How can AI help disabled people?

Recorded on Wednesday 17 April 2024

Robin Christopherson MBE from AbilityNet, Michael Vermeersch from Microsoft, and Tamsin Keyes from Headway the brain injury association, discussed how AI can help disabled people. In the webinar recording you can:

  • A robot sits on a bench with a laptopLearn how AI can make everyday tasks more efficient.
  • Discover revolutionary assistive technologies like voice-controlled smart homes, AI-powered prosthetics, and personalised learning tools. 
  • Learn how AI is breaking down communication barriers, promoting independence, and opening doors to new employment opportunities. 
  • Hear compelling stories from the disability community and gain insights from experts on the future of inclusive AI, including contributions from Headway the brain injury association. 

On this page you can:

  • Watch the full recording 
  • Read the FAQs from the webinar - with the panelists' answers
  • Read the slides from the event

Meet the panelists

Robin ChristophersonRobin Christopherson, MBE

Robin is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet and a leading light in the global community of accessibility and digital inclusion specialists. 

Robin's experience of sight-loss gives him a first-hand experience of the power of digital tech to transform people's lives - and he loves nothing more than showing people how he uses computers, the internet, his phone, Amazon Alexa and many other technologies as part of his daily life.

It has also made him a passionate and powerful advocate for accessibility, inclusive design and digital inclusion, making the case for social and technical changes to business, government, third sector, universities and many other organisations.

Michael Vermeersch, Accessibility Go to Market Manager at Microsoft

MProfile image of Michael Vermeerschichael's focus is landing Microsoft’s commitment to bridge the “Disability Divide”. Company-wide, alongside customers, partners, and communities, Michael’s scope is to increase societal inclusion for people with disabilities. The commitment covers technology, talent development and workplace culture. 

Using his creative neuro-diverse thinking and passion for inclusion, Michael created Microsoft’s Digital Inclusion offering, to empower inclusive organisations gain greater business advantage. 

Michael also chairs Microsoft’s UK Disability Employee Resource Group and was invited to 10 Downing Street to present his views on bringing disabled talent into work.

His personal proudest achievement is having brought Microsoft UK to Disability Confident Leadership status.

Michael received Microsoft’s highest Platinum Club award for his work in disability inclusion. Listed as one of UK ‘s top 80 neurodiversity evangelists on LinkedIn, he is in the 2021 Disability Power 100, which celebrates Britain’s most influential disabled people.

TTamsin Keyesamsin Keyes, Headway the brain injury association

In the webinar, Tamsin Keyes, Publications and Research Manager at Headway the Brain Injury Association shared case studies of how AI has the potential to help people affected by acquired brain injuries. Tamsin produces and reviews Headway's publications, including award-winning booklets, e-booklets and factsheets. She also manages Headway's statistics and research projects.

Watch the webinar recording

FAQs from the webinar

This webinar lasted 60 minutes and included an opportunity to pose questions to the panel. These questions weren't answered during the live session so the panelists added their answers afterwards. 

Q: You said that an AI system can recognise handwriting. Can you recommend any systems which can recover deleted material from literary manuscripts?

Robin from AbilityNet: No – sorry. Not even sure how that would be possible…

Q: Thank you for sharing some incredible AI tools and applications. AI tools are resource intensive, how do we ensure equitable access to these tools and technologies to enable benefit to all?

Robin from AbilityNet: Good question. We are currently in the honeymoon period where many services are absorbing the cost of usage and hence are free to the user. The likes of Be My AI and Seeing AI etc are free to use. Microsoft obviously fund the latter and, fingers crossed, will continue to do so. Let’s hope this continues to be the case for the majority of such solutions going forward.

Q: How close are we to use more broadly AI and technology to help disabled people gain motor function?

Robin from AbilityNet: The likes of Elon Musk’s Neurlink project are helping, with the aid of brain implants, people regain some vision and also control robotic arms and potentially exoskeletons too. Still early days but this area holds huge promise.

Q: How can publicly-available LLMs such as Claude Opus and GPT be used to help those with ADHD?

Robin from AbilityNet: They may be able to help people with ADHD gather their thoughts with mindmaps, break down tasks into more manageable chunks, better plan their tasks/day and summarise lengthy documents – and probably much, much more too!

Q: How would the blind user know if BeMyEyes gets it right?

Robin from AbilityNet: If in doubt (and they should be sceptical – particularly in high-stakes situations), they can defer to a human. At the bottom of the AI response is a button to call a sighted helper.

Q: Could the voice on this Be My Eyes app, be slowed down, so that those with a learning disability and VI can follow the instructions of the voice?

Robin from AbilityNet: Yes – although, as a regular user of speech output, I’d actually want to speed it up. I’m pretty sure Lucy slowed it down for purposes of the demo.

Q: To take a picture on the expiry date can be tricky as the individual needs to know which side of the product he or she should take a picture of?

Robin from AbilityNet: Agreed. Some solutions (like Seeing AI) have an instant text reading feature so that, as you turn the can or packet etc, it speaks out any text that it sees. This too can be hit and miss, though.

Q: Hi I have a visual impairment, is there an app I can use to make text bigger when reading or do I just need to buy a magnifier?

Robin from AbilityNet: iOS (and possibly Android) has a built-in Magnifier app which uses the camera to magnify everything that it sees. It has other fancy features like invert colours etc too. And don’t forget that you can increase the size of text on your phone too – and also use the built-in Zoom feature to increase everything on-screen to a very large size.

Q: How do we get these apps? Are they available on Google Play?

Robin from AbilityNet: Most apps covered are on both iOS and Android.

Q: Was the interpreter in the clip from Signapse AI?

Robin from AbilityNet: Yes – that was their automated signer in action.

Q: We've been keen to explore using Signapse as we sometimes struggle to find BSL translators. Has there been any feedback on how accurate the translation is and does it allow for translation into different sign languages across the world?

Robin from AbilityNet: I haven’t found info on localisation, and for impartial feedback on its utility we’d really want you to defer to the likes of Action on Hearing Loss.

Q: You mention Parrotron.  Is there a system which those with Learning Difficulties can use to estimate the probability that someone is lying to them?

Robin from AbilityNet: No. That sounds like it would be both extremely useful and extremely hard to create. If such a thing was developed, it would be extremely useful for everyone!

Q: Will there be AI which can listen to voice and translate into BSL on a screen and visa versa?

Robin from AbilityNet: Translating into BSL would be possible with the likes of Signapse, but I’m not aware of a solution that can help with interpreting a human signer.

Q: Can Rabbit act as an assistant to provide the prompting and care often needed to support things like remembering to take meds, staying on task, running to time, etc?

Robin from AbilityNet: Probably – but I’d point them at the extremely useful built-in and 3rd-party skills (a smartspeaker’s equivalent to apps) of Alexa for that purpose. All notifications and reminders will also pop up on someone’s phone if they are out of the house.

Q: Has Robin had experience using the R1 with a screen reader on a smart phone? Many of us are wondering how this will work and are excited to try it.

Robin from AbilityNet: No – not yet. I’m also excited to try it out. I’m thinking that there will be a companion app on the phone and I’m just hoping it will be accessible.

Q: Access to Work support - does AbilityNet or other speakers’ organisations support Access to Work end users?

Robin from AbilityNet: Yes, but not exclusively. Anyone with any technology and disability enquiry can contact AbilityNet on 0300 180 0028 or check out the resources on this website and also on our sister site My Computer My Way.

Tamsin from Headway: At Headway we certainly support people who are looking to return to work after brain injury – we have freely downloadable information on this on our website and our helpline (0808 800 2244, can advise on returning to work. In addition we have many brain injury survivors volunteering at local shops and support groups, as well as current vacancies listed on our website.

Q: Digital first or digital only is increasingly used by public bodies for consultations, and often with limited accessibility built in. How can AI be used to support people who are currently digitally excluded?

Robin from AbilityNet: This is obviously a massive area; how to help people who are digitally excluded through the use of properly adapted technology and, increasingly, AI. As above, I’d point people at all AbilityNet’s expertise (both human and online) to help answer this question. You’ll also find many articles and previous webinars that cover applications of AI more specifically.

Q: How can AI support schools to be more inclusive?

Robin from AbilityNet: AI can help schools create more inclusive materials with the likes of Blackboard Ally and Microsoft’s excellent Accessibility Checker in Office. It can also help redraft copy for specific reading ages and even potentially turn it into symbols (here’s hoping Helpicto comes to other languages soon). AI can also help the end-user with their access needs, as we saw in the webinar when we looked at the different areas of impairment.

Q: How can we ensure all the hardware and software we need can interconnect? How can we make sure our profile data is kept secure and private?

Robin from AbilityNet: Two very important questions there – both for the larger assistive and mainstream tech communities.

Q: Please could Michael share with us the Microsoft Copilot use case slides for all apps, which he mentioned exist?

Michael from Microsoft: Here is a PDF download of the copilot focused summary… we do recommend to discuss with a Microsoft partner or your Microsoft account contact.

Q: Why is Copilot limited to 30 interactions? And why does it get sometimes get an attitude?

Michael from Microsoft: The limit of 30 responses is a design choice to ensure that conversations remain manageable and efficient. It helps prevent overly long interactions and encourages users to focus on their most important questions.

Do use the thumbs up (Like) or thumbs down (Dislike), if you feel something is not right. Personally, I talk to copilot as I would talk with another person. People do find it funny that I say “please” and “thank you” to an AI. Whilst copilot has no feelings or emotions, I – in my mind - find it creates a positive and helpful conversation because of that. This could well be my imagination, but then we can influence our brains. 

Q: Is Copilot available now?

Michael from Microsoft: Yes.

Q: Hello, is there any idea of the penetration of these AI enabled tools within user groups, particularly the elderly. I do a lot of work around digital inclusion and a significant amount of users don't have access to OR understand 'traditional' digital or assistive technologies. I can see business wanting to embrace these tools, or rather defer accessibility support to the tools. I have a perception that the technical ability and resources required to access these tools put them out of peoples reach.

Michael from Microsoft: It is crucial to develop tools “with” the (targeted) community rather than just “for”. The best instantiation of this principle can be found in the statement which I find is one of the foundations of disability inclusion: “Nothing about us without us”.

Q: Is there a certain way to give the AI instructions? For example: complete sentences, instructions in quotations, etc. Accessibility guidelines and standards are still relevant for those creating AI to deliver a better user experience.

Michael from Microsoft: Personally, I work very conversationally with copilot and nudge the conversation along, as for me the perfect question only comes when I start getting answers, but we have a prompting guide here.

Q: With regards to WCAG as a university we're legally required to comply with A and AA. I could see a few WCAG problems with the generated presentation. So, the generated presentation would create problems for us if it was put into the world on behalf of the University. What can copilot do to be WCAG compliant to A and AA?

Michael from Microsoft: You can find our conformance reports here. You can ask copilot to help you find features in products to help you change content, as well as provide you with guides on how to do things.

Q: Do you have any insights as to some negative effects of AI and disability and how to overcome them?

Michael from Microsoft: It is crucial to develop tools “with” the (targeted) community rather than just “for”. The best instantiation of this principle can be found in the statement which I find is one of the foundations of disability inclusion: “Nothing about us without us”.

Q: AI can support users with accessibility requirements, are there ways it could support others with making the workplace accessible (in addition to the powerpoint copilot examples demoed by Michael)

Michael from Microsoft: Yes, some further examples in this PDF– also of course as discussed by our other speakers.

Q: What about copyright, if a student does a PowerPoint, how do they know that they are not taking material that has copyright issues?

Michael from Microsoft: Using copilot, you will see below its responses where it is getting its reply/data from, which can help students to reference and consult the source.

Q: There was an article in the Times many years ago about someone who had a head injury in a motorcycle accident and subsequently found that his IQ had increased to the point that he could join Mensa. How common is IQ gain after a head injury?

Tamsin from Headway: I personally have not come across any research about IQ improving after brain injury, although there may well be such case studies (although they are likely rare, such as in cases of acquired savant syndrome after brain injury). More broadly, people do sometimes talk about developing strengths post-brain injury, sometimes even referring to these as their ‘superpowers’. Traits such as resilience, empathy and a greater appreciation of life can sometimes develop (termed ‘post-traumatic growth’). In some cases, sustaining a brain injury causes people to explore and discover new strengths and/or opportunities in life. While not necessarily linked to IQ, these examples do illustrate the capacity for people to ‘improve’ in some ways after brain injury. The brain is also able to form new connections after injury through a process called neuroplasticity, which in some cases can lead to better performances in some areas of functioning.

Q: What about IQ loss after Covid infections?

Tamsin from Headway: There is research that suggests IQ test scores can be impacted by Covid infection. IQ tests typically comprise questions that assess various cognitive and information processing skills, which Covid infection has been found to affect (such as memory and executive function). Research is also linking Covid to neurological and neuropsychiatric impairment, with a recent study finding markers of brain injury present in the blood months after Covid infection. I would like to caveat this answer by stating that a brain injury does not necessitate low intelligence, and IQ tests are not considered to be a reliable tool to measure the cognitive impact of someone’s injury, which more specialised neuropsychological assessments are required for. 

Q: What happens to all these devices (including locks) if you have long power cuts?

Tamsin from Headway: I’m afraid I cannot comment on this as I am not aware of how devices operate. Manufacturers should consider backup power supply in all critical systems, and we'd encourage consumers to consider this as part of their purchasing decisions. 

Q: Where do we get a list of these smart devices and digital assistance, that Tamsin is mentioning? As a lot of these would be useful for those with a learning disability, in addition to those with a brain injury.

Tamsin from Headway: I’m not aware of a definitive list that recommends smart devices and digital assistance, and unfortunately from Headway we cannot make product recommendations. The list that I drew examples from during my talk was listed on Microsoft’s website on their page relating to AI. Regarding apps, the NHS does have a website called MyTherappy which recommends apps to help with rehabilitation and recovery. Medical professionals such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and neurologists may be able to recommend appropriate tools after assessment of an individual, and people with concerns are encouraged to speak to their GP.

Q: Does DWP recognises these assistive tech as support for PIP?

Tamsin from Headway: I cannot comment on behalf of DWP on whether assistive tech is recognised within the PIP assessment setting. However, there is a focus on PIP assessments on whether an individual is able to complete a task safely, timely, to an acceptable standard and reliably/repeatedly. Assistive tech may aid someone with completing a task, but if they are unable to perform the task to these parameters without the use of tech, then perhaps the person can be deemed to be unable to complete the task reliably (as tech might fail, is not infallible, etc). In previous training that we have delivered to benefits assessors, we have raised the point that in some cases people may rely on external aids such as alarm clocks to remember to switch cookers off (in order to cook a meal safely) – but due to memory problems, cannot remember to switch the alarm on in the first place. In this case they may not be able to complete the cooking task reliably/safely. This may be similarly applied to advanced forms of aids such as assistive tech.

Q: You mentioned Chat GPT. How do you deal with the problem of hallucinations?

Tamsin from Headway: I am afraid that I do not understand the question. Hallucinations can be experienced by some following brain injury in different sensory domains (i.e. visual, auditory), and it will be interesting to monitor how the various effects of brain injury impact on one’s user experience of these new systems.

Q: This is really interesting. I'm curious to know if there is any AI that helps people with Dementia.

Tamsin from Headway: I’m afraid I cannot comment on this as we are an acquired brain injury charity (i.e. not neurodegenerative), although my response to the previous question about a list of devices/digital assistance might be helpful for a range of conditions.

Q: Would like to ask if it is possible to get your help for myself due to my disability and finding hard to found the right ai programs and funding to purchase the correct equipment....also PIP are not recognising my disabilities.

Tamsin from Headway: We support people affected by acquired brain injury (both traumatic and non-traumatic forms), so please do contact our helpline (0808 800 2244, for information and support (however I am unsure whether we are able to advise on specific AI programs.) Funding for equipment may be available through grants or benefits you may be eligible for, or via schemes such as Access to Work/ personal health budgets.

Q: Do you have more on executive functioning impairments faced like memory, language processing, social communication - eg mental health, autistic/ADHD, brain injures etc

Tamsin from Headway: We have lots of information on our website about these effects of brain injury and many others, and a range of freely downloadable publications on many of these issues. Please visit our website for further information.

Do you know an elderly person or a group of older people who want to know more about using digital devices?
We are offering a set of tailored Digital Skills sessions to people aged 65+ in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Glasgow. Group and individual sessions available.

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Date of webinar: 
17 Apr 2024 - 13:00