Report from COSP12 conference in New York

On behalf of the AAATE, I participated in the COSP12 conference in New York. COSP is the annual conference of States Parties to the CRPD, the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. More than 400 people from all over the world gather in the main building of the United Nations to discuss the progress of implementing the CRPD. The AAATE was invited to contribute to a side event organised by the Essl foundation. The topic was “Artificial Intelligence and the potential to increase inclusion, participation and independence for people with disabilities”. Speakers were from EDF (European Disability Forum), ITU (International Telecommunication Union), Microsoft, the European Commission, the Essl foundation and the Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Walking around amidst this large international group, you wonder why we still have problems with the position of people with disabilities in the world. So many active and highly motivated people, so many great solutions readily available, so many great ideas about how policy should develop, and yet people with disabilities are still marginalised and have no equal opportunities in education, work and independence in many parts of the world. It is motivating and frustrating at the same time. What this event also clearly shows is the need for organisations like the AAATE. There is so much that needs to be done…..

In the above mentioned session about AI, we had a very interesting discussion about the great potential of Artificial Intelligence to support people with disabilities on the one hand and huge risks of exclusion and violation of human rights on the other hand. Positive examples were the use of an avatar for sign language translation, an app that translates texts into easy readable text, virtual reality applications for people with dyslexia to help them focus and several others. Negative examples were AI systems used in the selection process of job candidates that are intrinsically biased towards the ‘ideal’ and ‘normal’ person, widely used speech recognition that does not properly recognise ‘abnormal’ speech. These examples show that AI can be a fantastic friend but also a dangerous enemy. This clearly is a field that requires much research to make sure that we steer applications in the right direction.

The rest of the conference, I immersed myself in a range of side events about very different topics related to technology and disability. There was a lot of attention for inclusive education and inclusion in sports, leisure and culture. Also here many solutions and approaches that can make a difference but also many challenges to make it work in reality. I can only recommend everyone in this field to do this at least once. Participating in this event offers a strong compass and motivation for everyone who works in this field.

Luc de Witte