28 Feb New Horizons: Physically disabled are a potential source of IT labor
Milwaukee, Wis. – Art Miller has a new vision of Wisconsin companies turning to physically disabled people, empowered by high-speed broadband, to be a reliable source of home-bound (or in-office) labor.
That vision is still far in the distance, however, as he struggles to find funding sources for New Horizons Un-Limited, a non-profit organization that promotes computer literacy and other empowering skills among people with lifelong physical disabilities.
But with the pending retirement of Baby Boomers about to stress IT departments in Wisconsin and beyond, he envisions the physically disabled as members of the shock troops needed to help the country keeps its technological edge.
For Miller, chairman and president of Miller Engineering and founder of New Horizons, the vision is personal. Several members of this family have physical disabilities, and he has grown impatient with “settling” for giving disabled people opportunities to break from isolation and experience life the way most people do. He’s not content with that because he sees human potential being wasted even while societal attitudes are becoming more accommodating to the physically disabled.
That’s why he eager to tap deeper into the most realistic source for additional funding – private, non-foundation businesses. Founded in 1994, the organization survives financially on the strength of a golf outing and private donations. As a non-profit 501 C 3 organization, the Internal Revenue Service frowns on New Horizons seeking funds from foundations (don’t ask), leaving businesses as the most likely hope for ramping up the organization’s value proposition.
For Miller, fund-raising does not come naturally, nor is it something he particularly likes to do. When he meets with the movers and shakers of corporate Wisconsin, he’s told he has to hit them in the heart, and he understands that perfectly because that’s exactly where physically disabled people strike him. But he also knows that computer literate people will be in more demand, so he’s also appealing to the practical side of executive leaders.
An investment in the physically disabled, he believes, is an investment in the workforce of the future. One day, according to Miller’s vision, the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in communities and workplaces will not be an exception, it will be an expectation.
“At the present time, individuals with physical disabilities are often isolated, and because they are isolated without much contact with the everyday world, we tend to think of them as `not being capable of learning or contributing,'” Miller said. “If you took a child out of the mainstream of society, that child doesn’t have the opportunity to interact with the world. So people falsely assume that physically disabled individuals are incapable of learning.
“We’re trying to correct that faulty assumption.”
At New Horizons, Miller has a three-person staff, and computer-training classes are conducted in a downtown Milwaukee office building, across the street from the US Bank Building. He taps into several sources for the names of disabled in need of help, including local churches.
New Horizons seeks to provide them with access to information on quality-of-life and employment issues, access to culture and the outdoors with five fully accessible cabins in state parks, and perhaps most importantly, access to information technology.
The organization’s Access Technology initiative is presented in collaboration with Microsoft, US Bank, Roundy’s, and other major corporate benefactors. Through this initiative, the organization grants Internet ready, Windows 2000 computer workstations to people with disabilities, not only for personal, in-home use, but to non-profits interested in creating more widely accessible computer literacy programs and facilities.
Disabled volunteers do some refurbishing of computers as an exercise in skill development with the goal of helping people find employment in PC support roles.
“The issue of relying on the physically disabled to infill the future IT workforce is going to be important moving forward,” Miller said. “We need to motivate corporate IT to get involved because there is a benefit to them down the road.”
New world view
Brian Brylow, chief technology officer for Robert W. Baird & Co., serves on the New Horizons’ seven-person board of directors. By providing free computers and Internet access to individuals with physical disabilities, New Horizons provides the window to a world that they might not normally experience, Brylow said.
That’s why he encourages other companies to support the non-profit organization.
Through the use of these technology solutions, Brylow said New Horizons enables its clients to access a variety of information related to their disabilities and participate in Internet communities and affinity groups. The organization also allows them to be active consumers in the online market for shopping, banking, and entertainment.
“As business and technology leaders, we can all help raise awareness of the need to support this important mission through donations of time, hardware, and services,” he said. “It is a great way to be able to give back to the community.”