People with disabilities are the greatest untapped resource on the planet

Mike Hess – Founder & Executive Director, Blind Institute of Technology (BIT), Denver, Colorado

Feature | 27 October 2020
After a long career in the IT sector, Mike Hess wanted to help other persons with disabilities have the opportunity to achieve success based on their skills and expertise. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“We are truly the greatest untapped resource on the planet” says Mike Hess, Executive Director and founder of the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT).

You can immediately sense the passion and energy Mike brings to the conversation when he talks about his goal for his Colorado based non-profit. Mike is committed to convince Fortune 1000 companies that persons with disabilities are a good investment for their company. 

“We are committed to reducing the high unemployment rate among skilled blind and visually impaired IT and tech professionals” said Mike. And for him, it all starts with changing the perceptions of potential employers.

“When I talk about people with disabilities, I prefer the term ‘corporate ready individuals’ says Mike. “They are the perfect candidates for what I call ‘desk jockey’ type jobs. Today’s technology is so accessible, it’s a seamless interface. And people with disabilities are extremely productive and extremely loyal employees.”

Legally blind since first grade, Mike eventually lost his sight altogether. Instead of placing Mike in a school for the blind, his mother was determined to keep him in the public school system. Mike used the low-vision technologies available at the time, as well as learning how to walk with a cane and read braille.

Immediately after college he married his wife, Natalie, adopted her two daughters and added to the family with the addition of his son, Maddox. Mike says his loss of his vision is an inconvenience, nothing more. He has competed in martial arts, is a snow and water skier, a mountain climber and pursued a 20-year career in the tech industry.

Early on Mike realised there were tremendous opportunities for gainful employment for persons with disabilities. He spoke about how the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights legislation, helped facilitate more persons with disabilities into the workforce. This includes access ramps to buildings, braille in elevators and accessibility technology built into popular operating systems.

“I'm a free market guy,” Mike said, and “when it comes to success it has got to be success in the free market. It's tougher and tougher for the big companies to find talent and they often struggle with meeting diversity goals which are actually part of their strategy to improve their organization.”

Mike lays out his “billion dollar” idea that demonstrates how businesses and the economy benefits from talented people who find dignity through work using their expertise. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Mike believes he is on that cutting edge and hopes to “place hundreds of people every year.” He is convinced that “the medium is going to be through technology and that's why I believe the future of work is headed.”

Mike is committed to changing that. In the past five years, BIT has placed more than 100 people with disabilities around the country. “They’ve got the skills. The median wage is more than thirty dollars an hour.”

Mike says his “job is to go out there, kick in doors and let employers know just how easy it is to seamlessly integrate people with disabilities and add value to the bottom line and the corporate culture.”

For employers, the technology makes the business case persuasive. “Some blind people can listen to their screen readers at 300 words a minute. That is faster that a sighted person can consume the same amount of data, looking at a screen” says Mike.

The value proposition is even stronger because of the low cost. “Accessible technology is innate within both Apple’s and Google’s operating systems. Microsoft is finally building a free version. There low or no cost to most of this.”

The technology is the “how” says Mike. But the quality of the workers is the “why.” “When you hire someone with a disability, you are getting a very productive employee who is also a very loyal employee” he says. “It’s tougher and tougher to find talent. People with disabilities don’t hop from job to job.”

Mike goes further making his case for hiring persons with disabilities with an ambitious plan called the “Billion Dollar Initiative”.

“A blind person over their working lifetime in the United States will consume about a million dollars in public assistance. This means Social Security Disability Benefits, food stamps, Section 8 housing – this is about a million dollars. If we get a thousand people with disabilities off that system and they are then contributing back into the system. In real terms, that is a billion dollars saved in public assistance and nearly one-hundred million of earned income generated every year through employment.”

For Mike, his ambition is to bring this approach to empowering people and their communities to developing countries where persons with disabilities are often mired in poverty, not only due to the lack of employment but due to the absence of social services.

To start breaking down some of the walls and stigmas about hiring people with disabilities, employers should look in their own backyards, says Mike. “You don’t hire a person with a disability because it’s a feel-good story. You hire them because they are going to work twice as hard and they are not going to job-hop. You hire them because they are going to deliver."