Artificial intelligence and disability

AI can significantly improve the lives of persons with disabilities, especially in the area of health, education, transportation and employment.

ARTIFICIAL Intelligence (AI) is defined as the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems.

The concept enables computer systems to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation among others.

AI is growing in popularity and complexity and the technology industry is very optimistic about the future of AI and its potential to improve daily living.

However, there are fears related to job replacement, confidentiality risks and exposure to cyberattacks among risks.

According to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) article 20, effective measures should be taken to ensure personal mobility with the greatest possible independence for persons with disabilities.

This will also entail  facilitating access by persons with disabilities to quality mobility aids, devices, assistive technologies and forms of live assistance and intermediaries, including making them available at an affordable cost.

AI can significantly improve the lives of persons with disabilities, especially in the area of health, education, transportation and employment.

While there are many positives about using AI, the experience is dire because the majority of persons with disabilities cannot afford assistive technology and therefore, are being left behind in using AI driven services.

Access to assistive technology in less resourced settings is a major issue in light of poverty and other barriers hindering access.

The principle of 'do no harm' should be considered to safeguard persons with disabilities from the risks of using AI while enjoying its benefits.

AI has great potential in producing assistive technology used by persons with disabilities, which improves their functionality and well-being.

Making AI systems and technologies more accessible will improve the day-to-day functionality and the quality of life for persons with disabilities.

Some tasks are difficult for persons with disabilities to perform without assistive technology.

Examples of assistive technologies includes smart devices that help people with visual, hearing or speech impairment to communicate, mobile-based applications for vision and hearing assessments. AI enhances accessibility to products and services by persons with disabilities, for example audio or text descriptions in videos.

The use of such systems in organisations, will promote an inclusive culture regardless of disability, people are able to participate equally.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 2,5 billion people with disabilities will need assistive technologies in 2030.

The WHO Global Report on Health and Equity for Persons with Disabilities (2022), highlights the importance of digital technologies, which will provide an opportunity for persons with disabilities to receive health care services comfortably in their homes.

However, the digital divide experienced by vulnerable groups including persons with disabilities remains a barrier when addressing equitable access to advancements in digital health.

The involvement and inclusion of support persons and interpreters in the delivery of health care including telehealth is highly recommended, particularly for those with intellectual disabilities.

AI will ensure improved access to quality health services for persons with disabilities, through improved medical diagnosis and treatment.

In addition, the use of electronic medical records increases efficiency in sharing and monitoring health information and systems.

A number of persons with disabilities struggle to access employment opportunities or participate in development initiatives.

AI systems and tools can assist in matching of skills with employers.

It is estimated that globally, 386 million people of working age have some form of disability and the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is higher.

AI can assist persons with disabilities to find and secure employment.

While AI may enhance access to employment opportunities by persons with disabilities, on the one hand AI has the potential to replace persons with disabilities in the workplace as they fail to compete with AI powered systems.

It is commendable that some AI assistive technology improves the functionality and participation of a person with a disability, the challenge comes when there is system failure or malfunction, especially when there is great dependence on assistive technology.

The need for efficient support services becomes critical.


Persons with disabilities need to be involved in the development process and research shaping the technology evolution, to eliminate any system biases that may lead to discrimination of persons with disabilities.

This will ensure the development of inclusive systems and tools that work for them.

For example, some AI systems such as figure or face verification features may not be accessible to persons with disabilities.

AI is not perfect and subject to system errors that can lead to biases leading to discrimination. This is why it is important to involve persons with disabilities to ensure that the data sets are disability inclusive and varied considering the broader spectrum of disability.

Disability is not homogeneous and the diverse needs of women, men, boys, and girls with disabilities need to be accommodated in relation to the different impairments.

Privacy and security concerns in AI cannot be overlooked regardless of whether a person has a disability or not. However, persons with disabilities are more vulnerable to privacy and security violations and the necessary measures need to be taken to safeguard persons with disabilities.

It is imperative to promote learning opportunities using AI, such as braille tutor applications or sign language applications.

To promote continuous learning and an inclusive culture, personalised learning paths using AI systems can be adopted for an employee with a disability to acquire skills and knowledge to perform their role, creating a diverse work force and empowering everyone in the organisation.

AI can be adopted for targeted training and upskilling opportunities.

Persons with disabilities have the right to enjoy independent living and communicate across teams to achieve their goals.

While more and more systems and tools are being developed to support independent living, which include virtual assistants, AI powered chatbots with different work-related applications and robotic process automations among others, persons with disabilities should be made aware and acquire knowledge about such systems and how they can access them.

Learners with disabilities experience educational barriers limiting their participation and affecting the quality of education.

In most cases the challenges experienced have led to an increase in school dropouts higher than the rate of non-disabled learners.

AI is a solution in developing accessible learning material and equipment, such as braille equipment, content descriptions and web page interactions.

While there are many possibilities of benefitting from artificial intelligence, the reality and challenge is that most persons with disabilities cannot afford and access AI powered assistive technology, and hence fall out of user experience.

They are more likely to be disadvantaged in education and work settings as assistive technology is increasingly becoming costly. The task at hand is making assistive technology affordable and accessible by all persons with disabilities.

The digital divide has further exacerbated the barriers experienced by persons with disabilities and other marginalised groups. In order to have profound impact, AI should be developed with humanity in mind, exploring the benefits and challenges associated with the use of assistive technology.

Further, highlighting the importance of accessible AI systems, eliminating discriminatory biases and promoting privacy including security of personal data.

  • Tigere is a development practitioner and writes in her personal capacity. These weekly New Horizon articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.


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