3 ways to make technologies more inclusive for people with disabilities

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Ching-Shiuan Jiang, Community Specialist , International Organisations and Humanitarian Agenda

  • AI can help describe surroundings for people who are visually impaired.
  • From colour contrast, to screen reader facilities, inclusive user interfaces are key to mobile-enabled services.
  • The market for assistive technology is on an upward trajectory.

Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are drastically changing every aspect of our lives. McKinsey estimates that digital transformation during the pandemic has fast tracked progress for what would have been achieved in five years. So how do we ensure the benefits reach everyone in society, including people living with disabilities?

From key 4IR technology drivers to specific assistive products, here are three ways to make our technologies more inclusive for people with disabilities:

1. Embed inclusivity in 4IR technologies

4IR technologies such as AI and blockchain have evolved to become the backbone of many products and services. On the one hand, people with disabilities are rising to the opportunities to innovate, for example using AI to help describe the surroundings for people who are visually impaired. On the other hand, there’s wide concern that if not steered, 4IR technologies may embed bias towards historically marginalized groups.

It is when advanced technologies are developed with inclusivity in mind that they can truly drive progress for all.—Ching-Shiuan Jiang

A recent report by the International Labour Organization points out the risks that artificial intelligence could bring in reproducing biases, if data collected and recognized does not include people with disabilities sufficiently. The Forum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 toolkit also urges awareness and action in addressing potential biases in applying technology-powered tools in companies’ recruitment processes.

Both the public and private sectors can play an active role in embedding inclusivity from the start. For example, the U.S. Department of Labour’s Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) provides guidance on how 4IR technologies such as AI, autonomous vehicles and extended/virtual reality devices should include people with disabilities, along with a Playbook designed for anyone looking to launch their tech initiatives inclusively.

It is when advanced technologies are developed with inclusivity in mind that they can truly drive progress for all.

2. Apply universal and accessible design in tech-enabled products

The use of tech products has seen a surge since 2020. However, to allow everyone to enjoy the benefits brought about by the boom in innovation, accessibility is key.

Industry leaders play an important role in designing inclusive products. Take the skyrocketing use of digital meeting platforms as an example; Microsoft Teams is leading the way, providing closed captioning functions which enable people with hearing impairment to take part fully. Equally, its Immersive Reader functionality supports people with dyslexia.

Beyond meeting platforms but still relevant to the remote working world, Microsoft’s accessibility checker in its Office 365 also seeks to help make sure that all documentation – including emails – are created accessibly.

Mobile-enabled services is another area that witnessed exponential growth last year, and inclusive user interfaces are key for their services to reach people with disabilities, both as customers and service providers. For instance, Gojek, an Indonesian unicorn providing services to 38 million users across South East Asia, last year began designing a more accessible app experience for users with disabilities, exploring functionalities such as adjusting the screen reader, colour contrast, and more.

In fact, the market value of inclusive design is set to be substantial. 15% of the world’s population has some type of disability. According to the Return on Disability Group, this consumer population is bigger than China and accounts for $1.9 trillion in disposable income.

Moreover, innovation sparked by inclusive design is proven to inspire broader use and open up new markets – for instance, Microsoft found that its closed captioning functions, which saw a 30-fold growth in use over the last year, not only benefit people with hearing impairments, but also facilitate a wide range of use such as in loud environments and for understanding various accents.

Graph showing People with Disabilities as the small portion (29% or visible): 71% as non-visible; Friends and Family as the next-largest portion, described as 'Evangelists', ready to act and 'preach' to others about the value inherent in People with Disabilities; and finally the Broader Market as the largest portion, adding how everyone benefits from innovations and insights derived from disability, and that 'design for all' equals scale.
Demographic analysis of the disability market Image: 2020 Annual Report: The Global Economics of Disability, Return on Disability Group

3. Invest in assistive technology with 4IR

Finally, there’s potential to accelerate the use of frontier technologies for assistive equipment, and doing so will directly impact the quality of life and productivity for many people with disabilities. The sophistication of assistive technology can be high or basic, but 4IR has provided new opportunities for more affordable or autonomous options.

Companies and organisations worldwide are experimenting with innovative solutions. For example, the VenusArm – ventured by young people and supported by UNICEF and Generation Unlimited – uses 3D printing to produce bionic prosthetics, and has brought the cost down to 1/30 of an artificial arm. These arms can also ‘’grow with children’’.

Similarly, international organisations such as UNDP and ICRC are also leveraging 3D-printing prostheses in developing countries, which presents huge potential given that 80% of people living with disabilities are in developing countries.

A lot of assistive equipment aims to increase mobility, but what about autonomous vehicles and the impact they could have on people unable to drive cars as they exist in their current format? Toyota, for instance, has seen this opportunity and has prototyped a new kind of vehicle with certain automated functions (such as parking) and with space to accommodate wheelchairs.

The WHO estimated that the market for assistive technology will reach US$26 billion by 2024, due to population growth and increased longevity, as well as technology advancement.

There are solid cases for private and public sectors to invest in inclusive 4IR, accessible design and assistive tech solutions, pushing the benefits of technologies to everyone and fulfilling the SDGs’ vision of leaving no one behind.

Essential to these endeavours is involving people with disabilities in the process and placing their needs at the centre. In the words of Gojek’s product design team, what it takes to make the move is a firm belief that “inclusivity is the right thing to do”.

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