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Making machines smart by keeping things fair: EDF conference on artificial intelligence

For better or worse, the term ‘artificial intelligence’, or simply AI, still conjures up science-fiction-like images of dangerously powerful computers or malevolent robots overthrowing the human race. It still seems like something that belongs in the future, even though it’s been around for a long time and is being used by countless numbers of people on a daily basis, many without even realising.

Online retail websites, social media platforms, film and music streaming services, email filtering systems and ‘virtual assistants’ like Siri and Alexa all use AI, to name just a few uses. And as many e-Access Bulletin readers will know, those virtual assistants also have a wide range of benefits for people with disabilities. So, how can artificial intelligence be harnessed to provide as much assistance as possible for people with impairments? And how can the technology be developed in the future to be of even more use in this are?

These were two of the topics being discussed at an event in Vienna organised by the European Disability Forum (EDF), titled ‘Using artificial intelligence to enhance accessibility – opportunities and risks of emerging technologies for persons with disabilities’.


Facebook uses AI to open up photos for blind users

Blind and visually impaired users of Facebook will be able to find out which of their friends are in photos thanks to facial recognition technology.

Facial recognition is already used by the social networking site – for example, to suggest friends that users may want to tag in photos – but the company recently extended the use of this feature for screen-reader users. The new feature means that those users will be able to hear which of their friends are in photographs that appear on the user’s news feed, even if those friends are not tagged in the picture.


Interview: Sonya Huber, Disability March – impactful online activism

On January 21 2017, around half a million people took part in the Women’s March in Washington D. C. Symbolically scheduled for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States, the aim of the Women’s March was to support and stand up for women’s rights and equality around the world, with millions more marching across the globe in related events. But what about those people who wanted to support the cause but couldn’t attend a march in person?

This was the dilemma facing many people with a disability or health issues. To address this widespread problem, an online virtual march was set up. The Disability March platform enabled anyone to show their support for the cause without having to physically march – a task that would have been dangerous for some and impossible for others.

Supporters signed-up to the online Disability March and shared their messages through the project’s blog and Twitter account. Thousands took part and others were able to see their stories unfold online.


Social networking through voice rather than vision

A free communication app based on voice messages is proving popular with blind and visually impaired users, and has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help expand its community.

Users of the Vorail app communicate by recording questions or thoughts as short voice messages, which are available for other users to listen to and reply. Users just need to set up a basic profile, without any photos or images.


Paralympics Effect ‘Challenges Perceptions of Disabled People’

The impact of the 2012 Paralympic Games on public attitudes towards disabled people has been positive but some campaign groups have sought to “misuse” it for political ends, a leading activist told this year’s eAccess conference.

And disability consultant and campaigner Simon Stevens told delegates that while the London Games had raised the profile of disability issues, it would take some time before we could judge whether the effect will be lasting.


Ro O’Shay: The World at My Fingertips

After training as a clinical support worker, US-based blogger Ro O’Shay was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006, before losing her sight in 2008. Since then, the internet and new communications technologies have gradually become a lifeline for her, and she is now a keen writer and technology-user. Tristan Parker talks to her about her passion for technology.


Internet Campaigning: Time To Make Our Voices Heard

Our accessibility campaign and consultancy group Pesky People started life as a blog developed in response to Digital Britain, the UK government’s strategy for boosting our digital economy which did not include people with disabilities in any way. We responded by campaigning against this digital discrimination and evolved from a blog into a website and now a company.

We are just one example of how disabled and deaf people now have the opportunity to be a part of the web – to use it, to come up with ideas that work for them and others and to make them happen. Go Genie ( is our response to the need for easy to find access information that crowdsources information from disabled people themselves, but is useful for everybody.

It isn’t so much about ‘helping’ disabled people: we are not just passive recipients of the wonderful technologies and assisted technologies available – although many organisations and companies see us like that and would prefer us to remain like that.

I am horrified that companies developing digital products for disabled people seem to only see us in monetary terms and fail to develop useful products that are funky and stylish and affordable. Why not?

The cost of some of these products are prohibitive so many disabled people can’t buy them (I’m told it is the low number of units made that make them expensive – though I’m not totally convinced by that).

Assistive technology can be expensive and out the reach of many people’s budgets. Is it fair that while a smartphone can cost £500, to purchase screenreader software for one computer costs around £1,000? Or that eye-tracking technology assisted products can cost up to £8,000, while in the high street a Kinect box using motion technology can cost £199.99?

It’s no wonder people with severely restricted mobility are using head wands and wooden visual alphabetical keyboards. Where are the affordable assisted technology products?

Mainstream companies are ignoring us as a market and failing to make their products accessible. Have you ever tried to find a mobile that works with your digital hearing aids or visual impairment? It took me six months to find a new mobile that met my needs. The information is not out there and companies are ignoring us.

The UK Disability Market is worth around £80 billion a year and last year the older market was worth £100 billion or more. So what is their excuse? By 2033, 23% of the population will be aged 65+ so maybe the economics will drive the innovation and companies will rise to the challenge.

I see our future as being a bigger part of digital technology, making our mark and actively engaging with the technologies on offer.

I’m a newcomer to this sector but with 20 years’ experience of working in the cultural sector as an artistic programmer and project manager particularly in disability arts I’ve discovered that if I can work to see our ideas into action then others can too. The concepts have potential for disabled people as artists, entrepreneurs, and consumers.

We can turn the old order on its head so that disabled and deaf people take the lead and initiative to use the internet and the technologies available for our benefit.

It is empowering that social media connects us up. It gives us a voice and the opportunity to say what we need and want and come together easily to achieve that.

The opposite side of the coin is that real life barriers are also virtual barriers, unless we challenge them and do something to change them ourselves. We need to grab that opportunity.

Alison Smith is founder of Pesky People.

Diane Mulligan OBE – Podcast Pioneer

By Dan Jellinek.

This has been a busy year for Diane Mulligan.

At the start of 2010 Mulligan was awarded an OBE for services to disabled people and equal opportunities. Last week, she was back at Buckingham Palace for a reception held by the Queen for the Diplomatic Corps. In-between, she has been spearheading a campaign to improve the rights of disabled people in developing countries, in her role as Global Disability Advisor for international charity Sightsavers.

Volunteer Pool To ‘Crowd-Source’ Web Accessibility

An online service helping web users with disabilities report accessibility problems by linking them with thousands of tech-savvy volunteers is to be launched later this year by digital inclusion charity Citizens Online.

A trial version of ‘Fix the Web’, sub-titled ‘crowd-sourcing e-accessibility’, was unveiled at this week’s Web Accessibility London Unconference 2010 by Dr Gail Bradbrook, the charity’s lead consulant.

E-Access ’10 Conference Report: Digital Lifeline

By Dan Jellinek.

For people with motor disabilities, who may have problems leaving the house, communicating or with social confidence, online social networks can be a true liberator, delegates heard at this year’s E-Access ’10 conference hosted by Headstar and E-Access Bulletin with One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition (

A discussion group on the accessibility of social networks to users with motor disabilities was hosted by Makayla Lewis of the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, City University London, and herself a carer for her parents and a voluntary worker for people with cerebral palsy.

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