Person in wheelchair on telephone working at computer drinking coffee

Building a Bridge to Work

Our Ability’s Robinson discusses how COVID, social justice movement have led to new opportunities for individuals with disabilities

What is ableism, and why do we need to understand it? Why might our current times offer a unique opportunity to make the world more inclusive for people with disabilities? 

John Robinson, the CEO of Our Ability, discussed these questions and shared his own story at a Zoom event, “Understanding Ableism and Fostering Inclusion,” presented by Columbia Nursing’s Office of Diversity and Cultural Affairs on October 4, 2021. Our Ability, which Robinson founded in 2006 after a long career in television, is dedicated to building employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  

The visit, though virtual, was his second to the school; Robinson delivered a talk here two years ago.  

“We’re in this interesting position of trying to engage with the disability community on stepping up, standing up, getting out, building our own self-interests and self-awareness and skill sets to be able to go out to the marketplace and find employment opportunities,” he explained, after an introduction by Vivian Taylor, EdD, associate dean for diversity and cultural affairs. 

Ableism is “a very nuanced term,” Robinson noted, “because disability engages lots of different types of people.” Like racism or sexism, ableism classifies people with disabilities as “less than,” and can manifest itself in multiple ways: subway stations that are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, language that defines a person by their disability, and microaggressions like casually calling someone “crazy” or “psycho.” 

Taylor noted: “Understanding ableism and fostering inclusion is important because every individual regardless of our differences is valuable, worthy of dignity, and respect.” She added that ableism is also often rooted in the idea that people with disabilities can be “fixed.” 

“When human beings are allowed to bring their own talents and gifts to the table, productivity increases, greater diversity in ideas surfaces, and a climate of inclusion is created that leads to a healthier working, learning, and living environment for all,” she concluded. 

Lowering barriers to employment 

The sudden shift to remote life due to COVID has led to a radical change in how we think about work, Robinson noted, while employers’ greater openness to remote work has reduced obstacles for people with disabilities seeking employment. “People with disabilities are applying to jobs they might not have applied to before,” he said.  Having your first interview for a job on Zoom is much easier from an accommodation standpoint than having it in person, for example, he added. 

While 70% of people with disabilities were unemployed pre-COVID, Robinson said, he has seen improvements locally and regionally where he is based, in New York State’s Capital Region. “I hope it trickles up to national numbers. I imagine it will over a period of the next few years,” he added. 

Worldwide calls for social justice following George Floyd’s murder have also pushed many businesses to think about inclusion in new ways, according to Robinson.  

Robinson says he’s seen companies make real changes to become more inclusive in hiring and promoting employees. “Is it perfect? No,” he added. While we’re living in an ableist world, he added, “we can all come together in the inclusive space to realize that there was a massive shift in corporate America that really hasn’t happened in society as much as I’d like to see.” 

Giving job seekers an AI assist 

Since his last visit to Columbia Nursing two years ago, Robinson noted, Our Ability has worked with information technology students from Syracuse University, using technology from Microsoft’s AI for Good program, to build out its Jobs Ability platform. Visitors can now interact with a chatbot named Abi, who helps job seekers build profiles featuring their skills and achievements, as well as the type of work that they’re seeking. The system uses machine learning to analyze skills faster and sort through job listings more quickly and effectively, he explained. “We launched it earlier this year and we have been extremely successful. We have doubled the number of companies that we’re working with. More importantly, we’ve tripled the number of people with disabilities that come into the system, that have engaged with Abi.” 

Our Ability is now working with seven regional partners in the US and Canada who will use the Jobs Ability system in their communities, and building Amazon Alexa and Google Home interfaces so job seekers can talk with Abi. Robinson plans to adapt the system so people with disabilities can use it to find information on local transportation, housing, financial literacy, and more. Jobs Ability also has a new training sandbox where job seekers can build their skills and employers can post training modules. 

In his own life, Robinson said, getting a job “was the catalyst to the life that I wanted…the house, the family, the dog that barks too much, the pickup truck that I drive, the sporting events that I go to or watch. The employment is fuel for that fire.” 

“Understanding Ableism and Fostering Inclusion” is one of a series of events presented by the Office of Diversity and Cultural Affairs to promote social justice and health equity within the Columbia Nursing community and beyond.