Virtual reality job interview tool implements role-playing to help people with psychiatric disabilities

virtualscreenshotthumbnailJob interviews mother anxiety, and are the foundation of sweaty palms.

Fumbling with resumes and burdened with what to wear, no one truly likes a job interview.

Those suffering from psychiatric disabilities can find them even more worrisome.

Prof. Morris Bell, who teaches psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, has created software that will help those with psychiatric disabilities — including autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — train for job interviews.

Released by a software development company, SIMmersion, Bell says, "This journey began for me eight years ago when I saw a demonstration of the SIMmersion training aimed at training military chaplains to screen for suicide in troops."

He saw the opportunity to create a virtual job interview tool, and aimed it towards those with particular obstacles when entering the job market.

"In creating the program, I wanted it to be applicable to a range of disabilities and barriers," Bell said in an email interview with The Calgary Journal in early June.

"I particularly wanted it to meet the needs of veterans by having language that allowed the veteran to learn how to convert his military experience into employment strengths."

The software — Bell has dubbed it "You Got the Job!" — allows the user to self-identify with several categories, including: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), veteran, serious mental illness, spinal cord injury, first job, ex-offender, substance abuse history and other hidden disabilities such as ADHD.

How It Works

In a 30-minute video posted on the Yale School of Medicine's website, Bell describes how the program works and does a quick demonstration in front of an audience.

He explains how over 5,000 video clips of an actress were filmed, portraying the interviewer "Molly."virtualscreenshotWebMolly’ interviews users and responds to their answers via a speech recognition tool. Depending on answers, Molly reacts towards the user, either becoming friendlier, or getting colder.

Screenshot by Zoe Choy.

Through voice-recognition software, or through a click of the mouse, the user is able to respond to Molly's interview questions, selecting certain responses from a long list.

In turn, Molly reacts to answers, and the interview continues as a real-life conversation would.

The program has three "levels" of difficulty: friendly, business-like, or serious.

The user also receives immediate feedback, with "career coach" SIMmantha, who provides feedback and help if needed.

At the end of the interview, the user is scored on: dependability, teamwork, positivity, honesty, showing interest, professionalism, and good impression.

Users also have the option to adjust the dialogue to better suit their specific disability.

Research

Bell ran a clinical trial with 96 participants. Through a randomized selection, participants had up to 10 hours of training over five days, and participated in two pre-test role-play interviews, and two post-test role-play interviews.

Each interview was recorded and videotaped, and the interviewer was not aware of which participants went through the training.

Of the 96 participants, 37 had a serious mental illness, 33 were veterans suffering from PTSD, and 26 were on the autism spectrum.

For most participants it had been three years since they were employed, and the average age was 42.5.

Bell found an improvement not only in job interview skills, but also in self-confidence.

Software for a better future

"Right now the software is being used by an Easter Seals program for re-entry of recently incarcerated adults, and the (U.S. Veterans Affairs) Division of Veterans Benefits is doing field trials in four states with its vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with service-connected disabilities," Bell says.

He believes role-play is one of "the most effective training methods."

Vicki Harvey, president of the Autism Society of Canada, agrees role-playing can be a "very positive technique" for people with ASD.

"The strategies of practicing situations and having a chance to set them up to practice and to have some repetition around situations is very beneficial for people on the autism spectrum," Harvey says.

"Things that are new and haven't been experienced can provoke a lot of anxiety and makes it more difficult for them to perform up to their potential."

According to Statistics Canada, in Alberta alone the unemployment rate is doubled for people with disabilities as opposed to those without.

Harvey believes people with ASD have a lot to offer, but employers just don't give them a chance.

"I don't think there's enough awareness for people to realize that this is a demographic of people that can really offer a lot to the employment community.

"I think it's more of a lack of understanding in the community to recognize how beneficial it could be to have someone with autism, so I think there is a barrier," Harvey says.

She says software such as "You Got the Job!" is a step forward, and can make it possible to "exert someone's ability to perform better in the interview."

Currently, the software is available online, but Bell would like to see it being used by other rehabilitation programs.

"I would really like to see this in school-to work programs in high school and in many other settings as well.

"I have applied for a grant with the National Institute of Disability Research to study the intervention in a vocational rehabilitation program for seriously mentally ill in Brooklyn," Bell says.

The grant is waiting to be approved in October.

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