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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Design AI 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 harnessing artificial intelligence for all areas of our personal and professional lives, let's design emerging technologies that empower persons with disabilities or risk creating even more exclusion and marginalization.


Hundreds of civic, business and disability rights leaders met at the 2024 inclusive Africa Conference organized 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 Ministry and this week’s ICT Ministry AI National Strategy development workshop offer an opportunity for Kenya to provide best practice law and policy in this area.


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 kwaground is different as any person with a disability who tries to cross streets, access e-citizen, attend schools 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 across the world. There is danger in disability exclusive algorithms and language models that cannot nuance the specific needs of those that are visually, hearing, mental or physically different from most of society. Uncaptioned images, disrespectful or inaccurate voice to text responses and the under-representation of persons with disabilities were some of the challenges inABLE conference participants spoke about this week.


AI is built on datasets. If that data is oblivious or neutral to the experience of PWDs, artificial intelligence will perpetuate that bias ten-fold. If the technology is not designed from a universal access perspective 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 be designed within the principle of privacy by design and the right of 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 powered 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. We will need to work collaboratively across business, public benefits organisations and governments to do this comprehensively.

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

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 18 May 2024


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