Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace (Part 4): AI, Disability and Accessibility
In part four of our Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace series, we examine the potential for AI to make the workplace more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities and the impact this will have on Irish employers.

 

In our Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Workplace article series we are considering the potential positive impacts that AI could have on the workplace and the possible amendments required to Irish employment law to allow these to happen. In this article we consider the possible changes AI will bring to disability and accessibility in the workplace.

AI, and technology more generally, have already changed the workplace to make it more accessible and inclusive for employees with intellectual, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities and it has the potential to do so further with technological developments. The use of AI not only benefits employees with disabilities, but also employers and workplaces as a whole creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. AI can also assist employers in honouring their legislative responsibilities more easily and potentially achieving real 'reasonable accommodation' more cost-effectively.

Employment Equality Acts

The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 (the Acts) prohibit discrimination on a number of grounds, including the ground of disability. Section 16(3) of the Acts requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability. This means an employer must consider special treatment, modifications or facilities which would enable a candidate for employment or an employee who has a disability to access, participate and advance in employment, or to undergo training. An employer is not obliged to provide reasonable accommodation if this puts a disproportionate burden on the employer.

The definition of 'reasonable accommodation' has come under much debate in Ireland.  Recently in Nano Nagle School v Daly [2018], the Court of Appeal outlined that an employer is not expected to create a new role for an employee with a disability and that if no reasonable adjustments can be made for an employee with a disability, the employer is not liable for failing to consider the matter.  This case is currently on appeal to the Supreme Court.

While employers' responsibilities currently do not include creating a new role for a person with a disability as discussed in Nano Nagle, there is still a requirement for an employer to provide reasonable accommodation.  AI can assist employers in providing this reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability and can also perhaps limit the disproportionate burden on the employer. 

Disability and AI

AI's ability to help make the workplace more accessible and inclusive is becoming evident and this is something which should be considered in any AI national strategy.  

AI advances in areas such as predictive text, speech-to-text transcription, voice and visual recognition can assist employees or potential employees with disabilities.  Numerous applications are available that make the workplace more accessible. For example, Microsoft's 'Seeing AI' app describes people, text and objects aloud for people with low vision. 'Intelligaze' is a tool which allows people with mobility impairments to operate their computer using eye-control.  Also 'Windows Hello' enables users to access devices with fingerprint, iris scan or facial recognition, rather than passwords, giving people with learning and physical disabilities greater ease of access while remaining secure. Voice recognition software and smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home used in connection with workplace tools and applications stands to significantly benefit employees with disabilities. These technologies are among numerous others, which will allow employers to seek to meet their legislative obligations in a cost-effective and less burdensome manner and also continue to improve the working lives of employees with disabilities.

Global companies have also recognised the importance of technology for enabling people with disabilities to thrive in the workplace.  Microsoft recently launched the 'AI for Accessibility' program, which addresses employment of people with disabilities and asks how technology can positively impact the employment rate for people with disabilities. The AI for Accessibility program provides grants of technology to developers and inventors using AI to create solutions that will assist people with disabilities with work and to projects that improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Comment

The use of technology brings about new opportunities for employees with disabilities to enter into and thrive in the workplace. Employers should be aware of developments in AI that may come within the 'reasonable accommodation' test expected of employers, in making the workplace accessible for employees with disabilities. It is becoming clear that advances in AI will assist employers in meeting their legal obligations, and in creating a more diverse workforce. However, trust in AI and ease of use for employees and employers is something which needs to be fostered and this and possible amendments to the Acts, to allow for greater use of technology should be considered in any AI national strategy.

In times where employers continue to explore the exciting world of AI in the workplace, we continue to explore its employment law possibilities and effects. In part 5 of our series we will investigate the potential impact of AI on the different generations working together in the workplace. Please click on the following links to read Part 1 (An Employment Law Perspective)Part 2 (AI-Assisted Recruitment & Employment Equality Law) and Part 3 (AI and Gender Equality)

For further information on AI in the workplace and the early employment law issues contact Catherine O'Flynn, Head of Department or Darran Brennan, Solicitor in the William Fry Employment & Benefits Department.

Contributed by Catherine O'Flynn and Darran Brennan

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