21 Jul Inclusion is the key to innovative development
Photo: Abdulaziz Salimov, a blind Mathematics student at the National University of Uzbekistan, by Konstantin Bashlaev
How are disability-inclusive employment and innovations interconnected? Why is inclusivity in the field of information and communication technologies of practical importance for persons with disabilities and society and business in general? I wrote an op-ed in Uzbek and Russian for the popular science magazine “QVANT” in Uzbekistan. You can read the English translation of the article below.
To answer the above-mentioned questions, one needs to study the experience of such tech giants as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. They are all united by a commitment to hiring persons with disabilities and recognising that everyone, regardless of their characteristics, can make an important contribution to achieves the goals of an entire company. One of the fundamental principles of such large corporations is diversity & inclusion or respect for human differences, taking into account individual characteristics and providing equal opportunities for each employee.
For example, the career development portal at Google has created a special page on existing employment programs for persons with disabilities. The company recognizes that to continue developing and implementing IT solutions for billions of users worldwide, it needs talent representing the people using its products. According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the world’s population or 1 billion people have some form of disability – 80% of them live in developing countries. They are the largest minority in the world whose needs cannot be ignored. They are also users and participants in the huge market for IT services and products.
Accessible to the minority – convenient for everyone
Google’s approach to integrating human diversity and experience into production processes is fully consistent with the motto of the international movement of persons with disabilities: “Nothing about us without us”. In other words, products and services for users with disabilities should always be developed with their direct participation. Indeed, who, if not the people with disabilities themselves, can know about their special needs? There are many examples of technologies that were initially developed to provide accessibility and reasonable accommodation for users with disabilities, then massively introduced into the everyday life of persons without disabilities.
One striking example is the text-to-speech system or speech synthesis, originally developed for people with visual impairments. Now, this assistive technology is widely used in many spheres of human life. At call centres, speech synthesis is used, where instead of a human operator, a speech synthesizer system with pre-programmed questions and answers is installed. The Speechify mobile app allows people with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), visual impairment and other impairments to comprehend computer-generated speech based on available text.
At the same time, Speechify helps users with reading difficulties and is also convenient for ordinary people who can read a book while listening to it on the go. Speechify can become an artificial intelligence (AI) – based text listening assistant and can even easily turn textbooks into audiobooks. The impetus for the development of smart technology was the initial desire of developers to make life easier for blind people, and now it is already being used all over the world.
Another example is the technology of automatic speech recognition in real-time – a function inverse to speech synthesis. The Live Transcribe mobile application was specially developed for hard of hearing users by Android in collaboration with researchers from the University of Gallaudet in Washington, DC – the first and only university in the world for deaf and hard of hearing students where all curricula are adapted for students with hearing impairments. Now deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people can easily speak with just a smartphone in more than 70 languages globally, including Uzbek.
Live Transcribe is based on Google’s speech recognition technology, which is used not only as an assistive communication technology for people with hearing impairments but also in academia and journalism to quickly transcribe audio or video interviews, to provide subtitles to television broadcasts, and YouTube to automatically add subtitles and translate speech into different languages in real-time. It combines speech synthesis and recognition and artificial intelligence, which is the basis of intelligent virtual assistants (IVA) or intelligent personal assistants (IPA) like Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or Alice from Yandex.
Not objects of charity, but subjects of innovation
It is interesting that without involving human diversity in developing and implementing all the modern technologies described above, it was impossible now to use many programs and applications in mobile phones, to which we are so accustomed. If Google hadn’t brought in deaf researchers from the University of Gallaudet, the speech recognition function would not have made life easier for deaf communities. It would not have become useful for everyday use in various areas of our life.
In other words, inclusion is the key to innovative development. Without the inclusion of people with various forms of disabilities in our society, we are losing their talents, skills and creative thinking – which is an urgent need for any innovative enterprise and start-up.
Unfortunately, our country’s attitude towards persons with disabilities is still based on a purely charitable or medical approach. Disability is seen more as a pathology that must be treated in all possible ways, while the giants of the IT industry see in this the diversity of human potential and do not miss the slightest opportunity to use this resource for innovative development. According to the UN situational analysis in Uzbekistan, only 5% of persons with disabilities of working age are employed. They have four times fewer chances of finding a job compared to persons without disabilities.
Such a low level of employment of people with disabilities is associated with numerous negative stereotypes, barriers and outright discrimination in the domestic labour market. The obligatory 3% employment quota prescribed in the law remains only on paper, and many employers are not aware of the guaranteed benefits and advantages of inclusive employment. In addition, in the minds of the majority, and even of people with disabilities, a misunderstanding is entrenched that disability directly leads to loss of working capacity. As a result, people with disabilities often become passive recipients of temporary charitable assistance in the context of inadequate social support from the state without realizing their human potential.
By not providing equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of their characteristics, we are losing our Einstein, who had autism and dyslexia, our Stephen Hawking, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and later paralysis, our Helen Keller, a deafblind American writer, lecturer and political activist , and many other eminent scientists in the history of mankind. It is the principles of diversity and inclusiveness that have created equal conditions and opportunities for them to receive quality education and acquire professional skills, so that they can create and implement their wildest ideas.
In the end, using this opportunity, I would like to appeal to the readers of QVANT – entrepreneurs, managers and employees of scientific and government institutions, to become partners of our project, “Providing people with disabilities with decent work in the open labour market through a special recruiting web portal www.ishplus.uz” which is being implemented by NGO Sharoit+ thanks to the small grant provided within the joint UN program on strengthening social protection in Uzbekistan and additional financial support by the OSCE Project Coordinator in Uzbekistan. The specialized recruiting portal www.ishplus.uz offers vacancies, internships and professional training courses for persons with various forms of disabilities and use human diversity to make our world a better place to live.