In the context of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, it is our onus to inspire our policy actions with the spirit of inclusivity.
With the swift integration of AI into various spheres and the universal design principles championed for inclusivity, our society stands on the cusp of transformation. Our thoughts find their roots in two cases of the use of AI in public spaces. One is the AI-powered cameras for traffic detection, and the concept stems from the latest Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India. In our zeal to embrace AI's potential, we must ensure that it fosters rather than hinders the freedom of individuals with disabilities, echoing through policy frameworks and public spaces.
Mobility and Inclusion
AI-powered cameras hold the promise of revolutionising road safety, and their deployment necessitates a thoughtful approach that factors in the diverse needs of individuals with disabilities. Take, for instance, the seemingly simple act of fastening a seat belt. A person with a disability occasionally struggles with this task. While safety measures are paramount, it's crucial to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach might inadvertently exclude those who cannot conform to standard practices.
According to 2011 census data, only 2.21 percent of India's population consists of individuals with disabilities, a stark contrast to the global average of 15 percent. These statistics, however, belie a harsh reality: 36.34 percent of disabled individuals are classified as 'workers,' suggesting that traffic regulations profoundly affect their daily lives. Yet, a staggering 67.9 percent encounter substantial difficulties in accessing public transport, forcing them to rely heavily on private modes, further isolating them.
Amidst these struggles, we encounter the concept of "ableism," the deeply ingrained prejudice that perceives disabled individuals as inferior. It is paramount that technology, including AI, be harnessed to correct this. Herein lies the transformative potential of AI to bridge gaps and liberate the disabled community. AI-driven traffic regulation systems, infused with empathy and designed with universal accessibility in mind, can revolutionise the mobility of individuals with disabilities. Personalised number plate identification and integration with the Unique Disability Identification (UDID) card hold the promise of not only easing accessibility but also fostering a sense of agency and autonomy.
Also read: Storyboard18: How Microsoft is driving accessibility for persons with disabilities
Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India
The Department of Disability Affairs' Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India 2021 enshrines the importance of accessible ICT products. However, it is striking how this vision predominantly pertains to static design, overlooking the dynamic possibilities AI can introduce.
In the context of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, it is our onus to inspire our policy actions with the spirit of inclusivity. The Draft National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan), 2021, which deserves praise, must evolve to embrace AI's prowess. Customisable AI solutions can reshape public spaces, making them not just physically accessible but also cognizant of the diverse needs of disabled individuals. By integrating AI tools and harnessing their potential, we can craft a society that transcends physical barriers, granting equal rights and opportunities to all in consonance with the Act's mandate.
Diving deeper into this discourse, we unearth a parallel narrative that champions universal accessibility in information and communication technology (ICT). The marriage of AI and universal design can usher in unprecedented accessibility. Imagine AI algorithms meticulously analysing digital content—websites, mobile applications—to optimise accessibility. Visual, auditory, and cognitive impairments become avenues for innovation rather than barriers. Computer vision and machine learning algorithms synergise to offer solutions that redefine accessibility. AI-powered camera systems in public spaces cease to be mere observers; they metamorphose into guides, notifying individuals with disabilities about crowd density or accessibility features enhancing their mobility.
The transformative potential extends to wayfinding systems. AI-guided navigation tools, cognizant of personal constraints and preferences, herald a revolution in independent mobility. Voice-activated AI assistants stand ready to empower disabled individuals with real-time information and services. Their intuitive responses obliterate communication barriers, levelling the playing field.
AI's influence extends to the realm of senses, providing a lifeline to the visually impaired through image recognition and object detection. Predictive modelling fine-tunes public transportation's accessibility, while AI-enabled sign-language recognition bridges communication gaps. Closed captioning, transcription systems, and smart home AI systems serve as beacons of inclusivity.
Honouring people with disabilities in the AI era
As we contemplate these developments, a paradigm shift in public policy beckons. The disabled community represents a niche market that is often overlooked. A regulatory sandbox model tailored to accommodate diverse needs is an imperative step. The symbiotic relationship between AI and universal design deserves the spotlight, necessitating a comprehensive approach.
In a world where the disabled community's triumphs and tribulations intertwine with cutting-edge technology, leadership is redefined. It entails recognising the potential of AI to be not just a tool but a catalyst for transformation. It beckons us to craft policies honouring the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and embed inclusivity into every facet of public life. It invites us to champion a fusion of AI and universal design, wherein technology embraces every individual's uniqueness, fostering freedom, independence, and equality.
As we journey through an AI-infused landscape, hand in hand with our loved ones with disabilities, let us carve a world where humanity thrives collectively. In this narrative of embracing inclusivity and humanising AI decisions, we uncover not just the heart of progress but the soul of compassion. Riyas K K, Research and Publications Associate, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode (email@example.com)
Sreejith Alathur, Assistant Professor, Information Systems Area, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Views expressed do not reflect the views of the organisation.