Artificial Intelligence’s role in advancing accessibility and inclusion spotlighted at 2023 WISE Summit

Artificial Intelligence’s role in advancing accessibility and inclusion spotlighted at 2023 WISE Summit

The role of Artificial Intelligence in the lives of persons with disabilities – and the need to ensure it does not leave them behind – has been placed in focus at the 11th edition of the WISE Summit.

A roundtable discussion at the global education conference hosted by Qatar Foundation’s (QF) education think tank WISE, held in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Development and Family and Accessible Qatar and titled ‘Artificial Intelligence for Accessibility and Inclusion’, addressed AI-related topics including independence, self-perception, privacy, confidentiality, education, and legislation.

Staying true to the “nothing about us without us” motto, Qatar’s community of persons with disabilities was fully involved in the session, which saw participation from the blind and visually impaired, hearing impaired, and physically impaired, as well as neurodivergent members of society. Moderated by Dr. Joselia Neves, Associate Dean for Social Engagement at QF’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, it began by focusing on how AI is already impacting the lives of people with disabilities.

Dr. Hayat Khalil Hassan Nazar Heji, a consultant at Qatar’s Al Noor Institute for the Blind said there is no denying that AI has allowed persons with disabilities to become more independent. “As a visually impaired person, I can say I already use apps that use Artificial Intelligence to help me see,” she said.

“Through the app, I can take a picture of anything, and it will describe it for me. It will read a document for me. It will tell me about my surroundings. It basically acts like my eyes. However, as helpful as it is, I am also aware that I am willingly giving it a lot of my personal data, which, in turn, raises privacy concerns.”

Another common concern voiced in the session was how AI will automate some jobs and result in job loss for persons with disabilities. Dr. Khalid bin Ali Al Nuaimi, President of the Arab Union for the Blind, explained: “Several members of the disability community work as call center or information desk agents, both of which will be among the first jobs AI will fully replace.

“While it is true AI will also mean new employment opportunities, we should ensure we are upskilling persons with disabilities in a timely manner, to ensure their employment prospects are not threated by AI.”

Another challenge aired was the non-adherence to accessibility guidelines and requirements by some websites or applications – an unnecessary barrier that can be overcome by education and awareness; while speakers strongly advocated for ensuring educational curriculums have courses focusing on programming and developing, include mandatory courses on accessibility.

Faisal Al Kooheji, Chairman of Qatar Social and Cultural Center for the Blind, said: “We need more policies, clear legislation, and most importantly strict enforcement to ensure all new technology developed adheres to accessibility guidelines.

“And before any new technology is released in the market, we need to ensure it does not just satisfy technical evaluation, but also user testing by persons with disabilities.”

Another key topic discussed was financial accessibility. A number of accessibility features such as ‘voice-over’ are available in high-end phones, and speakers said this must change as not every person with disability is able to, or should be expected to, afford the most expensive phones in the market to be able to access basic accessibility features.

Commenting on the role of AI in education, Nasreen Sharif, Founder of Step by Step – a special needs center in Qatar – said AI has “transformative potential” in making education inclusive and customizable to suit individual needs. Adding that her center is using AI to offer personalized learning experience for our children and young adults, she said: “It’s almost like creating mini curriculums for each student based on their needs and their progress – a level of personalization that would be near impossible without technology.”

Dr. Neves urged the need for collaboration between researchers, software developers, and persons with disabilities, saying: “Don’t assume the needs of persons with disabilities, but engage with them, ask them about their needs and go from there.

“When it comes to AI, we’ve really got to run with it, or, before we know it, it’ll be ahead of us.”

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