Technology and AI can and will play a fundamental role in making the world more accessible and inclusive.
As many of us reflect on this year’s Global Awareness Accessibility Day, it is important to think on the role we all, as individuals, play in creating a more inclusive society. Over 1.3 billion people, comprising 17 per cent of the global population, live with some form of disability according to the World Health Organisation.
This number is constantly increasing, thanks to a rise in chronic health conditions and population aging. Whether disabilities are temporary, situational, or permanent, a lack of accessibility can prevent people from fully participating in society and can lead to exclusion from public information, goods, and services.
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Improving accessibility is not just a matter of social responsibility. It is also a business imperative. By prioritising accessibility, CEOs can create a more inclusive workplace, build better products and services, and contribute to a more equitable and accessible world for everyone.
Companies that invest in disability inclusion have been shown to gain benefits including better financial performance and lower employee turnover – not to mention access to a largely untapped talent pool.
Even with great intentions, however, prioritising accessibility and inclusion is proving hard for many organisations. In a recent World Economic Forum survey only four per cent of global businesses reported prioritising disability inclusivity – despite The Valuable 500 showing that 90 per cent expressed a commitment to diversity.
EU call for action
As the world recognises the responsibility and opportunity to empower people of all abilities to experience life to the fullest, significant actions by governments and independent bodies are shaping an inclusive world for future generations.
The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is a market access directive that significantly expands accessibility requirements for consumer-facing products and services offered in the EU, and is an important part of our journey to include everybody in modern society.
The Act regulates private sector offerings and applies to public sector procurement of EAA-covered products and services, expands what product and service categories are regulated, and defines what it means for a product or service to be accessible under several existing EU laws. As the requirements of European Accessibility Act will go into effect in June 2025, now is the time to start to prepare for its implementation.
And we can learn from others who are moving the needle, either raising awareness or inspiring and promoting action towards closing the disability divide. In March I participated at the Innovation for Accessibility Forum, alongside representatives of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian governments and public and commercial sectors, discussing accessible digital solutions and legislation compatibility with the European Accessibility Act.
There, I found it particularly interesting to learn how different stakeholders approach this topic.
In Latvia, EEA requirements are transposed in five different laws, according to Elīna Celmiņa from the Ministry of Welfare of Latvia: the law on accessibility of products and services, but also the law on conformity assessment, the law on electronic communications and two laws on procurement procedures. There, the business sector has welcomed the EAA requirements and showing support.
Estonia meanwhile is known as the leader in digital development and has proven that it is possible to redesign public services that are easy for everyone to use. Rasmus Eimla, Product Owner at Riigi Infosüsteemi Amet, Estonian Information System Authority highlighted the use of state virtual assistant Bürokratt, listed in the global top 100 AI projects by UNESCO.
As an interoperable network of AI applications accessible via voice, Bürokratt allows all citizens to access public services more easily, with improved features like speech-to-text and sign language planned for the future.
Tilde is a leading European language technology company that develops AI-empowered machine translation and speech technology, as well as multilingual virtual assistants. Kaspars Kauliņš shared how Tilde has developed a speech synthesis solution which allows people to read physical books, and tools to make websites accessible to people with disabilities, including adding multilingual options and voice to website content, including image descriptions and automatic subtitling for video content.
Closing the disability divide with help of technology
It was heartfelt for me to realise the gap on accessibility in our technology sector, when I first heard that only two per cent of websites worldwide are accessible to people with disabilities. Yet it is technology and AI that can and will play a fundamental role in making the world more accessible and inclusive in the future.
At Ability Summit, Microsoft reflected on the many possibilities – like the Seeing AI app, which uses the power of Azure and AI to empower people with no or low vision to navigate the world around them. Or improvements to Windows 11‘s built-in screen reader, Narrator, to support more Braille displays.
Today we see many innovations in fields of assistive technology, accessibility features, smart assistants, autonomous vehicles and predictive analytics. With AI-based innovations we can enhance human cognitive abilities in thinking, reasoning, learning and communication. On the other side, the evolution of AI also comes with great responsibility and must incorporate and address a broad range of diverse human needs, barriers, capabilities and experiences.
Taking the lead
Wherever I look there is a strong belief that disability is a strength, beneficial to organisations, innovation, business performance and to attracting and retaining top talent. Technology can be a key enabler to ensure that people are at the centre of everything we do, and expand opportunities for those with disabilities to thrive at work, school, and home.
How do we make sure that everyone is behind this? For me, it starts at the top. It is the leaders of any organisation who signal how important and urgent their priorities are, and their enthusiasm about any topic will start a virtuous circle.
As I myself look forward to what new technological advancements will achieve in shaping a more inclusive society, I am convinced nothing can replace human passion, drive and determination to drive change and make things happen.
This article is part of Digital Future of CEE, a regional discussion series, powered by Emerging Europe, Microsoft and PwC.
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