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How Can We Enhance The Internet For People With Intellectual Disabilities? With Associate Professor Laurianne Sitbon

Today we explore internet accessibility for individuals with intellectual disabilities with Associate Professor Laurianne Sitbon. How is technology revolutionizing access to information and empowering users or possibly isolating people?

Join Peta and Laurianne for an enlightening discussion on breaking barriers and creating a more accessible digital landscape, guided by Laurianne's expertise and passion for enhancing the internet for everyone.

Connect with Laurianne:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:


Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Constant Podcast, the podcast answering your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have researcher Lauren Sittingbourne. Lauren does amazing research in and around how technologies can help people with intellectual disabilities. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and gaining insights on how AI and the future of technology can help people with disabilities, and I hope you do too. So without any further ado, let's get into it.


Laurianne [00:00:57] Good day. My name is Laurianne Sitbon. I'm an associate professor in the School of Computer Science at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. I am supported by an Australian fellowship from the Australian Research Council. And I'm also part here of the Centre for Robotics and a Centre for Justice.


Peta [00:01:17] Thank you so much for being here, particularly because you focus on an area of research that I find really interesting, and I know the listeners will as well. And that is in and around website accessibility, search engine accessibility, and people who have a cognitive or intellectual disability. So first and foremost, if we start from the very beginning, why is information access and website accessibility important?


Laurianne [00:01:50] You know, information is, key to us making good decisions about anything. And nowadays, you know, most of the information is online, is digitally accessible, and it's becoming harder and harder to go through other means of acquiring knowledge. It's not just, you know, knowing what we want to know. It's also being made aware of opportunities, that we can tap into, particularly when the NDIS is came in, a few years ago. It's an amazing opportunity to provide people with, people with disabilities choice and control. But, you know, having choice with that information about what choices you can make is not really useful. And particularly what we're seeing at the moment in regional living is many people are under utilising the NDIS funding just because they don't know what's available around them. They don't know how and whether they can request small businesses to make adjustments or to create opportunities for them to participate, in whatever community activities they want to. And so I think, you know, that this is really we at a time where, you know, we can't leave people behind when, when we talk about information access.


Peta [00:03:01] From and this might just be a naivete of me sitting here, but I find, the fact that you've dedicated your professional life to this area quite interesting. Because it's, I would say quite a nuanced and unique area of research, although that, as I say, that just might be my naivete. What encouraged you and motivated you to dedicate your professional work in exploring information access for people with intellectual disabilities?


Laurianne [00:03:34] Back when I did my PhD, I did all my studies in Phd  back in France. I actually started working on my PhD to look at how to make search engines more robust for users with dyslexia, who, you know, would type queries in different ways than what the search engines were able to, to respond to at the time. And then I came to Australia, after my PhD, and for a while, I didn't really have connections or contacts in the disability sector at all. But then I started, collaborating with the Indigo Foundation for the large service, disability service provider. They support adults with intellectual disability. Just that, you know, collaborating with people with intellectual disability is a constant joy. You know, whenever I don't, meet people and I don't work with people for a while, I said, yeah, get a bit brain into the research I do, and I just write papers. But then, you know, we meet again and and my, my world lights up again. So I think it is a bit of a selfishness thing. This is just where I want to be.


Peta [00:04:37] Through your work and observing people with intellectual disabilities in general. Do they interact with search engines differently than other users?


Laurianne [00:04:49] I guess yes and no. You know, we're talking about a very broad group of people with, lots of different abilities. But then I think for, for many people with intellectual disability because the way they use language, whether it's written language, spoken language or, non-verbal language as well. You know, it would have an influence on how they can and how they actually want and do interact with search engines. And so what we've seen is people who use simple language often that would work with other people. They would engage with, a support worker, for example, a family member that can help them find the information they want so they can, you know, it's really a collaborative process where that the person would sort of type for them and then they would make those decisions in what they're interested in. But the thing is, the systems still tend to not be very robust to different ways people are talking. But we've also seen a few people who were, non-verbal and were able to use recommendation on YouTube, for example, to just find anything that this gentleman who could find anything he wants just by using the recommendations on YouTube, but very specific videos using no language at all. So he had developed his own skill set to to get to what he wanted. But this is not the majority of spoken of people who don't use language.


Peta [00:06:13] I have to say, and this is not unique to information technology and search engines, but in the past they haven't been developed with people with disabilities at all in mind. And it's been through people like you, with your work highlighting the need to make sure that these systems encompass everybody that interacts with them and uses them. I would say that the introduction of AI, particularly over the last year or so two years, has really revolutionised, the internet for many people, including myself, in how I work every day. How do you believe that AI is going to impact online accessibility?


Laurianne [00:07:00] So it's interesting, you know, I have been there for a long time, and what I've done is been using AI for a while. But I do completely agree it's been a step change in how particularly language technologies, now are able to to really, you know, communicate with humans in a language that we can all share, a little bit. So, so that's quite interesting. I think a lot of them is still very much language centric. But we are seeing, you know, images and the use of the modalities that has been brought into some of those AI tools. And I think it's that there's also potential that it will increase access because of those, additional modalities that are not just language, but I do think it's also adding a whole, you know, suite of new challenges around what we can trust, around what is true, what isn't, because the systems are not, you know, they're not built to relaying reliable information. They integrate things and make their own. And we never know if we can trust that information or not. But it's not to say that some, you know, some people, including this large companies, you know, you know, engaging with people with a disability. I think some, you know, some of the progress has been really leveraged and push from some of those community. But there's also some people who have claimed that their work could benefit people with a disability but never engage with them. So we are seeing a bit of working in, you know, live captioning of scenes where people say, hey, we could do live captioning. It could help people with vision impairment, but they never talk to someone. You know how they would use this, what does that means whether they want to be caption. So it's often that, you know, there's this inspiration. But that doesn't mean it's actually a, a collaboration. And it's genuinely coming from what people want. So I think there is more and more researchers with a disability that, that actually conducting and leading this research. And I think this is a very good thing, but they may or may not be fully representative, representative of the whole suite of users and groups of users with a disability. And so, yeah, I think there needs to be way more research that actually engages all along the development of this technology with people with a disability so they can best, you know, serve them, and package within effective designs that really build on people's abilities a lot more.


Peta [00:09:20] I came across through researching and preparing for this conversation. A term that I don't know well enough, and I feel like you're the perfect person to ask. So what is augmented alternative communication?


Laurianne [00:09:37] Augmented  alternative communication. It is a tool that has been developed, for quite some years and, it's a tool that's benefiting a lot from AI as well, that supports people who, do not want to use verbal language or cannot use verbal language. They would look like, you know, for example, an app on an iPad, a very famous phone on is Visuals2Go. It's an app on an iPad that proposes grid of symbols that people can use to create sentences and, and then sort of, you know, voice as a spoken sentence to, to other people. So it's, it can be a good way for people to express themselves is used in a, by people with intellectual disability who are non-verbal. It is used by people with aphasia as well. So people shouldn't lose ability, to speak out or, you know, to somehow to develop, to speak. It is used by people who cannot physically speak as well. So, some Stephen Hawking was using some of those systems as well. To, to, to get a voice. We've seen many people who've rejected those tools as grid based tool tools. You know, they I don't they don't just what? Many people don't want to use it. The symbols sometimes can be a bit, you know, childish.It is not always great. And I don't believe that. Imposing sentence structure, to people. We just want to talk about things, in a non structured way, not using, you know, the type of constructed language that I do is, is appropriate. And so we, you know, developing new types of, of tools that can support communication and in very, very different ways, and not with a small grid of symbols that people have to use and be constrained by. So, that's a form of augmented alternative communication as well. So it has many different forms, many different objectives for that. And I think it should be at least as many, you know, type of tools for people to use. So.


Peta [00:11:44] It's a classic example of I knew exactly what it was and soon as you explained it, I have many examples in my own head, but I just hadn't heard the term before. Like, back before technologies was used. You know, it would have been the communication board that I grew up with going to special kindergartens and things like that with my classmates. But of course, now it's more readily seen. Well, I've witnessed it more through iPads and things like that. And you're quite right. A lot of the, communication aides are quite childish, which again, reinforces a stereotype that people with intellectual disabilities aren't adults when they grow into adults, which is really problematic. When we talk about the images that are supplied and you were saying they can be quite limiting, I really hope in the future that they're able to use images that are more up to date and allow for conversations that are actually in the zeitgeist or in the news cycle, something that's a bit more freeing and a little bit less limited.


Laurianne [00:12:57] Yeah. That's right. I think this is where there's opportunities for AI to come in and to really open up those possibilities and, and change the way we think about, like, and what it means to converse and communicate and talk about things, in non-linguistic ways. So a lot of those tools there is language prediction. So if you start a sentence, then it would start predicting what you may want to say next. You can use predictions in other contexts involved in a time of the day, whatever. And so it's all about making it faster for the people who know what they want to say, to be able to produce that. So there's a lot of opportunities there. But I do think there's also a lot of opportunities to just, yeah, open up the field of what people can express with this.


Peta [00:13:43] We've spoken about the fact that, good technology and its development requires many perspectives and expertise to be successful. And in your recent, journal article that you had published, you incorporated co-design in your methodology. Can you talk to me about the sort of positive outcomes you've gained from working with intellectual, people with intellectual disabilities in that context?


Laurianne [00:14:10] You know, we keep consulting with people throughout the process. We do a prototype, redo it. We redo it again and again and again, with people who, you know, have limited, abilities to abstract concepts, to think about ideas on a white page or to just have been exposed themselves verbally. The way we co-design is not with post-it notes on the wall, ever. The way  we co-design is just by showing them prototypes or existing technologies happening, and we look at how they engage with it, how they use it, what's cool about it. And sometimes it takes us in new directions about what's meaningful and important. A really good example of this is how you know that my research around the information access, when I was interviewing people and showing them to search engines we had made. Most of the time, you know, is trying to get people to look for information that they wanted to find. Right? And so if I open, I didn't ask them to search for something specific. I said, well, trying to think of something you would want on and look for it. And a lot of the time, people that are not searching for information for things they wanted to learn or know, I was looking for things to show me as a way of of connecting and communicating these things with me. Maybe this is an input into communication and conversation rather than just, you know, an information execu information that's dispatched and what it is all to do with, you know, how we connect through that information. Co design is everywhere. You know, the government, the sort of disability strategy everything is about as co diesn with people with disability. And this is good and this is important. You know, we need to bring people in a little more, but often it can become a burden on the small communities, you know, who just end up being asked all the time to put post-it notes on walls. It can be really tiring. So what we've done, we've also developed, you know, the methods that that we're using, co-design, we make them really reciprocal and joyful. And, so instead of our technology workshops and, you know, we have people coming to campus every second week, and they just try the technology that we we working on it, try different things. And to them, it's an experience of trying technology, being together, in a, you know, in a different environment. And it's a really positive experience. And we learned a lot about, you know, what could be helpful. And, and we have this conversations on, you know, on, on this side of this as well that, you know, what else the technology could do. But it's not a, you know, structured co-design activity that requires, you know, participant to, to committed to co-designing. It's, you know, it's a fun activity. Well, and high technology and and as beginners we can learn from it a lot.


Peta [00:16:55] Co Design is such a positive step. First of all, because it allows for, deeper evaluation of perspectives makes the data richer. But it also means that the systems that are being put in place are actually reflective of what that community wants and desires, which I think can't be assumed. It has to come from the person with the intellectual disability. But I also acknowledge that there is a lot of pressure when it when you have a disability or you're from a minority group, you are asked to do things, and to give your perspective, often for free as far as what you hope, your research, what how do you see yourself moving forward, and the sort of areas that you want to explore more?


Laurianne [00:17:45] You know, that sort of how AI opening lots of new possibilities. I think there's so much more to explore, and it goes so fast. You know, I really want to grow that capacity to try different things and to be inspired by people. How do we quickly, you know, use, leverage, transform those technologies that are coming through in a way that, you know, that will, make it the best use for them. Now things I'm looking at a smarthome technologies, how we can interact with them and, you know, not using buttons and speech, but other ways we can do this. I'm also pretty excited about the possibilities, that autonomous vehicles can bring to people with a disability to be able to drive. I'm also really interested. We've started looking into how technology could support people to access work and to work in open employment, and how it could help, you know, change and inclusive culture in open employment as well. You know, if if anyone, you know, listening to this wants to join in, research, wants to support our research, wants to participate in our research. You know, we'd love to hear from you.


Peta [00:18:58] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on whatever podcasting platform you listen on, even if you just fill in the stars? Every rating helps more people find the podcast. Or you can go follow me on social media. My handle is at Pete Hooke spelt Peta Hooke over on Instagram. Thanks again for listening. And until next week, have a good one guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the kulin nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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