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How Might AI Impact the Future of Work for People With Disabilities?

Posted March 07, 2024


Posted March 07, 2024

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A purple accessibility symbol, with an icon of a person on the left and a gear on the right.

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In this blog post, AudioEye A11iance Advocate Maxwell Ivey examines some of the ways AI can positively impact the lives of people with disabilities, from improved personal assistance and enhanced accessibility of digital content to new employment opportunities.

With all the news stories about AI (artificial intelligence), I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the subject — and how it applies to the future of work and people with disabilities.

As some of you may know, the current employment conditions among the disabled aren’t great. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is approximately 75% for physical disabilities and 85% for developmental disabilities. That doesn’t include people with mental illness or people who are underemployed, underpaid, or who intentionally keep their incomes low to avoid losing government benefits that include health care.

And like with other types of progress in the world, there is always concern about whether technology will result in fewer jobs — and where the bulk of those lost jobs will occur.

Many of us have heard that the word ‘sabotage’ comes from a Japanese word for shoe because workers there were concerned about losing their jobs to machines in the early days of the Industrial Revolution — and shoved their shoes into the machines to break them and try to force their bosses to maintain the existing system.

Already, we’ve seen the continual erosion of available jobs caused by technological advances. From computers eliminating the need for huge typing pools to robots that can perform many dangerous or mundane tasks.

AI and the Future of Work

With that in mind, I asked myself how the increased use of AI would impact the future of work for people with disabilities.

First, AI could help disabled people complete tasks more quickly, making them more competitive in the job application process. Recently, I noticed that LinkedIn now lets you use AI to automatically update your ‘About Me’ section. This could also be used when submitting different resumes depending on what type of job you’re applying for and the skills you want to emphasize.

AI could also lead to greater inclusion, online and in person. For example, improved search capabilities on e-commerce websites could make it easier to shop online, and more responsive answers from chatbots could make it easier to get help and make confident buying decisions.

But part of me worries if AI — and the people building it — are going to make the same decisions about the disabled community that the able-bodied have been making for generations.

What if AI decides there simply aren’t enough people with disabilities, or our buying power isn’t strong enough, or our potential contributions to society aren’t valuable enough? And the people helping build AI decide that making the world better for people with disabilities isn’t necessary?

I would hope people are more enlightened than that, but history makes me skeptical. So, people with disabilities need to pay attention and do what we can to ensure we have a seat at the table where those decisions are being made.

How Can AI Support and Empower People with Disabilities?

There’s little doubt that AI will change the future of employment. But how will it affect the disabled community? Here’s my best guess.

First, we have to talk about the different kinds of AI. Generative AI and Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, are the two primary types. Generative AI includes tools like ChatGPT that output information based on user prompts or commands. AGI is able to learn and evolve without the need for human input or intervention. We’re still a while from seeing true AGI, but many experts say it will be here in the next two to five years.

Recently, I started my own trial with ChatGPT.

One of the things I’m doing outside of AudioEye is starting a podcast on accessibility called the Accessibility Advantage. I asked ChatGPT what I should put in my podcast description and what I should write about my current services.

The results I received blew me away. Not just the language, but the abundance of keywords for hashtags and search engine optimization.

I’ve been told that ChatGPT can even help me create the cover art for my podcast simply by telling it what I want in my image. And it’s supposed to be able to describe images at a level far beyond what you can get from other automated image alt text generators.

Here are some of the other ways I believe AI can positively impact the lives of people with disabilities:

  • Enhanced Accessibility of Digital Content: AI can convert text to speech and vice versa, making digital content more accessible. This technology can read out text from websites, emails, and documents, enabling blind users to access a wider range of information.
  • Navigation Assistance: AI-driven tools can assist in navigation by providing audio descriptions of surroundings. This can be particularly useful in unfamiliar environments, helping to identify obstacles, read signs, and provide directions.
  • Improved Personal Assistance: AI can act as a personal assistant, helping with tasks like scheduling, setting reminders, and even identifying objects or people through image recognition technology.
  • Education and Learning: AI can make learning more accessible through personalized education tools. This includes reading out educational material, converting written material into Braille, or providing interactive, audio-based learning experiences.
  • Social Interaction: AI can facilitate social interactions by describing people’s emotions, actions, or surroundings in social settings, which can be particularly helpful in understanding non-verbal cues.
  • Employment Opportunities: AI tools can help create more accessible workplaces, opening up a range of employment opportunities for the blind community. This includes accessible computer interfaces and tools that can assist in various job tasks.
  • Creative Expression: AI can assist in creative endeavors like music, art, or writing, providing a platform for the blind community to express themselves creatively.
  • Healthcare and Daily Living: AI can assist in healthcare by reminding patients to take medications, describing symptoms, or even providing basic diagnostic information. For daily living, AI can assist in tasks like identifying food items, reading instructions, or managing home appliances.

Embracing AI Just Might Be the Best Course

AI has the power to improve so many aspects of the lives of people with disabilities. However, it also has the potential to eliminate existing employment opportunities and force everyone — including people with disabilities — to learn new skills or re-educate themselves on how to excel in a vastly different industry, profession, or trade.

I don’t personally think disabled people should fear the coming of AI. While it could result in fewer jobs that are traditionally held by the disability community, it can also open up a whole new world of possibilities.

I don’t think AI will reduce most of us to returning to institutions, the care of family members, or begging on the streets.

But we still have to do our part. We must do what we can to be seen, heard, and understood by the people and companies developing these new technologies. That means we have to try out their products and let them know if we feel it is denigrating people with disabilities — or not including accessibility in its consideration of problem-solving.

People who are activists must draw attention to the needs of disabled people when government bodies discuss regulating AI. Writers, podcasters, streamers, and public speakers need to educate companies on the best practices of accessibility so AI doesn’t leave our community behind.

Just like the assembly line, AI is coming. We can’t wish it away or say it won’t affect us. And we shouldn’t think, “Woe is me; my future is dark because AI will get rid of my current job.”

Instead, we should do everything possible to ready ourselves and ensure that our shared digital future — whatever shape and form it takes — is equitable and inclusive.

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