AI a potential game changer for people living with disabilities

Attendees at the European Accessibility Summit in Brussels

Editor’s Note: This post covers discussions at the fourth edition of European Accessibility Summit in Brussels on June 8, 2023, an event organized by the European Disability Forum and supported by Microsoft.

Jan-Jaap Hamers is full of ideas about the potential for artificial intelligence to improve his quality of life. The Project Leader for Digital Inclusion at Dutch telecommunications company KPN is blind, and he can imagine a host of scenarios in which the emerging technology will not only make day-to-day tasks easier, but more pleasurable, too.

“I hope that in the future, I will have ergonomically formed glasses with a camera in them, and I can go to the supermarket, and it tells me, ‘You have a bag of chips in your hand, and they are paprika chips,’” he said. “I hope it will make my life in the future easier, and that I can interact more socially, as it will recognize people in my contacts list or Facebook page. I really hope it will make my life more enjoyable.”

A few years ago, this wish list may have seemed improbable. But, since the unveiling of OpenAI’s ChatGPT 4 in March, an understanding of the vast potential of AI has spread all over the globe – sparking energetic discussions over implementation possibilities.

“AI clearly has an enormous upside for people with disabilities,” Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, told participants at this year’s European Accessibility Summit. “If you lean into some of these technologies, they can change the employment and education gaps and many more. “

Many people living with a disability have a keen interest in finding out more about what AI technology can do for them. To help unlock the potential for AI to help with a host of accessibility issues in education, employment, and day-to-day life, there’s a recognition that new technology will need to be designed inclusively.

“I really see a lot of benefits for people with disabilities but, before we can use this, we have to make markers, what minimal standards we will use,” said Bianca Prins, Global Head of Accessibility for Dutch bank ING.

The European Accessibility Summit gathered stakeholders from various sectors to raise awareness of the importance of accessible technology in work, education, and leisure for persons with disabilities in Europe, and anticipate how the European Accessibility Act will be implemented for 2025 in a manner that helps spur innovation.

Already, the scenario given by KPN’s Hamers is edging closer to reality. For example, Microsoft’s Seeing AI, a talking camera app, is using AI to produce ever-more accurate audio descriptions for people with visual impairments.

Lidia Best, President of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing, had similar high hopes for AI: She is Polish and struggles to get the current generation of voice-to-text captioning to understand her accent when speaking in English.

“[AI] has huge potential, for example listening to my accent, learning how I speak, and producing perfect captioning – that is my dream” she said.

AI is already supporting accessibility features in many Microsoft products, including captioning in Teams, the Immersive Reader for people with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, and automatic alt text for images in Microsoft 365 products.

“A has the potential to be a game changer in many ways, whether it’s the potential to help you recognize images, whether it’s using a personal assistant responding to your voice, or increasing access to daily information that can make your life a bit easier,” said Nanna-Louise Linde, Vice President of European Government Affairs at Microsoft.

The summit was also a space where people could discuss potential challenges and possible solutions. For Prins, a key issue was the diversity of the data used to train AI systems.

“We know there is not a lot of data on people with disabilities,” she said. “There needs to be a way where we can set minimal standards of data of minority groups to make sure AI is accessible for everybody.”

Addressing the disability data divide is a broader concern that Microsoft is seeking to address in partnership with the World Bank to strengthen the collection and use of disability disaggregated data to advance representation and inclusion.

Another point raised during the summit discussions was the importance of people with disabilities participating in product development so that inclusion considerations can be taken into account from the outset.

“You can’t build a culture of product inclusion without infusing accessibility in the core DNA of a company,” said Gurpreet Kaur, Vice President of Accessibility and Inclusive Design at Mastercard. “This includes hiring people with disabilities, making sure your physical spaces and virtual experiences are accessible, making sure people with disabilities feel like they belong, so they have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made.”

Incorporating accessibility in the AI revolution would also mean reaching a huge segment of society. People with disabilities account for about 15% of the world’s population. In the EU, one in four Europeans have some form of disability. Globally, they are one of the fastest growing demographics because of population growth, increased life expectancy, and greater awareness around detection of disabilities.

Microsoft’s Saqib Shaikh is part of ongoing efforts to incorporate accessibility and the perspective of people with disabilities into the company’s product development and innovation. Saqib lost his sight when he was seven years old. He is the software engineer who created Seeing AI, and he brings a deep personal understanding to his work.

“I imagine this future where AI and humans work together,” he said, “where the AI understands us each as individuals, and can fill in the gaps for each and every one of us.”

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