Of the 1.3 billion people worldwide living with a disability, approximately 1 billion are working-age. Historically, it is much harder for those with a disability to gain employment, which can hurt the lifestyle of persons with a disability by preventing access to the enrichment many find in their work. Beyond the moral argument, the economy suffers when this many people are excluded from the workforce. In 2017, $143 billion (about 1% of the United States’ GDP) was put towards disability insurance, and that is only the U.S. spending. In addition to the potential savings possible from reduced disability insurance, there is also the opportunity cost-saving potential. The positive impact would be both significant and powerful if a few hundred million previously unemployable people were able to join the workforce. Only about 40% of working-age people with a disability in the U.S. are employed, compared to almost 80% of non-disabled working-age people This is a large gap that has the potential to close significantly through the deployment of Industry 4.0 technologies which also decreases the stigma of hiring people with disabilities over time.
Augmented Reality and other Industry 4.0 technologies are helping to empower worldwide workforces while providing disabled people an opportunity to work in this growing market by reducing physical and cognitive barriers. When deployed properly, AR accomplishes this by supporting them when making a lot of the small decisions, thus lowering the amount a worker needs to think about the work they perform. This dramatically helps the worker in a way very similar to a Global Positioning System, or GPS, which provides real-time “turn by turn” instructions to new or experienced drivers to help ensure they don’t make the wrong turn. The impact of this is important as it allows for a more enriching life for those that are disabled and can create value for the economy through increasing the size of the labor pool and alleviating the need for subsidies for those now earning their own income.
AR is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. It has several form factors: projector-based, wearables, tablets, and spotlights being the industry-relevant technologies. AR’s biggest demand lies within industry. It can be used to display work instructions directly on a part, train people more easily, or guide operators through a plant, just to name a few of the applications. LightGuide is the leading projector-based AR work instructions product on the market. Using projectors ensures the most intuitive and accessible work instructions, requiring little to no alteration of a workers’ job steps.
Physical and cognitive disabilities impact people differently and as an extension of that, they impact work differently. For people with physical disabilities, the solution typically required is good work design paired with technology that can assist in the physical job tasks such as lifting, pinching, or hammering. AR can help enforce good work design by helping keep work within the “golden zone” of the operator. The golden zone is the optimal area for humans to do work, which is right in front of them. As for assistive technology, there is a lot of emerging technology—collaborative robots (cobots), exoskeletons, gloves that apply force, and more.
Assisting those with cognitive disabilities is where AR really shines. It does so in several ways. First, it boosts the cognitive skills of operators in work. The standard in manufacturing right now is paper or monitor-based work instructions, both of which require the operator to remember the exact steps of the procedure every time they perform the work. As operators rotate around the plant, this can become very intensive for even the best to remember everything. If the right work instructions are displayed at the right location and at the right time as the operator performs their work, there is no memory required to do work correctly every time. Additionally, the use of LightGuide aids the worker with highly visual and intuitive projected work instructions to focus their attention onto the work, every step of the way.
By making work more accessible to accelerate disability inclusion within industry, the demand to hire the disabled population increases as well. This benefits everyone: the disabled population themselves, businesses all over the world, and taxpayers. It clearly benefits the disabled population by making work a possibility that sometimes is ruled out from birth. The freedom that comes from earning an income and the sense of enriching work can contribute significantly to one’s sense of pride and self.
From an economic standpoint, businesses benefit as well through a larger labor pool, which is especially helpful in low unemployment markets. In developed nations, 50-70% of working-age people with a disability are unemployed. In developing nations, the numbers are as high as 80-90%. With new technology, those numbers can be significantly lowered, offering new employment opportunities for individuals and businesses alike.
Finally, this also decreases the need for subsidization of this population. As stated earlier, the U.S. alone spends $143 billion on disability insurance. As technology enables people to become gainfully employed, they are not solely dependent on subsidies, thereby lowering tax expenditures and allowing the government to either lower taxes or allocate funding elsewhere. This also gives new workers the ability to spend that money, feeding the economy even further.
A great example of technology impacting the disabled population and enabling them to work more easily is Mariasteen, located in Belgium. Mariasteen primarily employs over 700 personnel with disabilities as their manufacturing operators. Mariasteen primarily uses two technologies to increase accessibility for these workers: LightGuide and collaborative robots.
Mariasteen is a founding member of a new collaboration called Lichtwerk (translated from Dutch to Lightwork). Lichtwerk’s mission is to “provide advice, implement and provide training on high-tech solutions that make difficult work easier, enabling more vulnerable employees to work faster and longer.” Lichtwerk strongly believes in a “Go Digital, Stay Human” approach to making work feasible and manageable for every company and its employees. They are using LightGuide and other technologies to increase workplace accessibility and enrich the social economy.
Mariasteen reports great results from using LightGuide: their throughput increased by 50% and their quality defects are now approaching zero. Apart from the improved manufacturing benefits, Mariasteen has also seen tremendous benefits in their operator experience. They state: “Workers feel more empowered and less stressed when working with the system, knowing they are being supported in their job by LightGuide. They feel confident in manufacturing complex products with high-quality standards. Our operators can now do work which they could not before.” Another way LightGuide improves their operation is by lowering the language barrier to employment. Understanding long written formal language is often a challenge for people with cognitive disabilities. With LightGuide, there is much less of a dependency on written text, instead, a higher focus is placed on icons and overlaying designs and animations onto the physical part to communicate the message.
As technology changes rapidly, work is evolving. Existing technology can help those that were previously not thought to be able to work through collaborative technology, whether it be assisting them cognitively with LightGuide or physically like cobots. Enabling those with disabilities to work is important socially and economically. It provides an opportunity to experience more fulfillment and financial freedom while also expanding the labor force and reducing the amount needed for subsidy programs. As the world continues moving into the Industry 4.0 digital age, proven AR technologies such as LightGuide combine the best of human intelligence and technology to create and retain disability inclusion jobs.