Powering Inclusion: AI and AT. The findings of an online expert roundtable

Global Disability Innovation Hub, University College London, UNESCO's International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence, European Disability Forum, Jožef Stefan Institute
March 29, 2021
Case Studies and Reports

Assistive technology (AT) is broadly defined as any equipment, product or service that can make society more inclusive. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs or even some mobile applications are all examples of AT. This briefing explores the power of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance the design of current and future AT, as well as to increase its reach.

Globally, over 1 billion people are currently in need of AT. Lack of access to basic AT excludes individuals, reduces their ability to live independent lives, and is a barrier to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Advances in AI offer the potential to develop and enhance AT and gain new insights into the scale and nature of AT needs.


This briefing summarises the findings of an online expert roundtable on AI and AT held in November 2020. The event brought together experts working at the forefront of AI and AT to highlight the potential of using AI for AT and establish a list of ‘grand challenges’ to drive forward innovation in the AI & AT sector ahead of the launch of the newly formed International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence under the auspices of UNESCO (IRCAI). Participants included industry leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and AT users. The roundtable was funded by the AT2030 programme which is funded by FCDO and led by Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub).

The session focused on four areas: AI & Communication, AI & Mobility, AI & Improving Information, and also on more general requirements that must be considered when developing new technologies in this space.


AI presents many opportunities to both enhance AT and to improve access to AT. It was clear from our roundtable that better data on the scale and nature of the need globally will be vital in making sure that the opportunities are realised. The importance of taking a user-led approach to designing new technologies was equally notable.

Our roundtable focused on harnessing the power of AI to create a more accessible World. But AI innovations such as image recognition, speech-to-text, and autonomous-spatial guiding systems are technologies that can benefit society as a whole. By designing with accessibility in mind, we can all benefit from the creation of more intuitive, feature-rich and impactful products; Innovation for disability is innovation for everyone.

Recommendations for policymakers

  • Policymakers should consider how data, knowledge and learning can be shared effectively between different countries in order to maximise benefits.
  • Policymakers should consider the ethical implications of using AI, particularly where AI is used to recommend who gets access to AT and/or which technology they are offered.
  • Policymakers should work with industry and users to develop guidelines to ensure transparency in AI-based decision making.
  • Policymakers should ensure digital inclusion: make digital technologies and contents fully accessible to all people.

Key facts

  • The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) established AT provision as a human right.
  • Over 1 billion people are currently in need of AT. By 2050, this number is predicted to double.
  • Only 10% of those who need AT currently have access to it.
  • Design constraints imposed by disability result in novel universal technologies.

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