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Capes, apps and AI – what future tech holds for disabled people


Showcase panel discussion photo by Will Houston

The panel discusses changing technology and its effects on disabled employees at the Technology Taskforce Showcase (photo by Will Houston, Enterprise Rent-A-Car)

By Dean Haynes, Business Disability Forum

The first Technology Taskforce Showcase (formally known as the Technology Taskforce SwapShop) of 2018 took place at the tail-end of February, hosted by perennial Technology Taskforce member KPMG at their Canary Wharf offices.

Focusing on the future of technology and disability, attendees were given the chance to see and hear about some of the latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and smart technologies, as well as how those with disabilities or impairments can make the most of this emerging tech. The Showcase culminated in a panel session where all of our experts were quizzed by our attendees.

Proceedings got underway with a brief introduction from Tony Cates, Senior sponsor for Disability at KPMG, before he handed over to our venerable compère for the afternoon, Technology Taskforce Manager, Lucy Ruck.

Project Cape

Our first presenters were Sean Gilroy, Finance Business Partner at the BBC, joined by Neurodiversity Project Lead & Researcher Leena Haque, who form part of the BBC’s Project Cape (Creating a Positive Environment). Sean and Leena set up the group to improve the support given to neurodivergent employees, as well as highlighting the skills and talents such individuals can bring to the table. As part of the Project’s work, Sean and Leena spoke about how ever-improving virtual reality (VR) technology can be used as an educational tool, an empathy machine and much more besides; they also demonstrated an immersive simulation that looks at the issues neurodivergent people can face in the workplace. Some attendees at the event were lucky enough to try out first-hand how this technology works, and you can also see how it’s used here on BBC Academy’s YouTube page.

The Welcome and Button app

Next up Gavin Neate, CEO and founder of Neatebox took to the stage to tell everyone how their two apps “Welcome” and “Button” are helping people with disabilities foster a more independent lifestyle, further citing the 13 million people in the UK alone with a disability, and their spending power of £249 billion. With the Welcome app, users set up a profile that is made available to the registered Welcome venue (these venues are steadily growing in number), alerting staff of any assistance they may need. Button tackles the everyday problem of the placement of pedestrian crossing controls for those with mobility or visual impairments. Often these buttons are placed inaccessibly far away from the crossing itself; Button electronically interacts with the crossing, letting users press them “virtually” through their smartphone or wearable device, thereby allowing users to focus on their positioning before crossing.

AI and the future of banking

We were then joined by Technology Taskforce stalwart Paul Smyth, Barclays’ Head of Digital Accessibility, who spoke about how AI will impact on the future of banking and how it will support their customers and colleagues with disabilities. As a longstanding member of both Business Disability Forum and the Technology Taskforce, Barclays have long seen the benefits of shifting their business culture from “must do” to “want to”, by way of including, educating and enabling people. The ever-increasing power of AT and AI will let Barclays offer safe, simple personalisation of their services that works for everyone. Paul also extolled the virtues of open banking, that lets customers use one website or app to access all of their banking services, regardless of provider.

AT benefits

Diane at Showcase by LucyR

Business Disability Forum CEO Diane Lightfoot closes the event

After a quick break, delegates came back to hear from Robin Christopherson MBE (and Archie), Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech charity AbilityNet. As a blind user, Robin has first-hand experience of making use of AT and shared some of his knowledge, including a demo of Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant Alexa. He also talked about how he can control smart technology via the Amazon Echo. There is also a really great clip about the benefits, along with some of the challenges for the more mature generation in adopting this technology.

KMPG and new technologies

KPMG then returned to the stage, with their UK Innovation Lead-slash-Head of Digital Disruption Shamus Rae. Shamus’ “disruptive” role leads on the use of AI to change KPMG’s services and help its customers to embrace these new technologies. With a view to remove the friction or sticking points in customer transactions, KPMG are focusing on four pieces of tech:

  1. Augmented reality (AR);
  2. Mobility;
  3. Removing bias; and
  4. Neural lace.

AR has already hit the marketplace through Google Glass launched back in 2013 and continues to find favour in the tech sphere with Apple looking to release their own version within the next two years.

Mobility is being further improved thanks to AI with the progress being made in driverless cars, minimising or even removing the need for driver interaction, which is hoped will improve efficiency, reduce accidents, and increase people’s productivity (you can use your daily drive to work to actually get some work done!).

Finally, the neural lace, an implantable brain-computer interface that is in development most notably by Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by billionaire entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk (most famously known for Tesla cars).

To end the session, our speakers formed a panel to be quizzed by those in attendance. Lucy got things started by asking what potential dangers there might be with the speed of innovation.

The panel didn’t always agree on what the future would hold, and which were the most important pieces of tech, including a discussion around the pros and cons of driverless cars. And it was suggested that the most important piece of technology we shall use in the future are our smartphones. Just think how these have developed in the last 10 years – what will the next 10 years hold for them!

Business Disability Forum’s Chief Executive Diane Lightfoot rounded up the Showcase by thanking all of our speakers, our generous hosts KPMG and the attendees for joining us.


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