How AI can be an accessibility gamechanger for all

by Brian Wall - UK Accessibility Lead
| minute read

I’m sure that everyone would recognise that in a truly inclusive society, everyone should be able to play an equal role and have equal access to information, to fully contribute and reach their potential. 

We have seen progress in recent years. To drive up quality, various key international standards have been put in place – which include the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the 7 Principles of Universal Design, as well as the Government’s UK Social Value focus and expectations. 

In the last few years, in the area of assistive technology, as in other areas, we have seen a major shift from hardware and software to more cloud-based solutions, which users can access on the move and not just when on their home computer. The next natural step change will be the increased focus and utilisation of Artificial intelligence (AI). Everyone’s talking about AI and its many benefits now, but most are failing to realise how transformative it could be if it’s used to support accessibility solutions – we don’t often hear about this in the buzz and debate around this burgeoning technology.

From an accessibility and assistive technology point of view these are exciting times with exciting possibilities. AI boasts potential opportunity to build and enable a fully inclusive society. 

Neurodiversity and disability in numbers 

It’s estimated that around one in seven people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that they may learn and process information differently. Neurodivergent conditions include Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia, among others. 

According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, 17.8% of people in England and Wales are disabled, which equates to 10.4 million people. However, other sources suggest that there are a lot more disabled people within the UK. The definition of disability and the methodology used to identify disabled people can vary, which may account for the differences in these figures. 

In addition to this it’s important we recognise that whether people are disabled or not, there are levels of challenges that everyone faces. Most people will experience some kind of accessibility challenge in their lifetime, whether it’s temporary like a broken arm, ear infection, or going through menopause; age related, such as hearing loss; or a permanent condition.

So, a lot of people, facing a variety of challenges, could benefit immensely from tools and technology that improve accessibility.

AI assisted tools and accessibility

Technology has played an important role in helping to support people and limit the potential impact of the challenges they face. Many systems originally designed to help specific groups of people have benefitted people outside of those groups. Some of these tools include:

  • Microsoft Dictate tool and other voice to text software can help those who struggle to type or work best talking through an idea.
  • MS Read Aloud tool can read out a document or presentation helping people to understand and process the information, and it can help with concentration (especially if it’s a lengthy document).
  • Audio descriptions which explain what is happening can help those who may suffer with their sight.
  • Tools such as CoPilot which use Large Language Models (LLMs)can help summarise and spotlight key information from meetings so people can refer to and digest information in an alternative form.
  • Tools such as CoPilot to interpret information and/or create content have the potential to remove challenges and make work easier while improving quality and efficiency.
  • LLMs such as ChatGPT and CoPilot can rewrite content in a more casual and easier to understand way. This can help people to read, write and navigate information easier, and remove the reliance on physical and sensory capability.
  • Transcripts and captions switched on in meetings and included within videos to support those who may struggle with their hearing or for people accessing content in a noisy environment.

The best types of AI technology are coming from places where they think deeply about inclusive design and accessibility. The future of technology depends on it, because designing tech with accessibility in mind means designing great tech for everyone.

What’s really exciting is that the potential for AI to enhance existing solutions – and create new ones – is vast. I’m hopeful about this untapped potential, and I’m confident that AI holds the key to empowering people and building a more equitable society.

What does the future hold?

There are challenges facing the effective use of all kinds of AI, including biases within the algorithms and the security of tools, so we’ll need to work hard to ensure that the technology is serving people, and supporting an equal and equitable society. The potential benefits that using AI can bring as part of modern assistive technology are obvious, and worthy of focus and commitment.

I think we’ll see greater and easier connection between the different types of assistive technology currently available, which will help all users to reap their benefits. It's only a matter of time before voice activation applications, screen reader applications, and AI language models come together to support each other – this is where the magic will really happen. It might seem like something out of science fiction but think about how much of what we predicted in the past has become the reality of today – just imagine what the youth of today will see in the future.

Find out more about how we’re helping our clients harness the power or technology here.

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