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Exploring the Strengths and Weaknesses of AI for Persons with Disabilities

By Donna Bungard
Sr. Accessibility Program Manager at Indeed
Billion Strong Global Advisor

AI & Disability: A Three-Part Series

With the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) into various aspects of our society, there has been growing conversation surrounding its implications for the Disability Community. As this field continues to expand exponentially, it becomes increasingly crucial to explore its impact. In the upcoming series of articles, we aim to dive into the multifaceted relationship between AI and individuals with disabilities, covering various aspects, including:

  1. The overarching strengths and potential risks of AI for persons with disabilities.
  2. The impact of AI on the employment and hiring processes for individuals with disabilities.
  3. Forward-looking strategies: Three actionable approaches to enhance disability inclusion within the realm of AI.

Through these discussions, our objective is to provide readers with a deeper understanding of how the emergence of AI technology intersects with the professional lives of people with disabilities. By shedding light on these important considerations, we hope to foster informed dialogue and facilitate the creation of more inclusive workplaces with greater wellbeing for all.

After completing research but before writing, I turned to ChatGPT and prompted it to craft an article exploring the dynamics surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on individuals with disabilities. The article’s opening sentence resonated deeply: ‘In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, artificial intelligence (AI) stands out as a transformative force with immense potential to enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities.’ This sentiment rings true, as AI represents a promise, bringing us closer to the ideals. However, within this promising landscape lie inherent risks, particularly for marginalized groups, including the vast community of individuals with disabilities who often find themselves among the most vulnerable.

In the following discussion, we delve into the opportunities that AI presents for people with disabilities, showcasing its potential to revolutionize accessibility and inclusivity. However, alongside these opportunities, it is crucial to address the ethical considerations and potential pitfalls that arise with the widespread adoption of AI technologies. Therefore, we not only celebrate the advancements but also advocate for the implementation of robust safeguards to ensure that the integration of AI aligns with our collective values and prioritizes the wellbeing of all individuals, regardless of their abilities.

AI & disability: a positive note

Assistive devices have long been instrumental tools for individuals navigating everyday life. From traditional aids like canes to more recent innovations such as voice-to-text technology, these tools have played a crucial role in enhancing accessibility. With the integration of AI, we have unprecedented opportunities to create more equitable experiences than ever before.

“It’s a huge market: Up to 3.5 billion people will need assistive products by 2050.” – Axios

AI’s influence on information communication technology (ICT) is profound and wide-ranging, encompassing devices like in-home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, voice-activated features on wearable tech like Apple Watches, and voice dictation capabilities on smartphones and laptops. By enabling hands-free and voice-activated functionalities, AI technology aids users with various visual or mobility barriers while catering to individuals with cognitive disabilities who may struggle with typing and grammar. Moreover, when AI technology is utilized for text-to-voice applications, it grants a voice to those who are non-verbal or experiencing voice-related challenges, allowing them more participation in the workplace. Even seemingly simple tools like calendar reminders can significantly benefit individuals with disabilities, helping them manage distractions or hyperfocus.

The impact of AI in ICT extends beyond logistical office operations; it also addresses the isolation that individuals with disabilities may often encounter.

However, AI’s potential goes beyond communication facilitation and scheduling assistance. Innovative technologies are in development to address gaps in traditional assistance methods, such as shortages in guide dogs for individuals with visual impairments. AI-powered solutions offer independence when navigating the world. Furthermore, AI is revolutionizing physical prosthetics, enhancing individuals’ abilities to interact with the physical environment and aiding in the movement of limbs affected by impairment.

“Our research suggests that in the coming years up to 40% of the time people spend working could be assisted by AI that understands language and can converse with its users” – Harvard Business Review

In essence, AI is pushing the boundaries of assistive technology, growing at the speed of imagination, and enriching the lives of millions.

A warning about AI & disability

While the potential of AI holds scalable promise, it also carries inherent risks that must not be overlooked in our pursuit of development. It’s essential to recognize that AI is not magic; it’s not human. Rather, it operates through systems of algorithms and probabilities, capable of replicating certain aspects of human behavior but unable to replicate our full humanity.

Why is it crucial to emphasize this point? While it may seem obvious, as our reliance on AI continues to grow, we must question the sources from which AI derives its information.

Even if AI learns solely from human history and not the biases of a few programmers, we must acknowledge that human history is fraught with assumptions, prejudices, and acts of injustice that we certainly do not wish to perpetuate in our systems.

At its core, bias, particularly unconscious bias, has been an evolutionary survival mechanism for our species. While humans can confront and learn from these biases, programming them into our algorithms risks perpetuating and even exacerbating these biases. Moreover, as other machines learn from our biased systems, these biases become further ingrained and perpetuated, potentially setting back human rights and justice initiatives by centuries.

Therefore, it is imperative that we remain vigilant and proactive in addressing bias within AI systems. By acknowledging the limitations and risks inherent in AI development, we can work towards creating more equitable and just technological solutions that uplift humanity rather than perpetuate harmful biases.

Additionally, even setting aside these concerns, it’s important to recognize that not all AI-driven assistive technologies are accessible or affordable for everyone. This reality exacerbates existing inequalities, widening the inequity gap for certain individuals or communities.

A happy medium

Thinking about the initial article ChatGPT wrote, was its conclusion emphasizing the need to utilize AI for good rather than allowing it to veer into harmful territory. However, it failed to address the crucial role of humans in this equation, which, if I’m being honest, left me feeling a bit unsettled.

It’s essential to remember that AI should always remain a tool and not a standalone solution. Just as we use a hammer efficiently to drive nails into wood but wouldn’t entrust it with nailing things at its own discretion, we must approach AI cautiously. While it can undoubtedly aid us in creating remarkable innovations, we cannot rely on it to shape our reality or fix complex issues, as it lacks the understanding of the diverse complexities of human existence. Simply put, just as a poorly handled hammer can cause harm, so too can AI.

This doesn’t mean we cannot leverage AI to enhance and enrich lives, particularly for individuals with disabilities. Our responsibility is to wield this tool thoughtfully, ensuring that we retain control over the final decisions and infuse each project with our humanity.

Disability is indiscriminate; individuals with disabilities come from all walks of life, encompassing various races, ages, genders, and education levels. AI holds the potential to assist us in building a more equitable world for the entire disabled community. Ultimately, it falls upon us to keep our hands firmly on the tool and our hearts aligned with humanity.

Read more about Donna Bungard, the author of this article, by clicking here.

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