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MSU researchers partner to advance disability inclusion

By Chelsea Stein
Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Faculty at Michigan State University are partnering to advance disability inclusion and create an improved future of work.

A team of experts from MSU’s Broad College of Business, College of Engineering and College of Education have been awarded a three-year, $400,000 Strategic Partnership Grant from the MSU Foundation to develop solutions to employ people with disabilities. The team is also partnering with Lansing-based nonprofit Peckham Inc. and national nonprofit network SourceAmerica on the project.

People with disabilities are a significant fraction of the U.S. population but are employed at substantially lower rates than people without disabilities. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the participation rate of people with disabilities in the workplace in 2021 was 21.3%, compared to 61.7% for those without disabilities.

Headshot of Sriram Narayanan, faculty lead of the grant developing solutions around disability inclusion.

Sriram Narayanan, Kesseler Family Endowed Faculty Fellow and professor of supply chain management

“Inclusion of people with disabilities is critically important for individuals because it results in greater independence, quality of life and well-being,” Sriram Narayanan, Kesseler Family Endowed Faculty Fellow, professor of supply chain management and faculty lead for the grant, said. “However, a major challenge in employing individuals with disabilities is the wide variation in the type and severity of disabilities that traditional work environments struggle to accommodate.”

From a supply chain standpoint, this work will enable a better analysis of the key processes where individuals work. The project, titled “Empowering Individuals With Disability in Employment Settings: An Ability-First Human-Centric Approach,” aims to use robotics and augmented reality to approach human factors and abilities in the workplace in a holistic approach.

“Traditionally, disability employment disparity issues were handled by a single proposed solution or approach and lack a holistic view from the individual, the technology, the organization and the society perspectives,” Hung Jen Kuo, assistant professor of rehabilitation counseling in the College of Education and co-principal investigator of the project, said. “This project will be the first of its kind that a true interdisciplinary collaboration can be formed with a focus on improving the life of individuals with disabilities.”

Inclusion of people with disabilities is critically important for individuals because it results in greater independence, quality of life and well-being.

For Narayanan, this work is a passion to which he has devoted much of his career. He has partnered with Peckham on past research projects to explore how disability diversity impacts productivity, and he was recognized this year by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity for his partnership and leadership on an inclusion-focused podcast. In addition, Narayanan serves as the faculty director of the Broad College’s Center for Ethical and Socially Responsible Leadership, helping to advance the college’s strategic work in the areas of inclusion and ethics.

“The SPG project, if successful, will be an example of interdisciplinary approach to solving challenges within the disability employment domain,” he said. “MSU especially can benefit because we are an interdisciplinary university. It also shows that we can participate in interdisciplinary projects across the university and make a difference.”

Putting disability inclusion on a national stage

Doubling down on this work, Narayanan is also leading a team of MSU experts to host a conference on “Abilities, Opportunities and the Future of Work.” Faculty from the Broad College, College of Education and College of Social Science were awarded a $46,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the event — the first of its kind.

Farnoosh Khodakarami headshot

Farnoosh Khodakarami, assistant professor of marketing

“People with disabilities are one of the largest minority groups in the U.S., yet they suffer from one of the highest unemployment rates,” Farnoosh Khodakarami, assistant professor of marketing and co-PI for the grant, said. “We hope this conference will serve as a platform to discuss opportunities for fostering a more inclusive work environment for people with disabilities.”

The conference aims to bring academic and industry experts together from across the country to create a practice and policy agenda to influence the future of work. It is being organized in partnership with the State of Michigan’s Labor and Employment Office and Peckham Inc., with plans to be held in May 2023.

“At Peckham, we experience the benefits of disability inclusion every day. We are a more dynamic and successful organization because of the contributions employees with disabilities make,” Sarah George, director of mission initiatives at Peckham, said. “We’re thrilled to partner with MSU and other key stakeholders to discuss and disseminate strategies that will help create a brighter future for people with disabilities in the labor market.”

Across both the SPG and the NSF grants, it’s clear that MSU faculty are reaching across boundaries through multidisciplinary work to enrich their scholarship and overall contributions to our collective knowledge. Our people are championing collaborative work to demonstrate how Spartans truly make an exceptional impact for business and society.

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