Use AI tools to boost dignity for persons living with disabilities

Thirteen years ago, a brutal assault thrust my family into a world not designed for persons with disabilities (PWDs).

A transformative moment for both us and a beloved family member forced us to frantically look for affordable and accessible assistive technologies.

With the world rapidly beginning to design and harness artificial intelligence for all areas of our professional and personal lives, it is critical we look at how emerging technologies can empower persons with disabilities or risk them creating even more exclusion and marginalisation.

Hundreds of civic, business and disability rights leaders met at the 2024 Inclusive Africa Conference organised by InABLE to discuss the risks and opportunities of artificial intelligence for disability inclusion this week.

While being discussed in Europe and America, the discussions have yet to significantly inform national policymaking in Africa and Kenya. 

The development of national artificial intelligence policy under the Artificial Intelligence Taskforce set up by the Information, Communications and Technology Taskforce and this week’s ICT Ministry National Strategy development workshop offer an opportunity for Kenya to provide best practice law and policy.

Dignity, access, and affirmative action for PWDs is embedded in our Constitution (Article 21). Recent legal changes have shifted state obligations from a “special needs” approach to an integrated model that seeks to redesign all public services and spaces and make them more universally accessible and inclusive.

This model is in line with progress being achieved elsewhere in the world. Vitu kwa ground is different as any person with a disability who tries to cross streets, access e-citizen, attend school or other services will tell you.  The emergence of new technologies like generative artificial intelligence offers tremendous risks and opportunities for building disability-inclusive physical and online spaces and resources for Kenya’s 4.5 million PWDs and the rest of the population. While still largely a highly technical conversation, the risks are already showing up for millions.

The dangers of algorithms and language models that are disability exclusive and exclude the specific needs of those that are visually, hearing, mentally or physically different from most of society. Uncaptioned images, abusive or inaccurate voice-to-text responses and the under-representation of the existence of persons with disabilities are some of the challenges InABLE conference participants spoke about this week. 

AI is built on datasets. If that data has societal anti or PWD-neutral biases, artificial intelligence will perpetuate that bias ten-fold to us all. If the technology is not designed from a perspective of universal accessibility and is unable to capture speech impediments or persons with certain facial or physical features, it will lock out and violate the rights of PWDs.

AI must also be designed within the principle of privacy by design and the right of us all to be forgotten by erasing our personal data from the internet.  There are also huge and unimaginable opportunities. In the area of assistive technologies, the world now has the possibility of designing better wheelchairs, internet browsers and smarter devices that understand and can simultaneously translate sign language, our facial expressions for instance. The opportunity for AI-power systems to identify and programme smarter for PWDs and, live more independently by controlling their environment has never been this great.

New applications are already offering PWDs more effective ways to analyse and adapt to the environment around them, suggest more accessible routes, translate speech to text in real-time or caption videos at a fraction of the cost previously.

Once again, this generation has an opportunity to leap-frog decades of disability exclusion, exploitation, and the violation of rights by designing emerging technologies.

As co-panellist Googler Chris Patnoe so aptly put it this week. We all need to lean in but ensure that we “operate at the speed of trust” to ensure that all, and especially persons with disabilities, are able to confidently seize and design of the opportunities before us.

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