AI & Technology: Lending a Hand to People with Disabilities

Photo Credit:  Michael Baker

Author: Lisa Pacitto

Imagine waiting 30 minutes or longer to get through to a customer service center and when your call is finally answered, you can’t understand what the service representative is saying because you have a hearing impairment. Or you place a call to your doctor but aren’t able to communicate your needs to the medical staff because your speech is impaired. Or you are a child with autism and being in a classroom and interacting with your teacher and classmates overwhelms you with anxiety.

These scenarios represent reality for nearly one billion people around the world who have a physical or behavioral disability. In 2016, the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) estimated the overall rate of people with disabilities in the US population was 12.8 percent. That works out to roughly 41 million people who have a severe impairment in one of six areas as measured by the ACS: hearing, vision, cognition, walking or climbing stairs, difficulty with self-care due to a physical, mental, or emotional condition, or difficulty with independent living.

In addition to living with a specific impairment, people with disabilities often have to overcome environmental, social, and economic challenges. For example, physical environments that are not accessible, lack of relevant assistive technology (assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices), and limited access to education and employment opportunities.

According to ACS statistics, the frequency of disability increases with age. Given the aging US population and the large demographic of disabled persons, government organizations and private companies are working to develop technologies and services that can increase accessibility and inclusion for people living with disabilities.

Accessible Communications for Everyone

People who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech disabled and deaf-blind currently rely on a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) national service to make calls. The Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) uses various services and equipment, including video relay, IP-captioned telephone, or teletypewriter. Video relay service (VRS) directs a person’s call to a third-party interpreter who is proficient in American Sign Language. The interpreter then relays the information to the intended target via a traditional voice call. Often, however, interpreter calls are perceived as telemarketing calls and the hearing person for whom the call is intended hangs up—repeatedly.

In an effort to augment the relay service program and provide functional equivalency for people with disabilities, MITRE developed an open-source, multi-channel direct video calling platform as part of the FCC initiative, Accessible Communications for Everyone, or ACE. The ACE initiative seeks to provide better communication services for people with disabilities by initiating collaborative efforts among software developers, engineers, technologists and organizations that serve the disabilities community.

The MITRE-developed direct video calling platform, ACE Direct, allows businesses and government agencies to support both hearing and deaf consumers directly with their existing call centers. A free, open-source, omni-channel platform, ACE Direct provides video calling, voice calling, real-time text, integrated data, and inbound and outbound call functionality. When used as a call center application, ACE Direct can be implemented so that hearing callers can continue to be routed to hearing agents, while deaf, hard-of-hearing, speech-disabled, and deaf-blind callers are automatically routed to agents fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). ACE Direct makes communication in ASL is possible without the need for a third party to interpret the call, ensuring greater accuracy, privacy and efficiency for the disabled person making the call as well as the recipient of the call.

While ACE Direct was developed for the specific needs of the FCC, the technology has broad applications—it can be used to improve communications for customer service, state and local 311 information exchange, telehealth and mobile health services, on demand translation or interpretation, as well as other diagnostic services.

Consistent and Predictable, Robots Aid Children with Autism

Research is finding that artificial intelligence can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their communication and social skills by almost 30 percent. ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. It’s considered a “spectrum” disorder because people with ASD can have the wide range of conditions—such as difficulty talking with someone, avoiding looking someone in the eye when speaking, and repetitive behaviors.

A 2017 study conducted by the University of Bristol, UK, found that young people with ASD have trouble recognizing and distinguishing different facial expressions. Inability to read facial expressions and social cues can greatly hinder effective communication.

Humanoid robots designed with fewer facial features and human traits appear non-threatening, and therefore more approachable, to children with autism. As children with ASD interact with these robots, they are better able to learn communication and social skills that can then be transferred to their interactions with people.

For example, Softbank’s Nao humanoid robot uses two cameras and four microphones to record facial expressions and body language as a child interacts with the robot. Once the data is recorded, Nao assesses the data to determine the most effective way to gain the child’s attention. By learning a child’s behavior and interacting with them on their own terms, it paves the way for better human interactions. (Note: the Nao is still in testing and is expected to be available in 2019.)

Another robot, Milo, from Robokind, walks, talks, and shows emotions through facial expressions. Milo delivers lessons verbally while a child watches video clips on a tablet about the skills or behaviors the robot is teaching. The child is then asked a “yes” or “no” question to determine if the learners in the video are correctly performing the skill or behavior. Since Milo never gets frustrated or tired, it can consistently deliver lessons in social and behavioral skills in a way that children with ASD can easily relate to.

Since robots can be programmed to have highly patterned and predictable behavior, they tend to be soothing to children with autism. A Robotics Business Review article, May 2018, reports on the effectiveness of using robots to teach STEM concepts to children with ASD. Robots help to keep the children engaged and make the learning process easier and more enjoyable.

Life-Changing Technologies

As technology and AI continue to advance, people with disabilities in the US and around the world may be able to lead more accessible and inclusive lives. The M-Enabling Summit, a leading global conference, follows technological innovations that enable seniors and persons with disabilities to access digital content and services in new ways.

The Summit brings to light the unprecedented accessibility challenges faced by nearly one billion people around the world living with disabilities. It also uncovers opportunities for governments and the private sector to better serve these members our society.

Last year, technology companies spent more on research and development than any other companies in the US.  Amazon, Alphabet, Intel, Microsoft, and Apple invested a combined total of $76 billion.

This tremendous investment in technology provides a vast and fertile ground for MITRE to identify and harness consumer technologies that have the potential for dual use—adapted for solutions that can aid and enhance the functioning of people with disabilities.

As MITRE has seen with the ACE Direct solution, new technologies can be life-changing for people with disabilities.

Strategic Communications Contract Writer Lisa Pacitto covers innovation and technology for MITRE. She created the MITRECRAFT campaign for the 2017 Idea Market and has written for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe and MIT’s Technology Review magazine.

© 2018 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 18-2572

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