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Posted 04 Feb 2020

BAFTA Award Winner Andy Serkis Praises The Enabling Power Of Technology

Famous for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and later in Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis works at the cutting edge of transformational technology. His comments at the BAFTA Awards on Sunday night made me sit up and pay attention. He spoke about performance capture being an egalitarian tool – “anyone can play anything” he said. This idea plays out in many forms across many industries and diversities. Thinking about this with regards to its impact on disability it is worth noting that we have already seen:

  • Auto-voice capture revolutionizing video access for deaf people, and free apps for all video content creators to download
  • Speech recognition software improving written communication for people with mobility and motor control difficulties, as well as those who need to speak in order to think
  • Google maps transforming the ability of dyspraxic thinkers to navigate, but also building the foundations for driverless cars and more engaged navigation for people with sight loss
  •  The concept of Universal Design gradually increasing wheelchair access (although with recognition that this is far from adequate still)

Enabling The Disabled Through Advances In Technology

In the Financial Times this week, the issue of Smart Cities was discussed in terms of the need for disability officers being part of the planning, to ensure that innovations are inclusive – mistakes have occurred where new tools are rolled out without thought for how they would be used by people with sight loss, for example. However, the article quotes that 43% of city planners are now actively incorporating disability compared with 30% who are still unsure. This feels like progress but it is essential that disabled peoples voices are present in the conversation.

So how will technological advances affect business in the future? The idea expressed by Andy Serkis, that anyone can play anything, opens the sluice gate for a wider talent pool in many careers. I talked to two powerhouses of accessibility tech this week, Neil Milliken Chief Accessibility Officer of Atos, who also runs the disability-themed Twitter chat AXSChat, and Michael Vermeesch, Digital Inclusion Lead at Microsoft. I asked these two which aspects of disability they expected to be rendered enabled through technology within the next five years and they agreed that the cognitive domain was firmly on the agenda.

“Artificial intelligence and virtual assistants give us the prospect of addressing the issues of working memory to support independent living and success in employment”, says Mr Milliken. He went on to say that “tools for simplifying content and supporting understanding” will also have an impact in the future.

The two accessibility leaders also agreed that another useful advancement will most likely be “natural language processing powering conversational interfaces that truly understand what users are trying to achieve as opposed to users having to remember discrete commands.” It is easy to see how such advancements will be of use to neurominorities and it gives me great hope that the range of jobs available to people with cognitive differences will widen.

So Where’s The Down Side?

Of course this kind of progress is a boon to those of us with spiky cognitive profiles, who excel at creativity and ideas but lack the processing space to get those ideas organized and implemented. My personal productivity is already benefiting from setting Alexa reminders and use of mind mapping software. However, there is a note of caution here because tech, like everything, has two sides to the coin. 

Firstly, tech can replicate the bias of society – note the problematic use of female voice for digital assistants which reinforce the female as helper, not do-er, stereotype. Also problematic is facial recognition software in recruitment, which could discriminate against autistic people, or people with tics, sight loss or paralysis.

Secondly, not everyone can afford it. The disability tech boon is likely to improve career access to those who are already experiencing some form of intersectional privilege and exacerbate gaps for people of color, women, and anyone from a disadvantaged background, and that is before we consider geographical boundaries. This is already visible when we compare access to dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism support services in universities and private schools, to provision in standard state schools.

As the technology becomes faster, slicker and cheaper, we must hope to increase the flow throughout society. Last week, the UK Department for Education announced a project to trial assistive technology (AT) in schools with a 1 year trial and a £10Million budget. Where voice recognition software used to cost a fortune, its ubiquity is now making it possible to implement on a wider scale. About time too! Financial privilege must be at the forefront of our minds if we want new technology to have maximum impact upon emerging talent. Kids need to embed AT into their daily routines from the get-go, so that they build competence and freedom to think before their self esteem starts to drop off.

Can Anyone Play Anything?

And finally to Andy Serkis’ point. Who will the Planet of the Apes roles go to if anyone can play anything? There’s a risk it will still be the same old faces if we rely on tech to do the psychological work for us. To take this aspiration forward the film industry, and the business world, are going to have to address their own personal significant exclusion biases. We cannot inspire the next generation with self-congratulatory words, we need to see the potential of tech in action, providing access where it is most needed. Can anyone play anything? The tools are there but the willpower is still needed.