Episode 306: AI and Workplace Inclusion With John Robinson, President & CEO of OurAbility.com

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Episode 306: AI and Workplace Inclusion With John Robinson, President & CEO of OurAbility.com

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Table of Contents

Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.46] The Workology podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Welcome to the Workology Podcast. This episode of the Workology Podcast is powered by PEAT, the Partnershipon Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.

Episode 306: AI and Workplace Inclusion With John Robinson, President & CEO of OurAbility.com (@OurAbility_CEO)


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:47.82] Today, I’m joined by John Robinson. He’s the president and CEO of Our Ability. John is dedicated to reducing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities through mentoring workshops, public speaking, as well as placement. His company, Our Ability, is using AI-powered technology to improve the job seeking process for people with disabilities. John, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

John Robinson: [00:01:12.66] Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:14.94] Can you talk about your own experience as a job seeker and how it led to creating OurAbility.com?

John Robinson: [00:01:21.75] Sure, Jessica. It’s, it is pretty much the beginning step, the genesis, I guess. You know, you can’t separate the fact that I am a quadruple amputee, three foot nine without the extension of my arms and legs. I was born this way. If you see me walking, I walk funny. I sort of waddle, you know, my, my arms ended where your elbows are, my legs to the lower part of your leg. And I’ve been this way my whole life. I went to Syracuse University to study television/radio/film. I did so because I knew I couldn’t play sports as a high school student, as a, certainly in college or as a professional. So I wanted to be involved in the sports world to some degree, and so my my VR counselor in New Hampshire really suggested and pointed out the media might be the place to do that. So I fell in love with television/radio/film, went to Syracuse University, where I had some family roots as well. So it sort of came together and went to the Newhouse School to to study TRF management. I lived with eight guys in my four year experience and the best friends of my life that will ever have, we see each other five, six times a year. We text each other all the time. Four of the eight of us went to the Newhouse School and we all had pretty much the same GPA, the same internships, the same work experience in college, same references, same class work. You know, when we graduated in May of 1990, you know, a few months before the ADA was enacted, you know, I had an internship at a TV station in Boston and a 3.3 GPA, and the references I needed.

John Robinson: [00:03:05.43] You know, my peers got jobs. Jim got a job with a newspaper in Newark, New Jersey, right away, and now as an assistant district attorney. My, my my great friend Dave, who co-wrote my autobiography, Get Off Your Knees, he got a job immediately with the golf magazine and has worked in the golf industry as the writer and producer for for 30+ years. You know, my my great friend Pat, who I lived with all that time, got a job immediately with the NBA and now runs NFL films. Anybody with any sort of sports knowledge knows NFL films pretty readily. And, you know, then there was me and I interviewed with TV stations and radio stations all over the northeast, from Montreal to Washington, D.C., Boston to Chicago, stations large and small, looking for an opportunity, networks and in New York City and Toronto, and heard the word no repeatedly, I was unemployed till December of 1994. In that time, I took a lot of odd jobs. I learned how to telemarket. I learned how to use my voice. But I never gave up the dream of working in the media industry. In that time, I got married, started a family, moved to Toronto, came back from Canada to live in upstate New York because I did finally get a job offer in television. And the job offer was with the NBC station in Syracuse, New York, ironically, I went to college and the offer was, you know, we’re, we’re uncomfortable hiring you because my boss is uncomfortable in me saying I want to hire you and that, this is what I was told.

John Robinson: [00:04:41.58] I’ll offer you the opportunity to sell advertising for the TV station, but we can’t give you any existing territory or benefits. We’ll just pay you strictly commission. We’ll print your business cards so you work for channel 3. Do you want the job? That’s how I started. It’s funny when I, when I give speeches, for the last 10 years to businesses and disability groups, why can I say you’d think I took that job offer in the summer of 1994? You know, people with disabilities will laugh and say, no way, no way would I ever take that job offer where I was just 100 percent commission. And everybody else, every other group I’ve ever spoken to said absolutely I took the job, and of course I took the job. And I, you know, made a lot of, made a lot out of it. Thank God, made some good money and had a good 16-year career in TV. But I have never forgotten what it’s like to be a person with a profound disability. And you could take the word profound out of a person with a disability being unemployed. You know, that employment allowed me to build on our family, buy a house, you know, have the lifestyle that I wanted. I didn’t want to be on SSDI. Purposefully made the decision. I wanted to be employed. I wanted to pay taxes. And Our Ability comes out of that dream of employment.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:00.18] I hope that everyone that’s listening to this and our conversation, if you don’t have chills right now, or getting a little emotional. We’ve known each other for a little bit and hearing you tell your story, it just makes me think about so many obstacles and so much adversity that you and others have overcome and then to create this organization and a business that. That seeks to help others like you. It’s so inspirational and then the impact that you’re having is, is so much bigger than you. So I don’t even, like we should just stop the podcast right now and be done. I mean, this is enough for me.

John Robinson: [00:06:47.17] No, Jessica. Thank you for saying that. And, you know, it’s funny, I, before we started the podcast today, I was telling him, you know, dealing with a thousand things in the air and trying to be on vacation. But the funny thing is, you know, the one thing I don’t get frustrated at is when when people with disabilities need help. You know, might be somebody with neuro diverse situation. It might be somebody the physical situation or, or developmental disability, and they, they call or email and say they need help getting into our system online. You know, I feel it, I feel the pain, I feel the interest and the excitement and the worry and the hope and all of that. You know, that’s why we do what we do. You know, I’m not perfect. Our system isn’t perfect. Our website isn’t perfect. Our country isn’t perfect. But you know what? If we can take some time and do the best we can to assist, then we can be better. And, you know, I try to think about that every day. You know, I’m helping a young man right now who is a college graduate who has got a great degree, but definitely is dealing with, with, with some things. And I can hear in him what I had in my head. And that’s why we’re here. We, we need to do this because it’s real people that we’re trying to assist that want to improve their lives.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:10.47] So it sounds like Our Ability is helping job seekers who have disabilities find work. But you also are working with employers too, right?

John Robinson: [00:08:22.01] Yeah. So we take the approach not as a service provider. And, you know, and maybe, maybe in a perfect world, we would have been a service provider for people with disabilities in a specific location. But, you know, because I was in mid career, I wanted to help more people more rapidly and I wanted to use the business acumen to do it. So I knew that 10 years ago we could use the Internet to tell better stories. And so what we started was a Web site, OurAbility.com, that would, you know, ideally be a mentor network for people with disabilities. Very quickly morphed into, we had individuals with disabilities asking us for help and so the only way we know to help people is by showing off their skills. And we had businesses coming to us saying, we have jobs, help us get these jobs in front of the community. So if you take that approach, the best way we can have multiple people with disabilities is by creating a jobs system that identifies and connects with skills. So it’s been a labor of love and a long journey. It started out as a very simple link then profile system that we tried to build ourselves for people with disabilities would sign in and tell us who they are.

John Robinson: [00:09:38.26] Then we created a jobs board, but we realized, you know, here in the last three years, with AI, with voice and chat, chat technology and HTML, with, with all that AI can do on the backend engines, you know, we can do a better job in assisting job coaches, job professionals, family members of people with disabilities and the community themselves in matching real skills to real jobs. And if you go back to, you know, what I went through in 1990 to 1994, you know, I had had a way to show CBS or NBC or CNN I had the skill to do the job., it takes the pressure off that hiring manager saying bodies disabled, right? And that’s, that’s the system that we’ve, you know, through a lot of sweat equity, we’ve been building that this, this young person I’m working with, he’s putting a skills in there. It’s magic to a very specific job that we can then do the best to help them connect with each other. That’s that’s what we’re doing.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:42.23] I want to talk a little bit more about competency-based hiring. Talk to me about how your organization works with companies to help define competency-based hiring and how the, how employers can use that in their workplace inclusion?

John Robinson: [00:10:59.53] You know, we’re, we’re really lucky, Jessica, that the businesses that we work with seek us out. We’re not doing a lot of outbound sales. We’re doing, it’s really, it’s word of mouth. It’s referral. So that means that if a company comes to us, like we’re just about to announce a big pharmaceutical company partnering with us, they come to us, they found us. They’re not finding the national organizations that they’re talking theory about employment. They are finding us for a very specific reason. So it’s a very first step in the conversation to talk about. We are about matching skills to to real life work situations. So in that conversation, we talk about what’s written on the job description, how we put the job descriptions in front of the individuals. What kind of inclusive organization do they want to be? What are their, what are the conversations that the hiring managers are having? How can we assist senior level in, in languaging around disability? How can we lower the, the, the fear of even discussing disability within the organization? These are things that we’re talking with the business, the business on the front end. And what that allows us to do is to be there to answer questions so that we can get in a way from the fear, away from the bias, and into a strong job matching hiring. We get into the situation where, you know, we could point out to the business that people with disabilities have the ability to do the job. And then you ask about inclusion. Inclusion is huge, and the first step is, in inclusion is making an intentional act. I am more and more convinced that the way that we make change in this world is by getting every business that we speak to or every individual disability that wants help make the intentional act of doing it.

John Robinson: [00:12:58.33] What do I mean? The businesses that we’re working with, we pretty much tell them point blank, if you want to be more inclusive, the next person you hire should be a person with a disability. Make the intentional act of doing that. The next product you make, make it for people with disabilities in mind. The next service that you provide, include individuals with disabilities in that. Because if you make an intentional act, the rest of the steps will follow. Your company will be more open-minded, be seen in a better light. Your products and services will be more reflective and you’ll be a more, quote, inclusive organization. But you’re only doing that by intentionally doing it. You know, I heard a story, I’m not going to say the company name, but I heard a story recently that a major technology company that we all know, we all see their advertisements, where, where building products for people with disabilities. And they reached out and they wanted to outsource the beta testing to an organization, and it was pointed out to them, why don’t they employ people with disabilities to produce and test the product? You know, we are a company of people with disabilities building a product for people with disabilities with people with disabilities in mind. You know, it’s frustrating when you hear that story that somebody with a lot deeper resources, you could just hire people with disabilities to build and test that product, right? That’s taken that to heart. And so a true and inclusive workplace is full circle and make that intentional act to do it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:39.08] I want to talk more about the fact that Our Ability is disability owned and disability operated. Talk to us about how your approach to technology, specifically maybe how you developed your chat bot with accessibility and inclusion and in mind. How to, how is that working for you? And maybe my hope is, is like this conversation will inspire other tech teams or HR teams or whoever to think about employing more people with disabilities in the development and in every stage of the process.

John Robinson: [00:15:14.84] Yeah, it’s such a good question and I think I underestimate how important this is. You know, ten years ago I mentioned, you know, my autobiography was really started as a journal to my children and what it was like to grow up with a disability. And then that journal started with what really one of the very first versions of Nuance Dragon Dictate Software. And I was talking to my computer and words were populating on the screen. You know, and without that, I never would have written a book, I couldn’t have. Just the physical ability to type into it. You know, then you go through the last 12 years and you realize how much the Siri make a difference. You know, how much does Alexa make a difference? How much does universal design and computers make a difference? Look at how much more inclusive our world is for people with disabilities because of the computer. Look at social media. I think it’s written somewhere that Twitter is the most inclusive place for people with disabilities because it’s only 200+ characters. Easier to get in. Easier for me to speak into my Twitter and get something up there and have my my my view heard. And thinking about that process, I believe we’re on a continuum. We’re only, you know, early on in this. But we can use voice dictation.

John Robinson: [00:16:41.98] We can use chatbot technology to do the things that a real strong job coach do. And I go back to when I had my job coach telling me, you know, media was the place to be if I wanted to touch sports. That was a question and answer period. Well, fast forward 30 years, you know, Our Ability threw the Jobs Ability portal, we’ve got a chatbot. We built the chatbot. Her name is Abi. Abi is the first three letters of ability. Ultimately, Abi will be open source for other disability groups to use so that we get people conversing because it’s a lot easier for me as a person with a disability to communicate with a chatbot than anything else. So that’s the beginnings of where we are. We’re using it to match, you know, skills to jobs as I told you, but there’s so many other applications because there’s so many other things as a person with a disability I worry about. You know, from transportation to health care to housing to relationships, there’s so much more that we can build in this. So we’ve realized that now is the time to begin in laying the foundation to create a chatbot, they can do multiple things, but right now it’s designed to lead you down a path of what can you do, what do you want to do, where are you, and how, here are the jobs that we think we can help you with.

John Robinson: [00:18:11.29] That’s what’s really exciting. But, you know, since we’ve gone live with Abi and I think it was December, so, what, eight months ago? We’ve had so many organizations reach out to use this in different capacities. And I’m realizing how this is just touching can ultimately happen. You know, like I said, Abi will be open-source though my like my goal here in the next 12 months is that Abi is used by other organizations. We want to use it for what we use it for, but there’s just so much that can be done. And, you know, the reason I’m convinced of this is when I get the email and the phone call to help somebody with a disability. It is not at 9:00 in the morning. It’s not at 1:00 in the afternoon. It’s when they cannot get a hold of their their support that they call me or email me. You know, it’s at 2:00 in the morning, it’s a Saturday afternoon, right? That’s when we get pinged. And that means to me that, you know, we – our community – are worrying worrying about everything that we need to worry about, you know, 24/7, 365. It would make sense that technology would follow suit.

Break: [00:19:21.22] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you were listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today we are talking with John Robinson. He’s the president and CEO of OurAbility.com. This podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Break: [00:19:41.92] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT. The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT’s funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATWorks.org, that’s PEATWorks.org.

How Technology Can Support Workplace Inclusion

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:11.13] How is Our Ability using voice technology? I want to talk more about this, because this isn’t something that we’ve talked about on the Workology Podcast before, but I think it’s worth just focusing on the voice technology piece to make things more inclusive.

John Robinson: [00:20:28.09] Yes, we were, we were blessed to be approached through Microsoft by a company called Zammo. Zammo is a sort of voice building company. They’re utilizing voice technology. So I guess I should, I should backtrack a little bit. You know, I think we’re all used to websites, right? And that’s where the HTML and different scripts they write create HTML web sites. There’s a separate system, which is voice systems. So, you know, we all know it from Amazon Alexa and Google Home and Siri. But it’s, it’s written in different language and it’s designed for voice. So Zammo approached us and said, we’re here. We see what you’re doing, we’d like to work with you and see if we can make it work for what you’re doing. So we were lucky and started working with Zammo to build a very simple profile system in Amazon Alexa, so if anybody has the Amazon Alexa app, you know, you can, you can activate Jobs Ability on Amazon Alexa, and you can start talking to it. It’s going to grow. It’s going to really grow. What we want to do is two fold. So the first is what I just painted for you, taking Alexa home and ultimately Siri if they ever open it up. And speaking to it and talking about my name, my email address, where I live, what are my interests, and then it asks me, would you like to know the three jobs in your area, they populate based on your interests? So you’re having a conversation and it’s talking to you about would you like to hear about these jobs that match? Wow, right?

John Robinson: [00:22:06.81] That’s, that’s, to me, that’s a game changer, because off of that web comes so many other things that we could do. Also an HTML, you know, with with Microsoft Azure, we’re able to activate the microphone, right? You can type talk right to your computer and do the same thing and if by either activating your your microphone with Apple or Microsoft or right in the chatbot to be able to communicate with with Abi. You know, again, but this is only a tip of what it’s going to be. You know, we’re going to be talking to our watches. We’re going to be talking to our eyeglasses. We’re going to be talking to our brain saying, having these conversations, right? And, and I, it’s voice activated, voice has to be the catalyst. And I, you know, Jessica, I think it’s because I started dictating my journal to my kids, and it was it was so mesmerizing to do that that I was able to do something I never really could do, which is type fast just by speaking.

John Robinson: [00:23:09.09] It opens up a world that was that I didn’t think was available to me. And there’s so many other applications we can do. No, we’re used to it. I think maybe some of us right now, you speak to your car, you speak to Alexa, you know, you speak into your phone and all that, but how do we do that and why do we do it and what can we get out of it? And what are the nuances that can come back to us? Because we’re learning that as you build out language, questions and answers, you have to also understand what’s the intent of the user really, really saying. So you have to start thinking about the algorithm of what’s really going on and, and what they’re asking. So there’s, it’s more than just, you know, is the sky blue? Yes or no? It’s, you know, what does the sky look like to you? And then you can interpret, interpolate the answer and make that usable to the next step. There’s just so much going on, but it is so exciting. Knowing that we can do this and that we’re doing it for the right reason. That’s what it’s what’s pretty appealing about voice that, you know, we’re on the cusp of something really huge.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:18.82] This is yet another example of a technology that is so impactful and profound for people with disabilities, but also has the benefits for people who don’t have disabilities. I mean, I think about how I use my Alexa and my Siri and all these different things that are voice activated in my life right now. As someone who who doesn’t have a disability, there’s benefits for everyone in the in the application.

John Robinson: [00:24:48.61] There, you know, there are, I mean, I’ve got three kids. I’ve got a 31 year-old. I’ve got a 23 year-old and 18 year-old. I watched my kids or their lifetimes, you know, use technology. You know, my 31 year-old resists the phone. I think he’d be happy with just the old fashioned flip phone. But my 18 year-old, he isn’t typing anything. He’s dictating everything. And so that, you know, that proves to me that we’re in the right space because this is where we’re going and we better get on board with this. And the reason is because I want the 18 year old with a disability to be the equivalent of my son. That’s what I want. And voice is one of the steps that we can we can take to do that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:32.78] What can employers do in your mind to be more intentional in their hiring, recruiting and retention efforts when it comes to thinking disabilities?

John Robinson: [00:25:41.96] It’s huge, Jessica. I think they need to do what they just need to make that intentional act. So, you know, maybe it’s an internship that you reach out to, you know, disability groups or disability offices and career centers and colleges. Maybe it’s very specific internships that you keep open just for individuals with disabilities. And I don’t mean the task is handled by a person with a disability. I mean that it’s an internship that you have and you make sure you hire somebody with disability to do it. You know, it’s it’s making sure that you’re using recruiting methods and tools like what we’re doing and others that reach people with disabilities. It’s making sure that you include our population every chance you can. That’s making sure that the application is accessible, that the process is accessible, that the person hiring or interviewing understands people with disabilities and is actually seeking people with disabilities. And I think when you make intentional acts on including, it will follow. And that is so really important. It’s also making sure that when you have somebody with a disability, you’re doing everything you can to put them in leadership roles, to put them on the promotion track and to put them public facing when they’re willing to be that way. You know, I’ve, long conversations over the years with Syracuse University, where I went to school and had been on the alumni association board and work on this project with and we’ve talked for years about how do we make Syracuse a more inclusive place for people with disabilities.

John Robinson: [00:27:12.59] And for years I’ve said make sure that there’s people in the administration and faculty leaders that have disabilities because that’s who the students see. I want to see myself when I go to work. These are the things that we can do that will make it more inclusive. You know it’s no, and I’m obviously biased because of the work that we’ve done with Microsoft AI and all that we talked about. It’s no surprise that Microsoft is seen as a leader in the disability space because they build products and services and hire people with disabilities. And it, that’s the that’s the path we all need to take. And when a company comes to us and says, you know, we want to be inclusive, well, here’s the epitome of where you want to be. You want to be Microsoft, because look what their stock price has done in the years since they’ve started this. It’s made them money. Look what their employment base looks like. Look what their products look like. And that’s where you want to go. When you include the world, you’re including people that are buying, buying your products and services. The people buying your products and services are inclusive of people with disabilities. That’s important.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:21.53] I want to talk about the top three things that you’ve learned from your leadership roles in the disability space. Maybe kind of give us some insights here. As a leader, I mean, not only are you a person with a disability, but you’re a person who’s speaking on stages and has access to so many communities and companies and just groups of people.

John Robinson: [00:28:49.77] There’s a couple you got me on a great day to answer this. There are, there are a couple of things I’ve learned and here’s some of my frustration point. I said you before, I don’t get frustrated when people with disabilities need help. I do get frustrated when, you know, disability service organizations may not have the same thoughts and heart that they do in their mission statement. I get frustrated because there, we have not spoken business-to-business. You know, I think the greatest mistake we’ve made over the years, and it’s changing, thankfully, but that we we’ve seen disability as as a handout, as a sort of a fundraiser. Rather than harnessing the ability and figuring out the inclusion element. You know, disability service provider, I think New York State alone, there’s 700 disability service providers. And, you know, a lot of them over the years have begged for jobs or done what I call begging for money or, you know, asking for a handout. Now, you know, they rather that say, hey, we’ve got 100 people here that understand how to work, that want to work, that can do manufacturing jobs, whatever it is in the old work centers, instead of bringing in, you know, feel good, take people to work an inclusive setting and, and manufacture what the United States needs manufactured. And I think if we had spoken business-to-business earlier, I think we would be in a better place.

John Robinson: [00:30:31.03] So one thing I’ve learned is we have to do a better job of highlighting the skill, the ability, the humanity of people with disabilities. If we can do that then we can get on a more leveled playing field. The second thing I’ve learned is to do that. Disability groups need to be run by people with disabilities. If you look across the board around the world that disability groups, composed of business-like, disability service providers, whatever. The percentage of these groups run by people with obvious disabilities is way too small, and I’m looking at this, obviously I’m a person with a disability. I run this group on purpose for the very reasons I said at the beginning, because we are people with disabilities for people with disabilities. But it is frustrating to me at times that some of the biggest disability groups are run by able-bodied individuals. I think they have good intentions at heart. But no matter how you try, you cannot understand what my world is. You can empathize. You can be a parent of, a brother, or sister, or married to, but you cannot truly understand what it’s like to be stared at all day long everywhere you go. That’s just me, OK? But I do think we have to do a better job of promoting, and that we as people with disabilities need to demand that disability groups are run by ourselves. That’s the second thing I’ve learned.

John Robinson: [00:32:06.46] The third thing I’ve learned, which is really cool, the easiest group to speak to are businesses. It’s different, it’s a mindset, mindset shift. I didn’t expect. You know, when I graduated in 1990 and I’m fighting to get CBS or, you know, CBC in Canada, you know, TNT to see that I have the ability, in 2021, it’s the exact opposite. You know what? CBS Health, Microsoft, Pfizer, Allied Bank, they want me. They don’t care what I look like, what I act like any more. They want the ability in people to do the job. The hurdle is with our community. The hurdle is with the parents that don’t reach higher. The hurdle is within ourselves and our anxiety. These are the things that we need to work on and accept. So the third change is seeing how businesses have been maybe the most welcoming and demand the most change. That’s what’s really exciting. You know, the example there is look at what Nasdaq demanded of the companies listed on Nasdaq having diverse, diverse board, board of directors in each company. You know, that’s great. We need to keep doing that. And I think the businesses are going to lead this change, which is pretty cool.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:33:33.56] I want to talk a little bit about what you see as the future of workplace inclusion and accessible technology. You’re in this area. How do you see artificial intelligence helping in the area? And I ask this question because so many conversations are about AI being bad for people with disabilities. And here you are as a business who is creating an artificial intelligence technology as a person with a disability and for people with disabilities. So talk to us about that.

John Robinson: [00:34:08.63] Can I put my, my sci-fi geek hat on for a second?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:34:11.72] Absolutely.

John Robinson: [00:34:12.98] My favorite TV show is Battlestar Galactica. The new version of it where AI takes over, destroys humanity. I think there’s so many great allegories in Battlestar Galactica, but, but, for life and faith and humanity that, that we all could learn from. So I completely get that the fear of it to some degree. And bias is a huge thing that we all need to be aware of, but I will tell you that we’ve done a poor job in helping people with disabilities find employment without it. We cannot handle the workload that’s coming ahead because service providers have been cut back and job coaches aren’t available anymore, so we’re in this perfect storm that the work can’t get done. Disability service providers are going away, job coaches have gone away, and yet we have technology that can, can fill that gap in a much more rapid pace and we can build into it the bias filters. So I hear that a lot that we’re worried about using AI, which will, which will build in bias against people with disabilities. But we’re building in a community of people with disabilities for the very purpose of removing, removing the bias between the job description, the company and the individual and their ability. And we can do it in a much more rapid pace because of AI.

John Robinson: [00:35:49.95] So the reason why I feel good about it is because we’re using the elements that are great in AI, the speed, the language, the voice, and we’re using it for the purpose that we need to use it for. To assist people in real time when they need the help. That’s what we’re doing. Because we are people with disabilities, we think about this every day. You know, we’re parsing language that people use, we’re parsing language of descriptions that company use for the very reason to eliminate bias against people with disabilities. So I hear that. I get it. And yes, the sci-fi geek in me worries about what’s going to happen for my my children’s children’s generation, but right now I know that it’s not worked. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities, the state at 70 percent. And the only way I could think of making better match is, is by doing it faster and doing it based on ability. And the only reason the only way I can think to do that for people around the world faster is by using this technology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:36:56.49] John, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. It has been enlightening. It has been just wonderful. I really appreciate, it’s, it’s, what you’re doing is truly changing the world. Where can people go to learn more about you, John, and the work that you do with Our Ability?

John Robinson: [00:37:18.12] Jeissca, they can go to quite a few places. The first thing to do is take a look at LinkedIn. You could find me, John Robinson, or Our Ability on LinkedIn. Our website is OurAbility.com. And pretty soon it’s going to be JobsAbility.com in the United States as well, as well as in Canada it’s JobsAbility.ca. So you can, you can find us at all three of those places. If you want to see me rant or hear me rant on Twitter about the Boston Bruins or anything that’s bothering me at that minute, it’s @OurAbility_CEO. And then because, because I look the way I look and we’re doing what we’re doing, you can find me in lots of places. I’m blessed that Microsoft did, did a highlight of what we are and what we do on their Microsoft education page. So there’s, there’s I’m out there in public, you know, I can’t hide and I don’t want to hide. And if you’re interested in the topic of disability, employment and technology and/or an organization run by a person with a disability, you know, please find us. I’d be happy to communicate.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:38:23.68] I will include links to some social media profiles, your LinkedIn, your Twitter, so people can learn more about you and of course, OurAbility.com. So again, John, thank you so much.

John Robinson: [00:38:36.30] Jessica, thank you. You got a great podcast and thank you for doing this and, and glad to be a small part of it.

Closing: [00:38:42.13] This interview, yes, there were tears that were shed by me. It was the most powerful and emotional interview I have ever been a part of. I appreciate John so much for sharing his experience with us today on the podcast. And I love hearing about how technology is making the job search and recruitment process in the employment process more inclusive, and especially how important it is for people with disabilities to be involved in the development of technologies we use, including artificial intelligence. It’s an essential role to consider when you’re meeting with vendors in technology selection to understand are they inclusive? Are they accessible? What does that look like when we’re selecting tech? I love hearing about all the voice activated technology as well as artificial intelligence and where that is heading because of people like John and the work that they do. This podcast, the Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Thank you again to PEAT. They are powering this podcast series on employment and accessible technology for people with disabilities.

Closing: [00:39:54.88] Personal and professional development is essential for successful H.R. leaders. Join Upskill HR to access life training, community and over one hundred On-Demand courses for that dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.

Connect with John Robinson.



– John Robinson on LinkedIn

– John Robinson on Twitter

– OurAbility.com

– Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grant winners: ‘You want to be seen as the person you are’

– CDX Spotlight: How Voice & Conversational A.I. are Helping Workers With Disabilities

– PEATworks: Artificial Intelligence

– Episode 295: Second Chance Hiring and DEI with Cheri Garcia

– Episode 286: Ethics and Bias in Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technology

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