Talking Disability Rights with AXSChat’s Neil Milliken 

By Sara Gebhardt, posted on

Neil Milliken is the head of accessibility and inclusion at Atos, a global leader in digital transformation. He is an expert in the field of access to technology for people with disabilities and is the distinguished host of AXSChat, an online community of individuals dedicated to creating an inclusive world through access to technology and information. The following Q&A with Neil dives into those topics and much more. The Benetech team thanks Neil for sharing his insights on disability rights, technology, and much more. We encourage you to follow Neil and AXSChat on Twitter @NeilMilliken and @AXSChat 

Why are you passionate about disability rights? 

I am passionate about outcomes. I strongly believe that inclusiveness and disability rights play a key role in helping create the right environment where everyone can flourish. Rights, while very important on their own, are not enough; we need a positive mindset towards disabilities. 

What role can technology, including accessible technology, play in regards to disability rights? 

 Technology is an enabler. Well-designed technology is flexible enough to accommodate many different ways of using it. Accessibility is a form of customization. Technology that allows you to customise how it works for you and even what it works with helps to support the aims of disability rights that everyone should be able to access knowledge, products, and services. Sometimes mainstream technology, however adaptable, is not enough on its own and we need to employ assistive technology to enable equal access. 

There is a symbiotic relationship between assistive technologies and disability rights, with assistive tech being a means to achieve the end goals of rights and also being written into a lot of the documentation relating to disability rights. 

A photo of sand dunes with a river and the words

What role must people with disabilities play in the development of technology that advances disability rights?  

I believe that if we are designing technology for people with disabilities they need to be engaged from the outset. However, it is not just specific disability technology that requires our engagement but all technology if we wish to be inclusive. Who are we to decide what is or isn’t helpful to someone? Often when we design technology we have no idea who our real user base is and the likelihood is that among that user base will be people with disabilities who find it useful.  

What are some technologies that you believe will have a positive impact on disability rights? 

I think that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are going to play a very significant role in disability inclusion in the years to come. We are already seeing AI help deliver image descriptions and video captions. While it is not yet at the quality that can be achieved by humans, the technology has come a long way in a short period of time. Given the amount of online content that we are producing every day, we cannot hope to make it accessible manually. Therefore, we need to make use of automation and new technologies in order to deliver accessibility at scale. We also see AI powering applications. I can recognise people, objects and even emotions with products such as Microsoft’s Seeing AI. Although it was designed to help people with little or no vision, it actually has much broader applications. 

How do you view the intersection of education, employment, and disability rights?  

Intersectionality with disability is everywhere. Disability is part of the human condition and we all want to have access to the highest quality education and most fulfilling jobs that we can. Disability rights help enshrine this in legal frameworks that push societies to better include people with disabilities in the workplace and education. 

What is the role of data in measuring and tracking achievements in disability rights? Why is it important to get data directly from the disabled population when developing technology and informing policy?  

Only people with disabilities can really give you a true picture of the impact that rights have had on their lives. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to get data on the impact and achievements of disability rights directly from the disabled population.   

We also need to be mindful that there are different types of information that can be gathered—simple metrics and complex anecdotal information. How we deal with these will require different approaches and technologies. 

What aspect of disability rights technology do you see as being ripe for innovation? 

I think that we’ll see a continuation of the shift from expensive stand-alone AT to much more embedding of assistive features in technologies that are mainstream. The old business models of assistive technology vendors are ripe for disruption. 

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