Assistive Technology Innovations: New Editions at the 2018 M-Enabling Summit

The M-Enabling Summit re-convened in Washington DC in 2018 for its 7th year. We attended the Summit and this blog provides you with some insights into what we noticed.

The theme for 2018 was "Accessible and Assistive Technologies Innovations: New Frontiers for Independent Living”. Historically, the Summit has brought together many tech companies from giants, such as AT&T, Microsoft, Amazon, and Uber, to companies specializing in products for people with disabilities, such as Aftershokz and Audioeye. The Summit is designed for these companies discuss common goals regarding innovations in accessibility and how they are being used to revolutionize inclusivity and access for all.

Like previous years, the 2018 Summit focused heavily on technological advances and their application in enhancing the lives of people with disabilities. The narrative this year focused on five innovations in technology:

  • Advances in 5G
  • Autonomous Vehicles (AV)
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality (VR/AR)
  • Automated Speech Recognition (ASR)
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) (and how it is being integrated in the home, work, and smart city environments to be more accurate and more readily available)

The topic of AI pervaded several conversations at the Summit. Many promising applications for AI, some challenges to integrating it, and some very strong concerns were discussed. With the pattern recognition algorithms of AI incorporated with the speed and processing power of 5G wireless systems, concepts such as wireless VR, Smart Cities, and self-driving cars, just to name a few, can run in real time with minimal latency. The challenge with this, however, is that AI pattern recognition relies on core data of ideal candidates – that is, it predicts outcomes based on average subjects. Persons with disabilities, in this case, are considered outliers or peripheral data, so there are still obstacles to overcome in this arena. Further, as all pattern recognition operates based on old information, it can only propagate the past. With AI learning from core data, excluding outliers, and relying on older information, there were concerns raised, during the Summit, that discrimination can work its way into an automated decision-making process; and that, ultimately, the discrimination would be blamed on the machine. Before this technology is ready for full-scale use, Summit participants indicated that it will be important to figure out more ways to be inclusive of minority groups and data anomalies. As an added bonus, incorporating the periphery prepares the final products to be cheaper and have a greater longevity in the long run.

Many discussions at the Summit also focused on the emphasis on reshaping work culture around accessibility – integrating accessibility as part of a standard business practice. The effects of this can be seen in what has been called the “gig economy” (i.e., the trend towards freelance work and jobs that offer flexible telework schedules). Freelance work and telework options have opened doors for workers with disabilities who use assistive technologies (AT) and are unable or find it difficult to travel to a physical workplace.

Additionally, employee training has been revolutionized by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Essentially, any workers with an internet connection can access MOOCs running on accessible platforms from anywhere they find most comfortable. MOOCs are very flexible for allowing small groups (under 50 students) or large groups (several thousand students) to participate by leaving feedback and comments on each step of the course. Designing an MOOC as open educational resource enables the content to be reused commercially; allows for modification as content changes; and, allows for the translation of the material to meet the needs of students globally. Applying this to the field of accessibility, MOOCs can be created to teach document remediation, mobile and web accessibility testing, Section 508 policy, and more to anyone regardless of disability or language barriers – with the option to include certifications for participants. Ultimately, having more testers trained on the same platform with the same learning materials will help to standardize and streamline the way documents, websites, and apps are tested and created to ensure they are accessible.

Education and awareness are still key factors at the forefront of this fight. In the salient words of one Summit attendee to the tech companies and vendors, “Don’t design for me, without me.” While technological advances have opened many new doors to people with disabilities, there is still a long way to go to remove all barriers and provide full inclusivity.

Robert Chaiet is an Accessibility Technician with three years of Section 508 experience working with the Office of Accessible Systems and Technology. Robert manages the document remediation process, embosses all braille requests, and assists with the Reasonable Accommodations process.

Kristen Smith is a Senior Accessibility Specialist who coordinates the employee accommodation process at a large federal agency and provides digital accessibility expertise for web, software, mobile, and documents. She has expertise in assistive technology and Section 501, 504, and 508 policy.