Our colleague Luc de Witte participated in the COSP12 conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. COSP is the annual conference of States Parties to the CRPD, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Here is a short report of his experiences at the conference.

More than 400 people from all over the world, representing the 177 countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, gather in the main building of the United Nations to discuss the progress of implementing the CRPD. I was invited to speak during a session about “Artificial Intelligence and the potential to increase inclusion, participation and independence for people with disabilities”. Other 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 do not have 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 research and development in this field, as CATCH tries to do. There is so much more 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 and 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 meetings 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. However, whilst there are many solutions and approaches that can make a difference, there are also many challenges to make these solutions 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