The role of telepresence robotics in workforce inclusion

Earlier this year, MIT and the world lost the brilliant mathematician, computer scientist, inventor, author and “father” of artificial intelligence — the legendary Dr. Marvin Minsky. Among his myriad scientific pursuits, Minsky was interested in robotics, and, specifically, “teleoperated robots.” He coined the term “telepresence” in an essay published in 1980 by Omni, a science and science fiction magazine.

In the essay, Minsky posited that, “Telepresence offers a freer market for human skills, rendering each worker less vulnerable to the moods and fortunes of one employer.” What a prescient insight into the rise of remote and distributed teams so many organizations use today.

In the same essay, Minsky acknowledged that not everyone would welcome this “remote-controlled economy” and instead some might see it as a path to massive unemployment. Twenty-six years later, similar points are being argued in the media, academia and popular culture.

Let’s pause on the robots-are-taking-over-our-jobs panic for a minute and take a look at how some robots — telepresence robots, specifically — could be used to give access not only to jobs but to meaningful and rewarding careers for a historically overlooked and excluded population — people with disabilities.

Finding tech solutions to human problems

The team at MIT Sloan School of Management Office of Executive Education had been using telepresence robots for the past two years quite successfully as part of our flex work policy. Encouraged by our own experience, we have started to think of other ways to use this technology beyond meetings and presentations. Opening up our classrooms to telepresence-robot-enabled participants seemed like a logical next step. We knew that a novel model like this would require an adjustment from everyone, including faculty, staff and program participants who would be attending in person.

To make this experience worth everyone’s time and effort, we decided to offer access to select programs for participants who may not consider enrolling otherwise — even though they and everyone in the room would benefit from their participation. This line of thinking led us to our fearless test pilot Thomas Hershey, an entertainment-industry executive based in Los Angeles.

A diverse executive pool not only makes sense, it is also good for business.

Geographic distance was not the only reason that made Tom an ideal candidate for us. Tom uses an electric wheelchair and traveling across the country would present its own set of unique challenges for him. With help from our staff, Tom had a great experience in the program and gave us plenty of improvement ideas for the future. Tom’s experience also made us think about the larger implications that telepresence robotics could have in the classroom and workplace for people with disabilities.

Diversifying the executive talent pool

Reports on boardroom diversity validate what we all have always known intuitively — a diverse executive pool not only makes sense, it is also good for business. Corporations are devising and implementing strategies to open their leadership ranks to women and people of color. More and more employers are becoming aware of hiring and promotion biases and are making systemic efforts to change for the better. We are still quite far from complete gender and race equity in the workplace, but the topic is widely discussed in tactical rather than aspirational terms, and there has been some progress.

Now, what can organizations do to extend the same type of thinking toward people with disabilities?

Lack of candidates has been a common argument in gender-biased hiring and promotion decisions. How can women be promoted when they don’t raise a hand? Other under-represented groups, like people with disabilities, face similar treatment. Federal, state and regional organizations are working hard to educate employers on issues surrounding the diverse talent pool that persons with disabilities can provide, yet widely adopted hiring and promotion practices are yet to manifest.

Removing workplace barriers

The United States Census reports that nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population lives with some type of disability — physical or mental, temporary or permanent, partial or severe, apparent or non-apparent. The spectrum is wide and highly varied, but the lack of professional opportunity is sadly common.

According to the year-to-date data published by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Disability Employment, only 19.9 percent of people with disabilities are participating in the labor force (compared to 68.6 percent of people without disabilities). Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to these statistics, but the general attitude is to put the onus on the people with disabilities and not on the professional environments and corporate structures that exclude them.

Redesigning the work environment

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 made it illegal for employers to discriminate against people with disabilities and aimed to “ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” Twenty years later, the law was revised to include Standards for Accessible Design intended to make public, residential and commercial spaces and transportation more accessible.

What is stopping us as a society to support and expand these initiatives until they are no longer a novelty?

In addition to raising diversity awareness, a logical step would be to make the workplace environment accessible to more people, both with disabilities and without. Mobility challenges are one of the typical reasons employers cite to explain the dismally low numbers of employees with disabilities. You have to be somewhere in person to perform the required tasks. That may be true for a number of occupations, but in this day and age, the more valuable — and lucrative — jobs are knowledge-based.

Your brain needs to be engaged to do to the job, not necessarily your body. If employers were to remove this co-location requirement, their talent pool would immediately widen and become more diverse.

Providing access to opportunity

Telepresence robots let people do exactly that. These seemingly simple and definitely non-threatening devices allow people to be “present” in a business meeting, “walk” down a hallway with a colleague, join a group at a conference room table or give a presentation on a conference stage.

The technology doesn’t approximate a “human experience” in the sense of being able to shake hands with someone, for example, or hold a door. Rather, it enables the remote participant to engage fully with co-located colleagues — much more so than the traditional tele- or video-conferencing tools do. Our Digital Learning Consultant at MIT Sloan Executive Education, Paul McDonagh-Smith, describes this technology as “a human enabler, which doesn’t just help us replicate physical things but, in some cases, to exceed physical limits and to do things in new ways.”

In this context, using telepresence robots as assistive technology is very much in the spirit of universal design (UD) — a wide range of concepts intended to create buildings, products and environments that everyone can access regardless of physical ability. Also called “inclusive design,” “accessible design” or “human-centered design,” UD originally sprung from architecture in the 1960s, and the idea spread to many other areas of human activity. For example, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a movement that aims to apply UD principles to education, so that all individuals can have equal opportunities to learn.

True inclusion — professionally and otherwise — remains a dream for many.

What if people with mobility challenges had easy access to telepresence robots to attend school or go to the office? Why can’t these robots work the same way as bike rentals in many cities around the world where people can check them out by the hour for sightseeing or for commuting? Add a strong citywide wireless network and presto! — a whole new swath of population has access to employment, education and entertainment.

“If you think about the individuals who have mobility challenges or who are geographically in different places, it seems surprising to me that we don’t use these types of technologies more to bridge humanity and geography more effectively,” Paul observes. There are plenty of examples of that already.

Museums are taking advantage of telepresence robotics to make their exhibitions accessible for people with disabilities. Hospitals use telepresence robots to connect doctors with remote patients in need of care. Schools help students keep up with the curriculum and even go on field trips when they are out of the classroom because of sickness or lengthy recovery. What is stopping us as a society to support and expand these initiatives until they are no longer a novelty?

Changing perceptions

Professor Steven Eppinger, who teaches the executive education program Tom attended via a telepresence robot, made an interesting point about perception. He noted that had Tom not mentioned the fact that he had a physical disability, no one in the room would be the wiser. Regardless, Tom was greeted with excitement about his novel mode of participation and not with awkwardness — which people without disabilities sometimes feel when meeting someone who is visibly different.

Changing mindsets is no easy task, and it won’t happen overnight. Around the world, governments and advocacy organizations have made considerable progress to raise awareness, develop strategies and build tangible solutions to address the myriad challenges that people with disabilities face every day. In the United States, the ADA has been in place for more than 20 years and is now considered the norm. The law and its revisions have given employers practical tools to continue expanding and diversifying their talent resources.

The Council of Europe issued an Action Plan 2006-2015 that includes universal design recommendations because of its power to “add principles like ‘the same entrance for all’ or ‘the same opportunity for all’ to accessibility, in order to ensure participation and integration in a more equal manner.” While these laws and initiatives are a big step forward in society’s acceptance of people with disabilities, true inclusion — professionally and otherwise — remains a dream for many.

At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we are planning the next phase of telepresence-enabled inclusion in our classrooms. To help us think carefully and strategically about next steps, we are continuing our partnership with BBsquared, a consultancy that advises organizations on diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives. Its founder, the disability diversity expert Sean Driscoll, helped us find Tom Hershey, and we have worked with Sean before in the context of our involvement with Work Without Limits, a statewide network that aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities in Massachusetts. Together, we are striving to expand our reach to larger, national networks in search of more candidates for our executive education programs.

The road ahead is long. For all of us to succeed in making the workforce more inclusive we need to start looking at people with disabilities as people first, and design experiences and environments that are accessible to everyone.