22 Sep 2023

How technology transforms the world of disabilities

Technology's role in transforming the lives of individuals with disabilities cannot be understated. Back in the day, it often felt more like a barrier than an enabler; tech was hard to access, could be expensive, and sometimes, it felt like navigating a maze.

But here is the good news: today, technology is playing a different role. It has become a bridge to newfound independence, confidence, and a sense of belonging, changing the game for the 1.3 billion people living with disabilities.

This is not to say everything’s solved though. As technology keeps evolving at a rapid pace, we also need to ensure that it evolves in a way that is inclusive and supportive for everyone.

To get a closer look at what is happening in the world of assistive tech, we had a chat with Dr. Chieko Asakawa. She is the Chief Executive Director at Miraikan, Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and an IBM Fellow. 

The game-changing advancements of assistive technology 

In the words of Dr. Asakawa, the present state of assistive technology for individuals with visual impairments is nothing short of “exciting and game changing.” This positivity arises from the ongoing advancements in generative AI and the growing practicality of accessibility solutions. 

Generative AI stands out as a remarkable innovation for people with disabilities. For example, it can condense lengthy documents to a preferred length and reading level. For individuals with visual impairments, this capability is a game-changer, as they often need significantly more time to review text — sometimes more than ten times longer than compared to those who can visually skim through them, as Dr. Asakawa tells me. 

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It is not just Generative AI that can assist people with disabilities though, there are a gamut of other technologies that can be life-changing.

Way more than a travel companion 

Dr. Chieko Asakawa has a unique perspective on the needs of blind individuals, having lost her sight at the age of fourteen. 

Through her own experiences, she identified two primary challenges faced by the blind community: accessing information and achieving mobility. 

That is why she is currently immersed in the research and development of what she calls the "AI Suitcase" – a groundbreaking navigation robot tailored for the visually impaired, envisioned as an alternative to the traditional white cane. 

According to Dr. Asakawa, the AI Suitcase is engineered to eventually guide a blind user safely to their destination, providing a newfound sense of independence for those with visual impairments. But its potential does not stop there. The AI Suitcase has broader applications, promising to enhance the quality of life for countless others — just think about the elderly, for example. 

Now, while all of this is incredibly promising, it raises an important question: how can we raise awareness about the significance of developing assistive technology? 

A technology benefiting us all

Dr. Chieko Asakawa highlighted an interesting pattern in the history of technology adoption. Often, the unique needs of people with disabilities have been the driving force behind groundbreaking inventions. What is even more fascinating is how these technologies, initially designed for specific groups, have eventually become integral parts of our daily lives. 

Take, for instance, the typewriter, initially created to assist the visually impaired with writing. Today, it has evolved into the standard keyboard on every computer. Audiobooks, designed for visually impaired readers, have become a common companion during car rides and leisurely evenings at home. 

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Similarly, technologies like speech-to-text and voice recognition, initially targeting individuals with disabilities, are now mainstream, thanks to virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google. 

In each case, society recognised the importance and utility of these technologies. As people experienced their benefits firsthand, as they “can be customised and personalised to each particular user’s needs,” these gained wider acceptance. 

This cycle of understanding and support underscores the importance of inclusivity in technology, benefiting us all. 

Inclusivity fuels creativity 

Dr. Asakawa believes that better communication between researchers and society is the way forward. Researchers should be crystal clear about who benefits from their tech and how it fits into daily life. 

"In the future, technology will greatly help the visually impaired 'see' and gain independence," Dr. Asakawa tells us. Assistive tech will not be a niche but seamlessly woven into everyday life, like, she hopes, self-driving vehicles. 

Getting people to experience new tech firsthand can drive government funding and research support, making our future more inclusive. 

This shift towards inclusivity also fuels creativity, as Dr. Asakawa puts it: "Diversity cultivates creativity, and we need all the creativity possible to meet the challenges we face now and into the future." A tech-driven, inclusive future holds the answers to our complex challenges. 

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