How much thought do you give to the process of reading a website? Or take the metro to work? For most people, the answer is little to none. Some, such as visually or hearing impaired people or people of determination, often face barriers when accessibility isn’t a priority.
While technology has achieved significant strides in disability accessibility, experts say there’s still work to be done.
“One of the best ways to empower somebody is to allow them to be independent,” says Ashley Eisenmenger, para triathlete, endurance runner, and user of WeWalk, a smart cane designed to enhance the mobility of people with visual impairment.
As someone born blind, co-founder and Chief Product Officer Kürşat Ceylan was inspired to empower visually impaired people with the technology to participate in daily life. “Approximately 253 million visually impaired people worldwide, and at least 50 million rely on the white cane, a simple tool primarily designed to provide ground-level obstacle detection. WeWalk is more than a product – it is the first step in a societal transformation,” says Ceylan.
With users across 59 countries, the smart cane pairs with a free mobile navigation app to detect overhead obstacles and alert its users through haptic feedback, turn-by-turn navigation, and notification about nearby restaurants, stores and cafes, and public transportation. “We have to be integrated into the city, and I want to feel the city life,” says Ceylan.
It is controlled from the smart cane’s in-built touchpad, allowing users to place their phone in their pocket for single-handed navigation and added safety while gaining new features by integrating smart city solutions. “There is a positive correlation between independent mobility and self-esteem, and that is why, if you want to change the life of a visually impaired person, you have to provide independent mobility to them,” adds Ceylan.
In the same way, ensuring accessibility in the digital world is also critical.
Mohammad Kilany, co-founder and Chairman of Mind Rockets, says this is part of their core mission. “More than 96% of websites are not accessible for People with Disabilities (PWD),” says Kilany.
“We learned that it only takes eight seconds for PWDs to continue or abandon a website,” he continues. Using language processing artificial intelligence, the Jordan-based tech startup built assistive technologies for the Deaf community by developing a toolkit to make services and websites more accessible for the Deaf in Sign Language. Kilany says they’ve started making tech to help other PWDs, such as the visually impaired and color blind, as well as people with ADHD, dyslexia, limited mobility, or cognitive challenges. They have also rolled out their latest ‘avatars’ to offer a more advanced sign language interpreter to make websites accessible in nine different sign languages.
“Our specialty is Arabic websites with customized tools tailored for the Arabic language,” says Kilany. The eventual end goal is to make websites more accessible with their toolkit, a plug-and-play widget that can be added to any website in simple steps and doesn’t require high technical skills.
Meanwhile, Hafsa Qadeer, CEO and founder of ImInclusive, has incorporated ChatGPT and AI to prepare job seekers with disabilities for employment. The platform connects people with disabilities to inclusive jobs and employers. Previously, it used to offer one-on-one coaching and hosted a variety of email templates to guide its talent, which includes people with physical, hearing, vision, sensory, and neuro disabilities.
Qadeer points out that, in particular, people who are hearing impaired can often use short-form sentences in daily communication. “During job interviews and conversations, a barrier develops,” says Qadeer. “Deaf people living here may communicate in American Sign Language, British Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language, Pakistani or Indian Sign Language, or any other Sign Language dialect.”
Using ChatGPT and AI, candidates are learning email writing etiquette, data collection, and research, and learning to solve their communication inquiries independently. Qadeer adds, “We understand that at scale, we cannot coach thousands of candidates one-on-one with their specific queries, so ChatGPT and Bard pave the way in providing clear instructions and responses in a timely manner for our candidates to equip them with better job applications’ related tasks and questions.”
THE ROAD IS TOUGH BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Having started its journey in Turkey, Ceylan notes that raising awareness for the product was a key challenge. “Our vision [became] bigger, and we needed some partners,” Ceylan states, adding how they decided to seek partnerships in Europe. The company is now headquartered in the UK and is planning to expand in the UAE since its selection to Abu Dhabi’s global tech ecosystem Hub71 program. The company is also a Microsoft AI for Good and AI for Accessibility grantee and fosters partnerships with the Ministry of National Education in Turkey and UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People, among others.
As for Mind Rockets, Kilany says acquiring knowledge in different fields of accessibility was a major hurdle. “At the beginning, we didn’t understand how serious it was to have an inaccessible website.” From learning how some websites might trigger migraines or even seizures to learning how some may have low vision or are color blind, Kilany says this was why his team worked hard at developing their set of features to specialize in the Arabic language to make websites more inclusive. Besides that, they also faced various aspects related to Sign Language, as it is not universal and extremely fragmented. Serving multiple markets to develop several sign languages, Kilany said they would not have been able to do it without the help of their deaf colleagues, who represent 35% of their workforce.
At the moment, they’re working with around 30 governmental and semi-governmental entities to make websites accessible for PWDs. Its list of customers includes Zain, Saudi Arabia’s King Khaled International Airport, Jordan’s Crown Prince Foundation, and KSA’s Ministry of Municipal Rural Affairs & Housing. In the UAE, its subscribers include Federal Customs Authority, Road and Transport Authority, Dubai Culture, Federal Tax Authority, Emirates Health Services, Zayed University, and more.
For Reem Alfranji, gaining knowledge spurred the launch of her venture, Habaybna.net, an online resource and learning hub offering specialized content on developmental disabilities in Arabic throughout the Arab region. “We realized that the majority of Arab parents lack the awareness about child development, key milestones, and red flags of any delay. So, we are adapting the system to include more tools and information about child development and helping Arab parents track their child’s development and accelerate early detection and intervention.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Talking about the possibilities of AI for the visually impaired community, Ceylan says, “We have to keep improving our solutions, [especially] human-based solutions. We want to provide equal social participation opportunities to all impaired people.”
He states that the key to developing technologies is including the disabled community to really know and find the right insights. “They can create an alliance behind their solutions and build a large network.”
Kilany points out that the rise of web accessibility is positive. “We will begin [to] see more applications in points of contact with customers such as self-service kiosks, for example.”
However, Kilany asserts, “We are barely scratching the surface of social inclusion with AI, as most funding and research is directed towards digital advancement for people without disabilities. Better digital experiences should not be only for people who can hear and see or who can move and read complex text. Ethical design with a wider spectrum of people will result in better digital experiences for everyone.”
Technology and artificial intelligence play a fundamental role in accelerating social impact and social inclusion, says Alfranji. For Alfranji’s platform, which involves children or people with disabilities, assistive tools that are text-based or include AI can help them feel included in their community. “It can help them learn, play, communicate, and handle functionalities needed for their daily lives.”
If AI is used positively and regulated, it can leapfrog social inclusion and take it to a new level, says Alfranji. “With many social innovators around the world adapting AI in their solutions, it helps them grow and make a positive impact, saving more time and cost, yet with the potential for high growth in changing people’s lives.”
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