For nearly 20 years, Anne Marie Piper has been studying accessible computing and how groups of people with varying abilities, such as those who are blind, deaf, or neurodivergent, work together. “A lot has changed over that time,” says Piper, a professor of informatics at UC Irvine, “but we still do not have widely known work practices and technologies that guarantee equal access for all workers.”
Piper and some of her colleagues in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) are working to address that with a recent $2M National Science Foundation award. The NSF project, “Building an Inclusive Future of Work: Accessible Collaboration for Visually Impaired Information Workers,” aims to develop more equitable and inclusive collaboration tools.
The project is a joint effort between Darren Gergle and Eleanor O’Rourke of Northwestern University and researchers at UCI, including Piper and her ICS colleagues Stacy Branham and Erik Sudderth — all members of UCI’s Steckler Center for Responsible, Ethical, and Accessible Technology (CREATE) — and Sharon Koppman of the Paul Merage School of Business. Over the next four years, the team will explore AI-augmented collaboration tools for information workers, focusing on how such tools can better support job-related skill development, worker self-efficacy and inclusive teamwork.
“What blind workers need, and what developers design, are often at odds,” says Gergle. “Better solutions require a nuanced understanding of visually impaired workers’ needs, knowledge representations that capture these distinctions, and novel AI models and techniques that are tailored to their context of use.”
Understanding the Need
According to a Workplace Technology Study released by the American Foundation for the Blind, a variety of accessibility issues in video conferencing, messaging and document-sharing tools present challenges for workers who are blind, low vision or deafblind. Furthermore, one in five of such workers considered not requesting accommodations owing to fear of backlash from their employer, coworkers or clients.
This is cause for concern for both the current and future workforce, given that the Center for Disease Control predicts the rate of visual impairment in the American population will double by 2050.
For this project, the researchers are working closely with four disability service organizations in Orange County and Chicago that serve thousands of blind and visually impaired community members, offering education, technology training, career counseling and job placement. Collaborating with these organizations, the team will build foundational knowledge of accessibility needs and develop design guidelines for AI-powered collaboration tools.
“Part of what the grant focuses on is making new tools that help screen reader users learn to navigate and take advantage of AI-enhanced features,” says Piper. For example, they are working on a new system that enables blind workers to create accessible tutorials to teach other screen-reader users how to leverage new collaboration tools as the features evolve.
“We are also developing new ways of understanding the structure and content of digital artifacts — both those created by humans and AI systems,” says Piper, “so that the underlying information can be made more accessible to screen reader users.”
The Future of Accessible Work
Building on the foundational knowledge gained, the project team aims to create an accessible infrastructure of new interaction techniques and AI-augmented tools that support ability-diverse team communication, coordination, and knowledge sharing. The team also plans to develop an open source online community that fosters peer learning and support.
Additionally, the project will result in a multidisciplinary consortium focused on impacting industry policy and products related to accessible work, AI and equity in the tech industry. An advisory board that includes experts from industry, disability law and public policy will help guide this work.
“The ability to effectively use digital collaboration tools is a prerequisite for a range of entry-level and higher-skilled information jobs, such as project managers and technical writers,” says Piper. “Existing gaps in labor market participation and income will continue to widen if we don’t create a future of information work that is accessible for all.”
— Shani Murray