Sunday, October 18, 2015

The 40th Anniversary of the Computer Technologies Program (CTP)

 The 40th Anniversary of the Computer Technologies Program (CTP)

Let's get it together!

Forty years ago several executives from I B M went to the California Department of Rehabilitation with the idea of starting a program in California to train people with disabilities to be computer programmers. I B M had started such a program several years prior to that in Virginia. In that program, people with disabilities lived in a rehabilitation hospital for 9 months where they learned programming and then returned to their home community and tried to find a job. The California Department of Rehabilitation thought it was a good idea, but to their credit, thought it would be better for the students to live independently rather than an institution. They decided to give the Center for Independent Living (C I L) in Berkeley a grant to start the C I L Computer Training Program.

Ed Roberts was the Executive Director of C I L. He wanted to hire 2 people with disabilities to run C T P. Scott Luebking and I were the only people with disabilities he could find that had any kind of background in computers, so we were hired. I was 22. Scott, who was 23 years old, was my elder, so he became the Executive Director and I was his deputy. We had 90 days to put the program together. This included finding and renting space, finding students making sure they had housing and transportation, finding equipment including a key punch machine and a business to allow us to run student programs on their computer, and working with the Business Advisory Committee preparing the curriculum and ensuring there would be jobs for graduates. It was 90 days I'll never forget!

Having grown up in a segregated school program just for children with disabilities, I saw myself as an advocate against segregation. It was strange finding myself as the director and teacher of a program for people with disabilities. I knew that the technical part of computer technology students could get from books, college or trade schools. My focus as a teacher was more on the human side, learning how there's always a way to accomplish anything one sets their intent on. I used computers as a metaphor for this. With computers, there's always a way to make that machine do exactly what you want it to do. When it works, you feel great and proud of yourself. When it doesn't work, you know there's always a way to make it work. There are always multiple ways of doing anything and everything. I think I was a hard teacher. Besides having to listen to me lecture 90 minutes a day 5 days a week for 9 months, students had to work on their assignments 5 to 8 hours a day or more. My hope was that they believe that if they could survive C T P, they could do anything!

After 4 years at C T P of telling students about how great it was to work in quote the real world unquote, I thought it would be good for me to go out there for a few years. My intent was to return and be able to say unequivocally that the business world is a great place. My assistant at C T P, Terri Davis, had gotten a job in the Wells Fargo H R department. She helped me get hired as an assembler / COBOL programmer. Planning to be there just a couple of years, I stayed for over 29 years, climbing the corporate ladder slash elevator to being a Senior Vice President.

Today Wells Fargo will be giving C T P a check. Wells Fargo has been a great supporters of C T P from the very beginning. Besides giving financial support, people from Wells Fargo have served on the Business Advisory Committee, lecturers, reviewers, mentors as well as members of the Board of Directors. I am very proud to tell you that the current president of C T P's Board of Directors, Tali Bray, is someone I hired at the Bank, and is one of the best things I did for Wells Fargo.

Along with all these great things, are the lessons we learn from Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo reinforced my belief that it doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from or even what you sound like. If you can get the job done, there's a need for you. Wells Fargo taught me that if people need the skills you have, people are very adaptable. Computer operators quickly learned to ask yes and no questions when one of my systems crashed in the middle of the night. Before they had online access, Wells Fargo sent an armored truck in the middle of the night to transport me to its data center. Wells Fargo reinforced the idea that anything and everything is possible. Given the opportunity to architect the very first 7 by 24 banking system was difficult but lots of fun. Designing and implementing one of the first mobile banking systems was a real kick. These and many other projects proved again and again that there's always a way to accomplish your goals. Wells Fargo also taught me that failing is OK, as long as you don't do it too often. These are the kind of important lessons that partnering with a great company like Wells Fargo can provide for C T P and its students.

So here we are forty years later. C T P is still thriving. We have wonderful laws like the A D A that protect the rights of people with disabilities. We have a beautiful building here at the Ed Roberts Campus. Technology, like the app I'm using to speak to you with today, is making life easier for people with disabilities in many ways. What is next? Don't worry. There's plenty left to do. The reality is that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is no better than it was 40 years ago. Many young adults with disabilities are unable to go to work for fear of losing important government benefits including Personal Assistant Services. We must change antiquated laws preventing millennials with disabilities from reaching their potential. Forty years ago, accessibility was easy to see and fix. Steps, curbs, narrow bathrooms, inaccessible buses are all obvious. Today, although advances in technology is wonderful for people who can access it, but for many, advance technology have created new barriers. Most websites, for example, do not pass accessibility standards. Even Personal Assistant Services are changing. We understand that people with physical disabilities need Personal Assistant Services to eat, dress, drive etc. Do we understand how Personal Assistant Services may help people with intellectual disabilities or people with mental health disabilities be employed? These are some of the challenges facing C T P today.

To the graduates, get out there, find great jobs, work hard and stay connected to C T P. To Alex and the great staff, keep up the wonderful work and create tomorrow's environment that will enable more people with disabilities to work. To the Board of Directors and the Business Advisory Committee, be there for Alex and C T P and continue assisting them creating tomorrow's environment. Most importantly, whatever you do, have fun and Go! Go! Go!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Exploring an Alternative Definition of Disability

Here is the speech I gave on Aug.4,2015 at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's Conference on SSDI Proposal Initiative.

Exploring an Alternative Definition of Disability

On behalf of my co-writers, Barbara Butz, Anita Aaron, Aya Aghabi, and myself, thank you for considering our paper re “ Exploring an Alternative Definition of Disability “. I want to start by telling you a little about me because I think it's relevant to our paper.

In 2008, after 29 years of working for Wells Fargo as a disabled IT professional, I retired as a Sr. Vice President to start a disability-focused employment company that specializes in consulting on staffing and placement issues. While at Wells Fargo, the project I was most proud of was the one where I designed and was responsible for the first 7 by 24 online banking system in the United States.

My disability has always been very visible. I use a powered wheelchair. My speech has always been impaired. I use Personal Assistant Services for many of my activities of daily living. In the 70's, shortly after starting work, I received a letter from Social Security telling me I was no longer disabled. My friends quickly reassured me that I need not go through an identity crisis. My Cerebral Palsy remained intact. It took me over 5 years to earn as much working as when I received government benefits. If I had needed as much assistance then as I do now, I could not have afforded to have gone to work.

Changing the Social Security definition of disability is not a new idea. Our research revealed that in the 1950's the founders of the Social Security Disability Program wrestled with the definition. The wrestling has continued for 6 decades! In 2006, the Social Security Advisory Board emphatically recommended the definition be changed.

We suggest the new definition be, “A disability is a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that has resulted in a substantial impediment to employment and is expected to result in death or has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.”

This definition is very similar to the current definition, except there is no reference to the ability or inability to earn above the Substantial Gainful Activity (S G A) amount. With this new definition, the Social Security Disability Program can and should restructure itself. The restructured disability program should enable and encourage people with disabilities to seek assistance to stay at work as soon as impediments to employment due to disability appear. Hopefully, the concept of 'going out on disability' will be eliminated. The newly structured Social Security Disability Program should put focus on Coordinated Employment Services and must be much simpler to navigate than today's program.

This definition will enable Social Security to set up a 2 phase approach. Phase 1 enables beneficiaries to receive support services. People with disabilities should be eligible for phase 1 if they have the required number of Social Security work credits and if they have a disability as newly defined, and as soon as their disability imposes impediments to their employment. Phase 1 beneficiaries receive health care services and Coordinated Employment Services as needed. People remain eligible for phase 1 support services until they reach retirement age, or are no longer disabled, or no longer need or want support services, or die.

Phase 2 enables beneficiaries to receive cash benefits. To be eligible for phase 2, people with disabilities must be eligible for phase 1. To begin receiving cash benefits, and to avoid induced entry, applicants should be expected to earn below a given wage for a given amount of time. These cash benefits should be viewed as offsets to the high cost of disability. Our paper refers to studies documenting that the cost of disability is high. You can also take it from me. Having a disability is expensive! We recognize the need for an upper earnings limit above which beneficiaries should be able to pay their own expenses. We suggest S S D I beneficiaries keep their full cash benefit until their total earnings plus stipend exceed 250% of the federal poverty level. After reaching that earning level, stipends will be reduced by $1 for every $3 earned. Earnings will be reevaluated annually. Participants experiencing intermittent unemployment can request earnings re-evaluations more frequently.

The emphasis of the restructured S S D I program should be on providing Coordinated Employment Services. Professional career coaches should work with beneficiaries to create, monitor and maintain their Individualized Career Plan (I C P). I C P's should clearly outline tasks to be accomplished to stay-at-work or return to work. Tasks may include;
     Completing a rehabilitation program.
     Finishing a school, training or retraining program.
     Assessing and modifying the workplace environment.
     Obtaining benefit and financial planning services. 
     Acquiring self-employment and business start-up services.

There are many employment services available to people with disabilities today. We are not suggesting new services need to be developed. Today however, there is a very complex, complicated maze that people with disabilities must go through to find, qualify for, and take advantage of these services. There is a dire need for beneficiaries to work with career coaches to coordinate services.

Social Security should take the lead and fund the full development and piloting of the restructured program including Coordinated Employment Services. Social Security should administer Coordinated Employment Services outsourcing the work to local agencies. Social Security should also evaluate the effectiveness of pilots and modify the program as needed.

In the development stage, a complete definition of Coordinated Employment Services as well as the roles and responsibilities of career coaches must be agreed upon. How Individualized Career Plans will be created, monitored and maintained must also be decided. Consensus and cooperation from affected government agencies, the vocational rehabilitation community, the disability advocacy community and the employer community must be obtained. In the development stage, federal waivers must be obtained and a cost benefit analysis must be conducted. This analysis must determine what percent of beneficiaries must stay-at-work/return to work to ensure the program will be financially sustainable. The program should be piloted in 3 to 5 states. A complete evaluation should occur after the first 5 years and every three years thereafter. The program should be modified as lessons are learned from the evaluations.

Here are some questions we receive most often. Will the proposed new Social Security definition of disability fix the near term S S D I financial problem? No. How will beneficiaries who can't work be affected? They should experience no difference from today. Why now? 25 years after A D A, there has been no significant employment improvement for people with disabilities. Every program, like every business, must periodically reinvent itself. The time for innovative change is now. Why will this work? We propose setting measurable attainable employment goals based on consensus from affected communities and a cost benefit analysis and pilot the program to determine the feasibility of reaching the goals.

One of the most important things I've learned in my professional career and from being a person with a disability is that if you don't start, you will certainly never succeed, and you must always Go Go Go!!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Technology and Disability

On May 2nd 2015 I used my new text-to-speech app to present the following to 60 Fulbright Scholars from 40 different countries.

Technology and Disability 

Hi, I'm Neil Jacobson. I am extremely honored to be able to address you today. As a person with a significant disability entering my golden years, it is wonderful seeing young people excited about taking on tomorrow's challenges. I was asked to talk about technology and disability. Because I seldom do exactly as I'm told, I'm also going to speak about employment of people with disabilities. After Rolf and I speak, I hope you have lots of questions. I love questions! Be forewarned that if you have no questions,I have questions for you!

As background, after 29 years of working at Wells Fargo, I retired to start a disability-focused employment company that specializes in consulting on staffing and placement issues. I quickly realized that there are systemic problems which intrinsically inhibit people with disabilities from working and being productive. Our society holds very low expectations for individuals with disabilities. Our government's defining of disability as the 'inability to work' in order to receive disability benefits is an inherent disincentive. I am dedicating the rest of my retirement to see that these antiquated policies do change. I am doing so by working with The World Institute on Disability (WID). To learn more about my work now, please see Our Career ACCESS dot org.

At Wells Fargo, I was a Sr. Vice President in their I T department. In the 80's, I was the architect responsible for designing the first 7 by 24 banking system in the U.S. My last assignment at the Bank was to manage the design and implementation of mobile banking. I love I T! Especially software. Software proves that there is always a way to accomplish what you want to accomplish. At the Bank, I often drove my development staff crazy. I would insist that any feature the user wanted to put into our application, there was always a way to do so, and indeed there was. I must admit, I live my life as a person with a disability in a similar fashion. Whatever I really want to do, there's always a way!

We'll talk more about Wells Fargo in a moment. I want you also to know that before working at the bank, I co-founded Computer Technologies Program (C T P). It was 1975. The co-founder was a 24 year man, named Scott Luebking, who had a spinal cord injury. At the time, I was 22 years old and my speech was a bit better than it is now. Scott and I set up the program, wrote the curricula, found the students, taught classes, ran the labs, found internships and found jobs for the graduates. Students were in class or in the lab 8 to 12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. My idea was to convince the students that if they could survive me and CTP, they could do anything! I always told my students how wonderful it is to work as a computer programmer in the 'real business world'. After doing this for 4 years, I thought it might help if I actually went into that 'real business world' for a year or two so that when I returned to C T P I could indoctrinate the students even better! To my surprised, I found that the 'real business world' is great. I stayed at Wells Fargo almost 30 years.

My experience at Wells Fargo leads me to believe that corporations are more ready for people with disabilities than we are for them. Focusing on making a profit can be a very equalizing activity. Focusing on doing a great job rather than focusing on ones disability can be liberating. At the Bank, I found that if you did a good job and added to the Bank's bottom line, it didn't matter what color you were or what religion you practiced or what disability you had. Focusing on the bottom line also leads to creativity. There were many nights when there were system problems. Support personnel from the Bank's computer centers would call me and inevitably find a way to understand what I was saying – because they needed to! One of my favorite stories happened near the beginning of my career, before there was online computing, The system crashed at 1AM. My van was in the shop, Trains in the Bay Area don’t run all night. Wells Fargo sent an armored van to transport me and my 300 pound powered wheelchair to the data center.
Assistive technology has always been an amusing concept for me. My own disability, Cerebral Palsy, is quite significant. I cannot drink without a straw, but are drinking straws considered assistive technology? I also have very limited use of my hands, and use a word expansion application to help me type faster. Many people with disabilities I know use a speech recognition system to verbally navigate their computer and the Internet and create documents. These applications have been called assistive technology, but when people without disabilities use them they are just seen as mainstream conveniences and aids to productivity. Would anyone call Siri an assistive technology? What about speakerphones? Gadgets and applications seem to be classified as assistive technology only when they are used by people with disabilities—and only until the general public realizes how universal that gadget or app can be. When people ask me what assistive technology I like the best, I answer it is my Wells Fargo Visa Card. It's surprising how much easier it is for people to understand me after they see that card!

So is it assistive technology, or a mainstream technology product that has accessibility features? The technologies themselves have no such categories, and the differences only seem to arise in terms of who is using them in what context. Most, if not all, developers and companies I know, want to build accessible technologies. Who wouldn't want their product to be usable by as many potential customers as possible? At Wells Fargo, I always ensured the Bank had at least 1 team member actively engaged with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W A I). Their web accessibility standards are quite good, which is why they’re being implemented in law and practice worldwide. The main issue was, and continues to be, how to educate thousands of developers on the standards and how to ensure an ever-changing system continuously conforms to the standards. I look forward to when changes can quickly, if not automatically, be tested and reconstructed to meet W3C W A I guidelines. I look forward to companies proudly displaying an icon depicting their alliance with accessibility guidelines.

Universal Design is a 2 way obligation. I encourage assistive technology designers who are designing products and services for people with disabilities to consider how their inventions can be used by the general public. Just last week, a small hardware firm sent a designer to my house to find out what kind of hardware might better enable me to use my smart phone or tablet from my wheelchair. I applauded them for considering the needs of people with disabilities. I explained how I'd really like a stand mounted on the wheelchair that would hold the IPAD steady and that could recharge the IPAD using solar energy. I urge them to design the stand for bicyclists and people pushing strollers. Marketing to the general public usually leads to a better product at a lower price. Marketing to the general public helps ensure that people with disabilities are aware of the product and removes the stigma often associated with using assistive technologies. Marketing to the general public is also more lucrative, ensuring companies will be around to build the next great product.

The Americans with Disability Act has been an incredibly wonderful civil rights law. The world, especially here in the U.S. is extremely more accessible to and accepting of people with disabilities. Technology, including assistive technologies have progressed well beyond anyone's expectations. There is plenty left to be done. Expectations of people with disabilities are still extremely low. Well over 75% of people with disabilities in the U.S. are not working. To receive disability benefits from the government people with disabilities must prove they are not able to work. Think about that. When I first went to work, I received a letter from the government telling me I was no longer disabled. I went through an identity crisis!

Now is the time to take the next step. Now is the time to expect people with disabilities to take full advantage of the progress made to date and to be active and productive people. We are counting on you, the young scholars and the young people to define the new policies and technologies that will enable all people to be as active, productive and fulfilled as they can and want to be. Go out there and do your thing. Go Go Go! And whatever you do, have fun doing it! Thank you!