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AI for accessibility helps people with disabilities

AI for people with disabilities is making a meaningful difference in their ability to navigate the world and participate in all the activities of daily life.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, there were roughly 40 million Americans with a disability. Assistive technologies are helping to solve general accessibility, transportation and communication problems and enabling more people to live independently. In particular, AI is showing its ability to improve the lives and well-being of people by reducing or removing technology barriers that people with disabilities face.

As AI technologies continue to be infused in product offerings, companies are realizing the need to enable greater numbers of people with different abilities to interact with these technologies and devices. To this end, Microsoft recently committed $25 million to their AI for Accessibility project to help assist people with disabilities with work, daily life and communication.

Helping people communicate

Many able-bodied people take for granted the fact that they can easily perceive the world around them and move and communicate freely. AI for accessibility is enabling people with visual impairments to more easily search websites containing images, read handwritten text or describe scenes and images on a screen. AI also helps narrate the world around them and helps them "see" people, objects and scenery. Predictive text enables people with limited mobility to type words quicker and easier than ever before. Speech-to-text services help people with hearing disabilities by generating closed captions, enabling them to more easily communicate. AI-generated closed captions are also used for TV shows, movies and videos.

Virtual assistants, like Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, and Apple's Siri, are proving to be life-enhancing for those with a range of disabilities. Simple, conversational interfaces enable people of all abilities to interact with a wide range of capabilities. People with visual impairments can use voice interaction instead of type and swipe and now need to spend far less time searching for things online. With a simple voice command, they can order a pizza, send flowers to a friend or hail a ride-share. Because voice-enabled technology is usually simple to learn, users of all ages, ranging from children to great-grandparents, are adopting virtual assistants.

Helping people live independently

Smart home devices are helping people with disabilities more easily do things around the house and live independently. Things like turning lights on and off, adjusting a thermostat, opening and closing doors, or turning on home appliances can be a daily struggle for some. Through AI-enabled intelligent automation technologies coupled with IoT devices, more people than ever before can live independently without loved ones, friends or caregivers constantly worrying. AI for accessibility technologies are also able to learn people's normal activity, recognizing falls or proactively alerting family or caregivers before a situation becomes an emergency. This has great benefit for the elderly or people with physical limitations.

Self-driving vehicles are not yet widely used, but they promise to provide people with disabilities more mobility than ever before. Those who were once housebound, unable to drive or relied on others to transport them virtually anywhere could become less reliant on friends and family. If self-driving cars become widely available, it could enable people with disabilities to transport themselves to visit friends, to doctor's appointments, to work and virtually anywhere they want to go.

How inexpensive tech and advancements in AI
benefit people with disabilities

Some disabilities, such as mental health or learning disabilities, are not outwardly apparent. New AI for accessibility technologies are helping teachers and educators better test and identify learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. With machine learning, customized tutoring and study programs are able to help students struggling with basic concepts or who need a different or more personalized approach to learning get the help they need to make sure they don't fall behind in the classroom. People with mental health conditions now have access to new tools, support and therapy, such as a virtual assistant nurse. These virtual assistants offer 24-hour support and are able to treat patients who want care but may be too embarrassed or shy to talk to a live person about their concerns.

Designing inclusive technologies

Many of the technologies that are developed for people with disabilities are able to be used by the able-bodied as well. Image recognition, speech-to-text and text-to-speech, AI-powered chatbots or self-driving vehicles are technologies that we all benefit from. In order to incorporate accessibility, designers and developers will need to take into consideration a wide range of factors to develop inclusive technologies or products. Companies and organizations are learning that AI is not only about ROI but is also about helping people and helping to transform and improve society as a whole.

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