AI Assistive Technologies for Persons with Disabilities


Hey there! Picture a young schoolgirl named Adhiambo, determinedly maneuvering her wheelchair through the narrow, obstinate pathways of her school in rural Kenya. Her radiant smile conceals the profound struggle against an infrastructure that presents more hurdles than comfort. 

Imagine if we could make day-to-day tasks easier for people with disabilities, helping them achieve even their wildest dreams. Sounds like science fiction, right? Wrong! This is very much part of our reality today, thanks to two incredible advancements: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Assistive Technology. Let’s dive in!

First off, a quick intro. AI is like a tech-brain that can learn and improve itself. Assistive tech, on the other hand, is the superhero of devices, designed to help people with disabilities do more. When you combine these two, you’ve got a supercombo that’s nothing short of magic!

The recent webinar hosted by the Strathmore Center for  Intellectual Property and and Information Technology Law(CIPIT) on “Embracing AI Assistive Technologies for Persons with Disabilities” provided an insightful platform. Mr. Willison Macharia, a lawyer working for  the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Kenya, and Mr Nelson Dawafula, an official from the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD), offered a detailed account of the situation, providing  a blow-by-blow analysis.

From Mr. Macharia’s submissions, it was  clear that Kenya stands at pivotal crossroads. His poignant account of encountering inaccessible government buildings revealed the systemic issue of infrastructure overlooking the needs of persons with disabilities. While his reliance on screen readers to fulfill his professional duties illustrated the incredible impact of assistive technologies, it also underscored the dire need for a more inclusive approach to infrastructure development. 

Think AI-powered wheelchairs that can map out the room and glide smoothly, avoiding obstacles. Or prosthetics that move with the effortless grace of a natural limb. Hands tied by disability are now being set free with speech recognition technology, opening up a world where words can control everything, from writing an email to controlling appliances. Amazing, isn’t it?

Even better, this isn’t one-size-fits-all tech. It’s like a personal assistant who learns from you. Machine learning, a subset of AI, can tailor tasks and functions for individual needs, personalizing everything. It’s like your buddy at your beck and call, quietly noticing how you operate and stepping up to help just when you need it. 

Education and work opportunities? They’re not lagging behind. AI-backed adaptive learning platforms are turning classrooms into equal platforms for everyone, no matter their style or speed of learning. And workplaces are changing too! Assistive tech is opening the doors, making it possible for everyone to show off their skills and shatter the glass ceiling.

But it’s not just about individual empowerment. These innovations are changing the world views on disabilities. We’re witnessing a wave of understanding and empathy, where diversity isn’t just accepted but celebrated. That’s one heck of a cultural shift!

Nelson Dawafula’s contribution delved into the financial constraints faced by the NCPLWD in providing specialized assistive technology. The stark reality of only being able to assist only a fraction -less than 100,000 individuals – lays bare the harrowing truth of the unmet demand in this area. Furthermore, the pertinent question of NCPLWD’s effectiveness in enforcing accessibility requirements for buildings was raised, sparking a necessary conversation about accountability and empowerment.

As we reflect on the impassioned discourse of the webinar, one cannot help but feel a surge of optimism. The call to action is clear – from ratifying and amending the AU resolution on the rights of persons living with disabilities to bolstering the resources and capabilities of organizations like NCPLWD, the time for transformative change is now.

The journey towards a more inclusive society is not without its hurdles, but it is also brimming with promise. The webinar illuminated the resilience, determination, and unwavering spirit of individuals advocating for change. In the end, it’s not just about embracing AI assistive technologies – it’s about embracing the inherent potential of every member of our society. 

Then again, with great power comes great responsibility. Using AI and assistive tech calls for thoughtful consideration  on ethical issues. Privacy, consent, chipping off algorithmic biases – we’ve got our hands full. But it’s all worth it!  It’s a future that’s not just about living, but about thriving!  Imagine the possibilities! 


This article was written by Keith Albert.

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