AI, meet accessibility - new potential for upping skilled employment

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks November 22, 2018
Summary:
The increasing potential for mixing AI and machine learning to get a significant boost to the employment pool.

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First, a statement of the blindingly obvious: many less able bodied people face a multitude of barriers that the abled blithely traverse without a thought.

Activities such as getting the train, getting the bus, going into a house or other building, about going shopping, and huge range of possible social interactions. All of those barriers get multiplied if disabled people then want to get a job.

Yet getting a job is an obvious benefit for a disabled person – and not just in terms of money. It also counts hugely in terms of self-esteem and self-worth in a world that is often set against them. It can be equally beneficial to the business that employs them, especially if the work is IT related. The disabled can be particularly adroit when it comes to productive work in IT. Their disability often makes them a better bet as a productive employee than many of the able.

So perhaps it was not too much of a surprise that, as part of the second day keynote presentations at the recent Microsoft Future Decoded conference in London, the future of disabled employment potentials was addressed head-on by two speakers - Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Jennie Lay-Flurrie, and the then Secretary of State of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, who resigned from the UK Cabinet as part of the general chaos surrounding Brexit.

As Lay-Flurrie pointed out, the disabled are at least twice as likely to be unemployed and that there is a growing need for a real change in culture across the world to make accessibility the norm rather than the exception. Part of the change also has to include a change in perception and the removal of pre-conceptions about the disabled, especially when it comes to assessing their potential as possible employees.

She acknowledged that even Microsoft had fallen foul of policies that tended to prejudice the disabled at the interview stage. These can be stressful occasions for anyone, and often put some disabled people at a disadvantage. It is a time when the mix of first impressions, preconceptions and a touch of unwarranted prejudice is at its strongest. The results for the disabled are not always beneficial:

But we had a change of policy at Microsoft and now many disabled people work there. This involved starting a programme of one-week `academies’, held every quarter. Here disabled people can come and be seen in action and show what they are capable of achieving.

Yes, Microsoft is a large organisation and can afford the time and money to put on, manage and assess the results of an operation like this. It is an approach that many small companies might envy, but feel is beyond them. The other side of that coin, however, is that it is highly unlikely that a reasonably hard-nosed US business like Microsoft would continue to invest the money if the results did not make it worthwhile.

It is arguably a model that most businesses can find the resources to offer in some way – for example a day or half-day 'come and try it out' session. It could easily unearth talent that would be far too easy to bypass with the standard job interview approach.

Lay-Flurrie also noted that disabled staff then often contribute ideas to new, and existing, products that make them more accessible and usable by the disabled, a process that has the potential to expose even more talent to the light of day:

For example, PowerPoint now has an in-built translator that puts captions slides, and colour management tools to overcome the problems caused by colour blindness. Even simple things like programs having a `Check Accessibility’ feature under the Review Tab help ensure that the output from applications is not causing unnecessary problems for disabled users.

Crazy 

Prior to her Secretary of State role, McVey had been Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Disabled People, a role in which she promoted the creation of the Disability Confident Scheme. It was specifically intended to give confidence to those businesses looking to work with the disabled, but unsure as to how to go about it or what might be involved.

Since its launch the scheme has progressed through a number of stages and she told the delegates that it had now reached the stage of self-empowerment of disabled people, a stage that was being launched at the Future Decoded conference. McVey said:

This is a crazy situation that we’ve got two different sets of people wanting to come together and how we are going to do that. People can say ‘I’m disabled, I’m confident’ and 'I’m disabled, look at who I am and what I can give to you’.

The scheme has enjoyed a good degree of success since its launch. Some 600,000 more disabled people have moved into work as a direct result, while in total there are now 3.5 million disabled people in the UK in work. But there is still more that can be done, and she sees growing scope for help from recent technology advances.

This is about challenging perceptions, a time when minds need to be opened a bit to see disabled people not just as potential workers, but also see their potential to be productive, innovative business people as well. It is also about seeing how the new technologies of machine learning, AI and robotics can be used to both assist and empower the disabled. McVey told the Future Decoded audience:

I know that disability will have touched your lives, if not now, then sometime in the future, because 22% of people are born with a disability, the rest of us will acquire it during our lifetime. In the workplace 1 in 6 people have a self-referred disability, so we are working around people with disabilities throughout our life and, as we grow older, we get them too. So there is a bit of self-interest here, because you’ll be helping yourself a little bit later in life too. But we also know that around the world there is a billion people needing more support. We know that people want assistive technology and want to buy your products. So it has got a business case, but more than a business case it has a social impact.

She suggested that the UK is a technology leader at Assistive Technology (AT), with some 1,700 AT products currently in the UK. There are 1150 businesses involved in AT, which together contribute £85m to the economy. The technology has also changed dramatically. AT equipment used to be niche, expensive, and often too bulky to use effectively.

But now all of that, and a great deal more, is available to all, at prices only aggressive competition can achieve, in the smartphone. As a  point of interest, she observed that the touch screen technology they all now use was developed by a start up company, FingerWorks, founded to try and find a solution to repetitive strain injury.

There are already some significant developments going to improve and level the field between the disabled and able, and these demonstrate how the latest technology can be exploited to the full. McVey mentioned Microsoft’s Windows Magnification, which is now being used to help the visually disabled overcome their specific impairments. She also talked about new devices that can convert speech to sign language, and the reverse:

It’s moved from the tech pages in IT magazines and it’s now in glossy magazines. That shows it’s opened up to the world and shows it’s opened up to everyone. That’s where we need to be. That’s what you [the delegates] are about.

The next chapter in this story she hopes to see is the closing of the gap in unemployment for people with disabilities. McVey sees this as a world problem, a world of second chance, capability, and ability and not one where people are locked outside. But she also sees the role Government can play as limited. It can bring in schemes such as ‘Disability Confident’ and ‘Access to Work’, a fund that will give people money to get there. But she sees the main responsibility being with business as employers.

My take

It is not unreasonable to presume that most businesses have, historically, looked on employing disabled people as some of a win:well-maybe. But things are definitely on the change. Technologies such as machine learning and AI are moving the goalposts in a way that can really play to the strengths of the disabled, taking away at least some of the need for skills in areas such as manual dexterity and opening up the number of ways their brains and intellects can be exploited. For some work areas, for example coding and applications development, those brains can already be a much better bet. Now they may well become available to a much wider range of applications.