20 years old, the employers in the survey didn’t include disabilities as an active part of their efforts to diversify their workplaces, the study found. The study authors included researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The recession has meant far greater pain for people with disabilities than for their non-disabled counterparts, with their employment rates plummeting at a level more than three times that of workers without disabilities, according to a report by the National Organization on Disability. Indeed, the unemployment rate stood at 14.5 percent in November for people with disabilities, compared with 9.8 percent for those without disabilities.

The Midwestern researchers recommended that training programs for people with disabilities make wholesale changes by identifying skills that are in demand and recruiting and training people with disabilities to fill those needs, rather than waiting on companies to help people with disabilities find jobs.

ITKAN is relying on an innovative business strategy to reach its goals. Called POWERSHIP, the strategy springs from Chicago-based Inpact Insights, a division of SPR Companies, a 38-year IT solutions and services stalwart based at the Willis Tower. SPR employs about 220 at its headquarters, plus 50 consultants and contractors in the Midwest. SPR has led the way in training and advocating for people with disabilities, with CEO Rob Figliulo creating nAblement ( as a division within SPR dedicated to training, mentoring, networking and placing people with disabilities into tech roles.

Figliulo, who understands the situation firsthand because his daughter, Katie, has cerebral palsy, received recognition for his and SPR’s initiatives at the recent Jewish Vocational Services’ Strictly Business Networking Luncheon.

The POWERSHIP process typically focuses on chief information officers at private companies, helping them lead IT organizations into laser-focused teams who increase their returns on investment within three months of implementing the process.

“It means delivering on-time and on-budget, making the team aware of branding and transforming the team into owning major cultural change,” said Kathie Topel, vice president of Impact Insights and an author of a book on the subject. “IT teams end up saying, ‘No longer can we be technicians who are content that the computers are running fine. We need to be acting at an executive level, being ‘game changers’ by participating in innovation and differentiation and coming up with ideas to improve our brand and make money.’”

Powership comprises an agile practice, a software development philosophy that upends traditional project management decision-making by empowering agile teams to create their own solutions and make changes to projects on the fly based on real-time feedback.

ITKAN leaders have developed a strategic plan through 2014 that emphasizes member initiative. One of the goals calls for ITKAN, which meets on the second Thursday evening of each month at the Microsoft Technology Center in the Aon building, to set up a boot camp in conjunction with the Illinois Technology Foundation to turn ITKAN into a pipeline of IT workers that in turn would jump-start members’ careers, said Pat Maher, managing director of nAblement and founder of Knowledge Now, an in-house consultancy aimed at ensuring companies are culturally equipped to hire qualified candidates with disabilities.

Maher, a Westmont resident who has lived much of his adult life with a spinal cord injury, was the first employee of rehabilitation technology startup Sigmedics in the late 1980s before it went public, and who enjoyed a successful medical-technologies sales career. He has placed 70 nAblement participants in jobs with companies in Chicago and Milwaukee, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, PepsiCo, Northern Trust, Snap-On Tools and Wolters Kluwer.

SPR’s Figliulo said great strides have been made in education, transportation and building access, but people with disabilities still face obstacles from corporate types whose bonuses depend on an IT project’s outcome and whose fears and lack of cultural comfort cause them to balk at hiring a person with a disability.

“Being in a wheelchair shouldn’t matter [in terms of hiring],” Figliulo said. “But it does. There is no sinister motivation. Both sides [potential employee and employer] are victims of low expectations.”