Connecting People with Jobs

Cornell alum, staff, students team with community members to build software
David Brewer, Yang-Tan Institute extension associate
Thursday, July 13, 2017

Susan Porter ’14 was trying to help a man in his 20s, who has disabilities, find a job.

“I asked him what he did well, and he couldn’t think of anything,” she recalled. “It’s so sad. Many of my clients within this population have never been told that they can do anything well.”

But, the young man could do some things very well. Slowly, gradually, Porter, who is an employment specialist at Linking Employment, Abilities and Potential, known as LEAP, based in Cleveland, Ohio, coaxed answers out of the man.

She began by asking him what he liked to do for fun, then figuring out with him how those interests, talents and skills could transfer to the workplace. “It takes a lot of work upfront,” Porter said.

By the end of this summer, Porter, an active member of the Cornell Club of Northeast Ohio, could have some help in the form of a chatbot – a software application that conducts conversation via audio or text. It is being developed by Cornell students, alumni, staff and community professionals.  

The group met last spring at a New York City makeathon and hackathon co-sponsored by ILR’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.

Sam Dix ’13 attended the event to contribute his expertise to the team, which includes Allie Meng, ENG ’15; Zili Xiang, AAP ’16, MPS Information Science ’17; W. Aaron Lee, Hum Ec ’16, and Dongdong Yu, MPS Dyson ’16, MPS Information Science ’17.  

There, freelance user experience designer Shan Oran Liu met David Brewer, Yang-Tan Institute extension associate. Brewer and John Robinson, CEO of Our Ability, an online service that helps people with disabilities find jobs, had been hoping to develop an application for young job seekers.

“John and I have long been working on this idea of mobile connectability,” Brewer said. “Most young people have smartphones.”

They are also accustomed to texting, Liu said. Liu and others at the hackathon worked with teenagers onsite to come up with the chatbot, which uses IBM Watson artificial intelligence to ask users questions in a texting format. The inventors are working to include voice recognition for people who can’t type or who have low vision.

Besides helping students identify skills, interests and career goals, the software suggests local internships or jobs, Brewer said.

Brewer and Robinson are working to make the chatbot part of Our Ability Connect, the national online job board for Our Ability. The project will cost about $25,000, Brewer said. He, Robinson and Porter are working to secure funding.

Brewer envisions the chatbot “impacting the lives of young people everywhere.”

Porter also sees it helping professionals by freeing them up to spend more time working with employers to find and develop suitable jobs for people who have disabilities.

She envisions it eventually being used by a variety of agencies not only in the employment world, but in the development of similar apps which would allow people with disabilities to live independently.