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What AI can do to improve workplace accessibility for employees with disabilities

20 Sep 2018

William Fry partner Catherine O’Flynn and solicitor Darran Brennan consider the possible changes AI will bring to disability and accessibility in the workplace.

Artificial intelligence (AI) – and technology more generally – has already changed the workplace to make it more accessible and inclusive for employees with intellectual, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities, and it has the potential to do so further with technological developments.

The use of AI not only benefits employees with disabilities, but also employers and workplaces as a whole, creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. AI can also assist employers in honouring their legislative responsibilities more easily and potentially achieving real ‘reasonable accommodation’ more cost-effectively.

Employment Equality Acts

The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 prohibit discrimination on a number of grounds, including the ground of disability. Section 16 (3) of the acts requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability. This means an employer must consider special treatment, modifications or facilities that would enable a candidate for employment or an employee who has a disability to access, participate and advance in employment, or to undergo training. An employer is not obliged to provide reasonable accommodation if this puts a disproportionate burden on the employer.

The definition of ‘reasonable accommodation’ has come under much debate in Ireland. Recently, in Nano Nagle School v Daly, the Court of Appeal outlined that an employer is not expected to create a new role for an employee with a disability and that, if no reasonable adjustments can be made for an employee with a disability, the employer is not liable for failing to consider the matter. This case is currently on appeal to the Supreme Court.

While employers’ responsibilities currently do not include creating a new role for a person with a disability as discussed in Nano Nagle, there is still a requirement for an employer to provide reasonable accommodation. AI can assist employers in providing this reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability and can also perhaps limit the disproportionate burden on the employer.

Disability and AI

AI’s ability to help make the workplace more accessible and inclusive is becoming evident and this is something that should be considered in any AI national strategy.

AI advances in areas such as predictive text, speech-to-text transcription, and voice and visual recognition can assist employees or potential employees with disabilities.

Numerous applications are available that make the workplace more accessible. For example, Microsoft’s Seeing AI app describes people, text and objects aloud for people with low vision. IntelliGaze is a tool that allows people with mobility impairments to operate their computer using eye control. Also, Windows Hello enables users to access devices with fingerprint, iris scan or facial recognition rather than passwords, giving people with learning and physical disabilities greater ease of access while remaining secure. Voice recognition software and smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home used in connection with workplace tools and applications stand to significantly benefit employees with disabilities.

These technologies are among numerous others that can allow employers to seek to meet their legislative obligations in a cost-effective and less burdensome manner, and also continue to improve the working lives of employees with disabilities.

Global companies have also recognised the importance of technology for enabling people with disabilities to thrive in the workplace. Microsoft recently launched the AI for Accessibility programme, which addresses employment of people with disabilities and asks how technology can positively impact this employment rate. The programme provides grants of technology to developers and inventors using AI to create solutions that will assist people with disabilities with work, and to projects that improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Towards a national strategy

The use of technology brings about new opportunities for employees with disabilities to enter into and thrive in the workplace. Employers should be aware of developments in AI that may come within the ‘reasonable accommodation’ test expected of them in making the workplace accessible for employees with disabilities.

It is becoming clear that advances in AI will assist employers in meeting their legal obligations, and in creating a more diverse workforce. However, trust in AI and ease of use for employees and employers is something that needs to be fostered. This, and possible amendments to the Employment Equality Acts to allow for greater use of technology, should be considered in any AI national strategy.

By Catherine O’Flynn and Darran Brennan

Catherine O’Flynn is a partner at William Fry and head of the firm’s Employment & Benefits department. She advises on all contentious and non-contentious employment matters with a particular expertise in equality issues. Darran Brennan is a solicitor in the Employment & Benefits department.

A version of this article originally appeared on the William Fry blog.

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