Two people using an eye tracker

Coding with your eyes: UK university using Microsoft AI grant to help people with disabilities thrive in the tech sector

A UK university is developing technology that lets people code using their eyes and voice, in a bid to boost the number of people with disabilities who work in the sector.

Birmingham City University has been awarded an AI for Accessibility grant from Microsoft to build a system that could make it easier for people with limited mobility to gain employment in web development and computer programming.

The move could also help to fill a digital skills gap in the UK that could cost the economy more than £140 billion in growth over the next decade, according to a recent report.

“People who are unable to use a mouse or keyboard can often find themselves excluded from certain technical professions, and we are exploring ways to remove some of those barriers,” said Dr. Chris Creed, Senior Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction at Birmingham City University, who will lead the research project. “This is a fantastic opportunity to make certain professions much more inclusive.”

Dr. Creed – who works in the School of Computing and Digital Technology – is part of a team of researchers who are currently developing the first version of the system. They aim to remove the need for a mouse and keyboard by using eye-tracking technology to allow users to select specific parts of code just by looking at it, and voice commands to enter the code.

The solution will use Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, as well as Cognitive Services such as speech to text.

While research has found that 808 million people need to learn new skills for their jobs by 2020 and 40% of employers said skill shortages have a negative impact on their business, those with disabilities face additional challenges in entering the workplace. According to the latest Government figures, 46.3% of working-age people with disabilities are in employment compared with 76.4% of working-age people without disabilities. This 30.1 percentage point gap represents more than two million people.

Global consulting firm Accenture has suggested that a failure to close the digital skills gap in the UK could cost the economy as much as £141.5 billion in growth over the next 10 years. Its report suggests that most of the skills needed for the future workplace are best acquired through practice and hands-on experience, meaning experiential learning techniques should be prioritised.

Birmingham city university

Birmingham City University campus

Dr. Creed and his colleagues are working with Beaumont College in Lancaster, disability specialist Remploy and people with limited mobility to ensure their solution is as inclusive as possible.

Richard Southorn, Head of Workplace Adjustment Services, at Remploy, said: “Improving access to jobs is of the utmost importance if we are to work towards a more equal society which provides opportunities for people with disabilities. It is fantastic to see two organisations collaborating on a scheme like this which can open doors to tech careers for millions of people across the globe.”

Fil McIntyre, Lead Assistive Technologist at Beaumont College said: “This new project could make a major difference to people who may otherwise be excluded from certain occupations and opens up a range of new opportunities to them.

“We are pleased that learners with complex access needs will be able to collaborate with the researchers working on the project and help make sure we work towards a product which has the capacity to genuinely change lives.”

Microsoft’s grant is part of the company’s AI for Accessibility program, which is offering $25 million over five years to organisations that can use artificial intelligence to help the more than one billion people around the world with disabilities.

Grantees so far include iTherapy [LINK], which is improving communication skills for people with autism, and Zyrobotics [LINK], which is boosting early education literacy skills for young children with varying abilities.

Mary Bellard, Senior Accessibility Architect, Microsoft, said: “What stands out the most about this round of grantees is how so many of them are taking standard AI capabilities, like a chatbot or data collection, and truly revolutionising the value of technology in typical scenarios for a person with a disability like finding a job, being able to use a computer mouse or anticipating a seizure,” says Mary Bellard, Microsoft senior accessibility architect.

The research being done by AI for Accessibility grantees “is an important step in scaling accessible technology across the globe,” Bellard continued. “People are looking for products or services to make things easier and AI might be able to help.”