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AI and Visual Impairment

By Josie Clark ’20, Katie Coogan ’21, Eva Dougherty ’21, Taicha Morin ’20

Throughout Project Bloom, a main goal of ours has been to discuss the concept that the world has been constructed with the average, able bodied person in mind. When structures are built, products are made, and societal norms are set, those who are differently abled are rarely considered. However, that doesn’t mean that those who don’t fit this description need to be “fixed”. In our 21st century world, there are more artificial intelligence and assistive technologies than ever before. Many technologies are made specifically for those with disabilities, designed to allow them to navigate the world more easily. There are also many technologies that we may recognize that were created to ease the daily lives of the average person. The problem is, these technologies are usually created by people outside of disabled communities. Our question is, are these technologies truly helpful for people with disabilities as they navigate the world, or do they exclude those who are considered misfits?

Obviously, disability is a broad term and there are many different types of technologies to consider. We decided to focus on the blind and visually impaired community, looking at technology that is beneficial and tech that could do better.

While technological advancements in artificial intelligence have advanced the world for many people, AI now has been able to help in terms of accessibility, specifically with advancements in the community of the visually impaired. The greatest advancement in AI with visual impairment is increased mobility for those with visual impairments. OrCam MyEye is a product that attaches to any glasses and takes photos of whatever the user is looking at. It then uses audio to tell the user exactly what they are looking at. This can range from reading a menu at a restaurant to describing the person walking towards them. This AI technology has been a massive improvement in the community of the visually impaired because it allows for them to have freedom that was previously restricted. OrCam is also beneficial because it attaches right to the eyewear, allowing for a hands-free experience with no hassle. Another company on the forefront of AI for visual impairment is Microsoft. Seeing AI is an app for smart phones that functions similarly to OrCam MyEye in that it gives auditory descriptions of the things the person is pointing the camera towards. Microsoft is known for their commitment to AI and accessibility which is seen in this software. Seeing AI has the potential to be more accessible to users because it is currently offered in 6 languages and is an iOS phone application, so if users have a phone that can use apps, it does not require any further purchase. Overall, these products and advances in artificial intelligence are giving freedom and mobility to people with visual impairments that were previously limited. 

Although some technology is successful and widely used in the blind community, some has a long way to go. Social media plays a huge role in our day to day lives, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the most used social media platform in the world, Facebook, began offering alt text photo descriptions so that the blind community could experience this type of media. Alt text is an accessibility feature that offers a description of the photo that can be read aloud as an alternative to the photo. Now, Facebook offers automatic alt text on photos, so even if a person doesn’t manually write their own alt text, the AI can develop a description.

Technology that is designed with only the “average” in mind works to “misfit” those with different abilities. A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it. That is what is happening when companies like Facebook do not consider their whole user base. The implications of misfitting a community by not making your product accessible to them, especially a product that is used by billions worldwide, can be financially detrimental. WHO estimates there are 253 million people in the blind community. According to an article by Deque Systems, 70% of sites on the internet are not accessible to the visually impaired, which misses out on a $6.9 billion market.

Not only that, but the social implications are detrimental for someone who is excluded by a company. This refers to the idea of legibility, meaning that a person is seen as being of value and as a part of the customer base for a company. Blind YouTuber Molly Burke talks about Apple as being a company who considers the legibility of their blind customers by creating all of their products with accessible features like Voiceover. Molly says, “I ask you to imagine how liberating, how empowering it is to be shown by a company that they view you as belonging to their customer base when so many others tell you the exact opposite.”

Lastly, AI allows for more social progress. Social progress is the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of a citizen. Technology is all around us, progressing day by day. Screens are a part of our regular daily routines, even more now during this time of quarantine. Access to screens and social media is a part of our society, and AI allows for me communities to become a part of this. Social progress with AI allows for the blind community to use technology more easily than before. 

While it’s clear that AI has shown its capacity to improve society, the question in connection to Project Bloom is how institutions will implement it in their schools. The reality is that many institutions like Saint Joe’s are not ready or willing to allocate the time and money towards making their campus all-around accessible if they don’t see people on campus who need these resources. This in itself is the issue, not having these resources which prevent people with visual impairment from coming to schools like Saint Joe’s. AI, while still costly, may be the immediate solution as universities reconsider their communities and how they are allowing for diversity. How AI looks for each institution actualized will vary as they consider needs, budget, and openness to experimentation. With awareness, backing, and funding, AI may be able to help us bring Project Bloom’s mission to life at Saint Joe’s.

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