Supporting the Employability of People with Disabilities
Yue Zhu '22
Hospitality & Tourism Management
“I have expanded my interest in hospitality and have become familiar with the disability laws across countries; the discoveries from previous research studies; and the current environment. It was a fun and explorative journey for me.”
In summer 2021, a news story about Walmart’s firing of an employee caught the attention of Yue Zhu ’22, a hospitality & tourism management major at UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management.
The employee, who has Down’s syndrome, was let go because of her inability to adapt to new work schedules, Zhu recalls. It brought to mind examples she had seen of other businesses supporting their employees with disabilities through innovative practices.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, including workplace renovations and the purchase of adaptive technologies. Meanwhile, adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and robot technologies has grown in the hospitality industry around the world, Zhu says, from automatic smart hotels in China to a humanoid robot serving customers at the new Istanbul Airport to robots at hotels in the Netherlands and Singapore that enabled social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought that AI and robots could bring a positive change to enhance and support the employability of people with disabilities in the hospitality industry,” says Zhu, who comes from Guangxi, China.
Zhu approached Emily Ma, associate professor of hospitality & tourism management, who taught her class on human resources management. Together, Zhu and Ma developed a research study to explore how assistive digital technologies could support the employability of people with disabilities in the hospitality industry. It is believed to be one of the first studies on this topic, thus contributing to the hospitality human resources management literature.
Our study aims to draw more attention from researchers and practitioners to facilitate positive change for people with disabilities in hospitality.
Zhu and Ma searched intensively on the internet, major social media platforms, and news outlets for examples of organizations in the hospitality and tourism industry using AI and robot technologies to enable and enhance disabled people’s employability and work experience. They conducted a literature review and case studies on two businesses—Home Robot Chef in the U.S. and Dawn Avatar Café in Japan.
“Home Robot Chef is a great example of how AI and robots can provide practical support for complex tasks in the kitchen, such as chopping and mixing. And Dawn Avatar Café shows that people with mental and physical disabilities can be helped with AI and robots to conduct quality customer relationship tasks,” says Zhu. “Our study aims to draw more attention from researchers and practitioners to facilitate positive change for people with disabilities in hospitality.”
Zhu and Ma wrote about their research in a paper titled, “Technology Enhanced Employability for the Disabilities—a Case Study of the Hospitality Industry,” which was accepted for a poster presentation at the 27th Annual Graduate Education & Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism.
“I see her potential as a rising star of research,” Ma remarks.
This research experience allowed Zhu to develop skills in large-scale literature review, research methods, data analysis techniques, and academic writing. It also helped her to study hospitality through a different lens. “Most importantly, I have expanded my interest in hospitality and have become familiar with the disability laws across countries; the discoveries from previous research studies; and the current environment. It was a fun and explorative journey for me,” she says.
In the future, Zhu hopes to pursue this line of research further to learn more about possibilities to use AI, robots, and other advanced technologies to help people with disabilities and support their equity in employment within the hospitality and tourism industry.
After graduating, she plans to continue her studies of hospitality and tourism in a master’s program.