AI – The Next Big Challenge!

Image is of a futuristic scenario. There is a robot hand and a human hand. The forefingers of the two hands are outstretched and touching each other at the tip

Oh, I love technology! I have made it part of my career to find ways to make technology work for me. The latest cool gadget is captioned mobiles. It uses voice recognition technology to caption the speaker, I lost my hearing around the age of 8 or 9 so I have ok speech, people at the other end can hear me. Sometimes they don’t and I have to repeat myself but that’s ok. No matter, after 57 years I now use a mobile to receive and make calls without a third person assisting. Available on an Android phone near you. C’mon Apple, catch up.

I was so excited about this when I found out about it. I contacted Jobaccess and said I have a new employer and need a workplace assessment. So I prepared my case. Basically, when the job assessor came in I had al the information ready for them. I even had a video that showed how it worked. I can be kind of clever sometimes. I met the assessor without an Auslan interpreter and used my iPad with the Microsoft Group Transcribe app to show just how effective this new technology could be. I kind of blew the assessor away. She was a bit gobsmacked. I convinced her, as well, that I needed good internet coverage so she recommended WiFi extenders too. And then I said I could cast the captions to my computer screen using Chromecast so I could read the captions on the big screen. So she recommended Chromecast and an extra monitor, so Jobaccess bought that too.

BRILLIANT!!! Then my friend Michael tried to do the same and they said no. He became a sooky lala. He says there is one rule for me and one rule for everyone else. Spat the dummy good and proper he did. So I became his advocate. Went into battle for him and they bought him the required phone too. I’m not sure if he got extenders and an extra computer monitor as well, but at least he got the phone. Oh technology, how I love thee!

And you know, in the last few years I have basically not booked Auslan interpreters. I kind of prefer the immediacy of communication rather than all the hassle of booking and hoping someone is available. You know, I turn on my Group Transcribe in the office and know what people are talking about. As a boss it is useful. I hear, or see rather, what my team mates are talking about. When I see they are having problems or there is something that needs my input , I am able to pipe up and contribute to this discussion on the floor – For the first time in the 35 years of my career I have felt close to fully involved. Hell, one of my teammates, when they want to chat with me, the first thing they say is, “Put your thing on” – It is that good.

Automatic captioning is an example of AI or artificial intelligence. Wikipedia defines AI as;

“Artificial intelligence is intelligence – perceiving, synthesizing, and infering information – demonstrated by machines, as opposed to intelligence displayed by animals and humans”

So when a computer program hears a voice and then is able to transcribe it to captions, this is an example of artificial intelligence. A program or machine replacing what a human might otherwise do. It’s interesting, because recently I spoke to a very good friend who is a live captioner. He said that since automatic captioning has begun to improve, work for his business has started to dry up. That makes me feel a bit shit. My thirst for immediate communication, low on hassles and cost, is putting people out of work! That’s a bit of a downside.

You know, my job involves advising Deaf and hard of hearing people of their options. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t explain to them and demonstrate the solutions at their disposal. Like me, many of them are amazed. It has meant that they can now consider other jobs that involve intimate human interaction. It has meant they can access the phone, group chats, deliver customer service and the like. It is wonderful – BUT, the downside is that it is changing life as we know it in a negative way too.

The amazing thing, or the sad thing really, is that AI is like a real person. Some AI is great, but AI also discriminates. You see, I speak ok. Not every deaf person does. It is fine to know what others are saying but how do you contribute if you don’t have good speech or are an Auslan user. What I am seeing is people are now saying, “Oh great, Johnny can use this technology with us. Problem solved!” Shit, NO! Johnny has literacy issues, Johnny needs to be heard too, communication is two way! This technology might work for me, but it wont work for Johnny! It is a real danger that people start to think it is a one size fits all! It isn’t, other options are still needed.

And do you know, businesses are increasingly using artificial intelligence as part of their recruitment processes. People apply for jobs online. Artificial intelligence is now screening these applications. The blurb of the companies that promote this recruitment process is that it’s fair. There is no bias. It just picks people who can do the job. Sounds good? No, its a nightmare if you are deaf or have disabilities.

A few weeks ago, as an experiment, I applied for a job using one of these online application processes, just to see what would happen. Within ten minutes I was invited to an interview over Zoom, that afternoon. OK! Now imagine you are deaf and an Auslan user. You have to go for this interview. It doesn’t ask if you have any access requirements. It just jovially says, congratulations, you have been invited for an interview and sends you a link. Just like many real people, AI can be clueless.

So I logged in at the allotted hour. A man was there. He said something, but of course there were no captions. Their Zoom didn’t have a captioned option either. I explained to the bloke that I was deaf and needed captions, silence. Truth be known, I had Microsoft Group Transcribe running and could follow what he was saying. BUT, as I was talking seven or eight more people joined the interview. It was a group interview. The man just ignored me and began to speak to everyone else, talked about breakout rooms and how there was a task in the breakout rooms and we had to leave voice responses to the questions. I got out there and then.

I was horrified. I imagined any number of Deaf community members applying for this job, (Packing and picking in a warehouse by the way.) I imagined they wouldn’t have Group Transcribe. They wouldn’t have Auslan interpreters. In reality they would have no access, no hope and would be totally excluded!

Since I did this experiment other clients have spoken to us about the same issue. They apply online. They get invited to interviews. They don’t know what is going on. They are expected to hear, respond and speak their responses. It is horrific! This wonderful technology that has the potential to include so many is now doing what humans have been doing for hundreds of years, it discriminates. Sadly, AI can also be AUI … Artificially Unintelligent.

And here lies our one of our next great advocacy battles. This battle is to make these AI systems accessible and inclusive.

To the credit of the companies involved with the recruitment, they accept and recognize the problem. They have agreed to meet to discuss a way forward. It’s gonna be a long road but at least they have come to the table. To resolve this we are gonna need a bit of real intelligence. Wish us luck!


Image is a silhouette of a woman sitting in a field. there are dark cloud in the background. She is holding her face in her hands.

It has been a difficult week. I am in no mood to mince words. People in the Deaf and Disability communities are hurting. Rather than easier, this world of ours is becoming more and more difficult to navigate. On one side of the coin a large proportion of the Disability community fear just leaving home. This is because of Covid and the Governments dropping of all restrictions. No masks, no isolation and so on. If you are fit and healthy, wonderful. You can get Covid and likely recover, no complications. But if you are elderly, have severe degenerative disability or are immuno-compromised, catching Covid can be a death sentence. Just simple things like mask wearing and isolating when you catch Covid can save lives. But nope, seemingly no one cares.

In the Australian Deaf community there have been two suicides within a week. I wont go into detail because people are hurting. However, once again it throws a light on mental health and deafness, indeed all disability. The National Library of Medicine suggests that the incidence of depression and anxiety in deaf people is 25% higher. A recent study of mental health episodes amongst people with a disability found that one third of all people with a disability in Australia experienced very high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic while only 8% of the general population did.

Why? Well, because our society is disabling people more than it needs to. The isolation, lack of employment, lack of accessibility and never ending barriers takes its toll. Indeed, there has been no improvement in the disability employment rate for 28 years. Dylan Alcott was on TV this morning pleading with employers to take on people with a disability. This in a time of labour shortages where employers cannot fill vacancies.

Sometimes when I see figures like this I feel like an imposter. I feel like 35 years as a disability advocate has been a complete waste. You want to just throw in the towel and crawl under a rock. That is until Sky News come up with headlines like this:

Inside the ‘failed’ NDIS: How it secretly funds sex work and why the scheme will eventually cost Australians $100 billion every year

Now, at this point I have to say that what follows are the opinions of myself and no one else. They do not reflect the views of my employer, friends or family. Although I am pretty sure a good proportion of my friends and colleagues will be cheering me on.

I have a message for the author of this piece, Jonathon Lea. How dare you scream that the NDIS is a failure. What would you know? What would you understand about getting out into the community three or four times a week, where as in a past life you would be lucky to get out once a month? How dare you suggest the amputees who are getting prosthetics are part of a failure. Or the physically disabled who are getting bathroom renovations so that they can shower are part of a failure. Or the Deaf person who can get an interpreter for their brothers wedding is part of a failure. Or the person with speech difficulties who gets a communication device to communicate with others is part of a failure. How dare you suggest that all of these people are a burden. Sure, the NDIS is far from perfect and I am one of its biggest critics, BUT, to call it a failure is the height of ignorance.

And here we go again. The cost. It’s expensive! Those dastardly disabled are such burdens. Apparently the disabled are sending the country broke. $100 billion it will cost! Mr Lea, let me give you some advice; open your mind. If you bothered to do your research you would see that for every dollar spent on the NDIS, $2.21 is generated. It is creating whole industries out there mate. It creates jobs in the care industry, it creates jobs in the technology market, it creates jobs in innovation, it creates jobs for Auslan interpreters, it creates jobs for tradies who do the renovations and adjustments, it creates jobs for professionals and therapist. We could argue that the NDIS is an absolute pillar of the economy.

Do you know about the multiplier effect Mr Lea? Where when a person with a disability goes to the movies they take family and friends with them? Did you know on average one disabled person will bring four others with them to a cafe, a tourist venue, a winery and so on. Mr Lea, thousands upon thousands of businesses’ and employees owe their careers and incomes to people with a disability. Imagine if we go back to the dark ages and these disabled people were restricted to the odd outing here and there throughout the year. How dare you call them a burden and suggest that they are taking money from other areas where it is needed. You are an absolute ignoramus! Oh! You have no idea what I really want to call you!

But the worst of this is Mr Lea trying to show that he understands why a person with a disability needs intimacy by way of sex:

“Stephanie has cerebral palsy, a degenerative movement disorder which leaves her bound to a wheelchair and dependent on 24-hour carers who sleep in a spare room..

But once every few months she pays a male escort to visit, to do the sort of things consenting adults do, and maybe stay for the weekend.

Stephanie prefers not to say how much they cost, nor how she fudges her claim. Only that she does.

Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’

And that’s what he said. He basically said Stephanie has no right to intimacy and that it is wrong that the tax payer should assist her to fulfil what others do most days. I don’t know Stephanie. It is possible that Stephanie has coordination issues to the point that she cannot use sex toys. Or it is possible that her coordination is such that self intimacy is beyond her. It’s possible that she asked for assistive technology through the NDIS to assist her with her intimate needs but this was denied.

But I don’t care. Stephanie has a right to human touch. Stephanie has a right to human interaction. So what if she pays a support person for this. After all, does not the NDIS proclaim it is the persons right to lead an “Ordinary Life.” Stephanie is a human being that has social and intimate needs. She is living in a world where people with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. She is living in a world where she possibly does not fit into societies warped sense of “attractive”. She is probably very lonely, isolated and in need of human company and intimacy. And Mr Lea shows his empathy by saying this – Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’ I read this and felt physically sick!

I am tired. I am sad. I see my Deaf and Disabled community struggling every day. I see it impacting on their health as they struggle to fit in with this increasingly non-disabled world. It’s making them sick. It’s sometimes making them kill themselves. And then Mr Lea comes along and suggests that Stephanie is a criminal for wanting and needing intimacy, in his words, “Every few months.” Yes, here and there, where it can be had! Would you like to live such a life Mr Lea?

Mr Lea, you and Sky are a disgrace for printing such inhumane and demoralizing crap! You are SCUM!