AI, Disability and Accessibility


AI, and technology more generally, have already changed the workplace to make it more accessible and inclusive for employees with intellectual, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities and it has the potential to do so further with technological developments. The use of AI not only benefits employees with disabilities, but also employers and workplaces as a whole creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. AI can also assist employers in honouring their legislative responsibilities more easily and potentially achieving real ‘reasonable accommodation’ more cost-effectively.

AI’s ability to help make the workplace more accessible and inclusive is becoming evident and this is something which should be considered in any AI national strategy.

AI advances in areas such as predictive text, speech-to-text transcription, voice and visual recognition can assist employees or potential employees with disabilities. Numerous applications are available that make the workplace more accessible. For example, Microsoft’s ‘Seeing AI’ app describes people, text and objects aloud for people with low vision. ‘Intelligaze’ is a tool which allows people with mobility impairments to operate their computer using eye-control.

Also ‘Windows Hello’ enables users to access devices with fingerprint, iris scan or facial recognition, rather than passwords, giving people with learning and physical disabilities greater ease of access while remaining secure. Voice recognition software and smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home used in connection with workplace tools and applications stands to significantly benefit employees with disabilities.

These technologies are among numerous others, which will allow employers to seek to meet their legislative obligations in a cost-effective and less burdensome manner and also continue to improve the working lives of employees with disabilities.

Global companies have also recognised the importance of technology for enabling people with disabilities to thrive in the workplace.  Microsoft recently launched the ‘AI for Accessibility’ program, which addresses employment of people with disabilities and asks how technology can positively impact the employment rate for people with disabilities. The AI for Accessibility program provides grants of technology to developers and inventors using AI to create solutions that will assist people with disabilities with work and to projects that improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The use of technology brings about new opportunities for employees with disabilities to enter into and thrive in the workplace. Employers should be aware of developments in AI that may come within the ‘reasonable accommodation’ test expected of employers, in making the workplace accessible for employees with disabilities. It is becoming clear that advances in AI will assist employers in meeting their legal obligations, and in creating a more diverse workforce. However, trust in AI and ease of use for employees and employers is something which needs to be fostered to allow for greater use of technology should be considered in any AI national strategy.

By Catherine O’Flynn and Darran Brennan

Catherine O’Flynn is a partner at William Fry and head of the firm’s Employment & Benefits department. She advises on all contentious and non-contentious employment matters with a particular expertise in equality issues. Darran Brennan is a solicitor in the Employment & Benefits department.