Here be dragons

Will AI helped disabled people into work, or should we stop working?
A line illustration of a dragon lying calmly with a smiling monk sipping tea from a tea-pot. Signed Tan Kuan Aw, 7 Jan 2024.

Dear Debriefers,

Happy Lunar New Year! It's an honour to share a series of illustrations Tan Kuan Aw has done celebrating the year of the dragon.

Will AI help disabled people get work – or should we telling work to F-off? These are some of the topics of this edition, which explores recent disability news. And I've pulled out my favourite quotations, from the dichotomies of disability in rich countries, to disabled people finding new ways to talk about their lives with poetry.

Disability Debrief is supported on a pay-as-you can basis. Thanks to Sarah for a renewed contribution, and likewise to CBM Global and Light for the World International for continuing support in 2024.

Line illustration of a grinning monk riding on the back of a dragon. Signed Tan Kuan Aw 6 Jan 2024.

Will AI help us get work?

Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) make things better or worse for disabled people in the world of work? A recent paper from the OECD explores the opportunities and challenges. It brings together over 140 examples of how this tech could support disabled people, and summarises the speculation about a quickly-changing area.

Of course there is also the bigger question about whether AI will totally change teh labour market as we know it. While the International Labour Organization says AI is more likely to “augment, rather than destroy” jobs, others point to how remote work is most at risk of becoming automated. The latter would be a cruel blow given how the opening of remote work possibilities has been a boon for many of us (authors of newsletters included).

The OECD paper leapfrogs over the question of whether humans will still have jobs to look at how AI might support or block access to the labour market as it is. Can AI get past the barriers that human intelligence hasn't bothered to fix? Or will it lock-in ableism and inequity?

On the positive side, there are already significant breakthroughs. Transcript technology has seen extraordinary progress, and automated image descriptions are impressive. To some extent mainstream AI keeps disability in mind. Microsoft, for example, points to how Copilot creates accessibility opportunities, and Google's tech to help blind people take pictures was featured in a Super Bowl advertisement. Many of these apply more widely than the world of work, although some are specific to workplaces, finding work, or new forms of work.

The paper gathers exciting areas of innovation, including Google's project to understand people with non-standard speech. Microlink PC, a company specialised in workplace accommodations, is using a corpus of past accommodations to guide new employees to see solutions they could use. It was particularly good to hear about efforts for inclusive training data and data sets dedicated to solving access issues, like the ExoNet database that has gathered millions of images of walking environments.

Opportunities are balanced against risks, which the authors see in terms of privacy (disabled people might be uniquely identifiable), lack of data in training sets, and ableist biases. These can combine to exacerbate disparities. But, even though the paper acknowledges the challenges of “solutions” designed for disabled people that are entirely irrelevant for us, potential risks need to be understood more widely.

As with other areas of AI and technology, disability-related AI sees solutions promised without any concern as to whether we'll use them or whether they might be harmful. The paper uncritically presents ideas that need further interrogation, like an application using eye movement from autistic candidates to identify what jobs they would be most successful at. My eyes twitched reading that one.

Even positive technologies, like transcripts, can end up being part of bad results if people use them to abdicate responsibility to basic accessibility. And there are many ways that employers can use AI in recruitment, workplace management or just downright surveillance that can be harmful for disabled people.

A further contribution of the paper is to show the chain of AI development. As well as these questions of who identifies needs and tests solutions, there's a lack of sustainable funding in this area. Not to mention the challenges of deployment and the chasms between disability and AI policy.

Overall, it's an important stocktake. Given how quickly this area is moving, it's a bit like a photo you take on a rollercoaster ride. We'll find out afterwards whether we were screaming more from joy at new possibilities or fear of losing our livelihoods.

Line illustration of a monk facing off with a dragon. The dragon curves as if in motion and brought to stop by the monk calmly holding out his fingers. Signed Tan Kuan Aw, 4 Jan 2024.

Work will not save us

A welcome antidote to the idea of using computers to make us do more work comes from Work Will Not Save Us, an article by academics Mel Y. Chen, Mimi Khúc, and Jina B. Kim. Situated in a view of racial capitalism, the article is “An Asian American Crip Manifesto” against work.

Work is central to their lives, and through this article they try to do the further work needed to undo that. For Mimi:

“Each of us knows, deeply, as disabled academics, that work will not save us, that it will not prove we are worthy, or good, or that we belong. Each of us has failed to work and seen work fail us; we have definitely seen the way institutionalized work defines and destroys us. And yet. We keep working.”

It's not just the place of work in our jobs, but our family and lives. For Jina:

“Work has been the way I made bids for love from my mother, my teachers, my employers. It is the way I tried to insulate myself from the racist indignities of daily life, the penance I paid for having visibly disabled hands, my way out of a suburb and a family committed to misunderstanding me. I wanted to read and write my way into security, into prestige, into a world that would no longer hurt.”

Their manifesto picks up and responds to a question raised two decades ago by Sunny Taylor in a piece on the right not to work. Also writing in the US, Taylor contextualised the clash of disability and work:

“Disabled people are brought up with the same cultural ideals and ambitions and dreams as their able-bodied counterparts; we too are indoctrinated to fetishize work and romanticize career and to see the performance of wage labor as the ultimate freedom. And yet, for the most part, we are denied access to this fantasy; many of us live on government aid or family support or even charity.”

Taylor followed this up with questions I myself don't know how to answer:

“Shouldn’t we, of all groups, recognize that it is not work that would liberate us (especially not menial labor made accessible or greeting customers at Wal-Marts across America), but the right to not work and be proud of it? How would this shift in thinking affect the goals and attitude of those concerned with the rights of impaired people or the self-image of those who are impaired themselves?”

Mel, Mimi, and Jina have suggestions on how to answer it in the second part of their essay, titled “How to Not Work. Or, How to Say Fuck Off”. Sometimes, they say, you really just have to say it. This is a “survival guide for navigating the labor demands placed on racialized, queer, and/or disabled scholars”. It's about doing less, rather than completely escaping. My favourite:

“Be a cat. Sleep a lot, demand for your needs to be met, be in community as you want and need, maintain firm boundaries. Occasionally, take care to meticulously, perhaps even obscenely, see to your hygiene needs.”

Systems meant to support us

Much of my recent reading has brought out the contrasts and paradoxes of support and barriers for disabled people in richer countries.

Systems meant to support us. In Australia, El Gibbs writes on working while disabled, and what keeps disabled people out of work. As well as barriers in employment, Gibbs points to:

“Very real barriers that exist in the very systems that are meant to support us. Income support, disability employment services, and now the NDIS all act as barriers to equal employment, as well as the broken disability discrimination system.”

Intensifying dichotomy. In the UK, Colin Hambrook looks back on last year to see:

“We live in a time of an intensifying dichotomy between an ever-decreasing lack of respect or regard of disabled peoples human rights and an increasingly visible disability presence within the arts.”

A scary place. Also in the UK, world-record holding wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft is quoted as saying:

“Britain is a really scary place to be as a disabled person right now. Paralympians are almost seen as different to the rest of the disability community. We are shown for what we can do, and everyone else with a disability is almost criminalised for what they can’t do or struggle to do.”

We're not just assisting them. In Canada, an article exploring the dangers of the assisted dying laws quotes Virginia Duff, a disabled psychiatrist:

“The title of the act is ‘medical assistance in dying. But these aren’t people who would otherwise be dying. We’re not just assisting them. We’re actually making it happen, which is very different.”
Line illustration of a dragon calmly lying down as a smiling monk reads a book. Signed Tan Kuan Aw, 7 Jan 2024.

Some kind of dragon

Meanwhile, in more personal experiences and reactions...

Some kind of dragon needed slaying. The Poetry Foundation's Disability Poetics brings together crip and disability poetry. I particularly enjoyed bad road by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. And from Liv Mammone's poem of “Advice to the Able-Bodied Poet Entering the Disability Poetics Workshop”:

“13. It isn't a wheelchair; it's a fully automated battle station. It isn't a cane; it's a dowsing rod. It isn't a limp; it's a swagger. It isn't a stim—it's how my fabulous self is pulling magic out of the air.


19. Some kind of dragon needed slaying to get to this room, whether it be the nasty bus driver or the thoughts of suicide. So somebody's probably gonna show up in pajamas, crocks, mismatched socks, un showered, hair falling loose from ponytail—whatever. Either they're embarrassed or don't give a fuck. Either way, they don't need you mentioning it.


34. Remember, you're one slip in the shower, doctor's visit, missed turn away from being me.

35. If I fall, the way you gasp hurts worse than impact.”

Speaking of battle stations... Protestors in Seoul metro lodged a complaint last year after the police arrested Park Kyeong-seok:

“I held on to my wheelchair not to be arrested, but I could not move because the police took my arms and twisted them.”

Not just money. Writing about the need for a prosthetic revolution, Susannah Rodgers shares what getting a new prosthetic means:

“It is not just money that is needed. A huge amount of time is involved in making prosthetic limbs, in particular because they are a feat of engineering and science. I can spend anywhere between one to four years getting a new leg made and people wonder why I have to be so careful not to gain or lose weight: if my leg does not fit, I have to spend a huge amount of time in clinics having a new one made. The process is slow, open to error, and sadly can take a lot of time to get right. All these things can really impact people’s mental health, especially if anyone has fluctuating weight and their limb simply does not fit. These are the added pressures faced by so many amputees and prosthetic limb users on a daily basis.”

Wildly so. Ricci Read has a poetic response for those who are dismissive of his autism as “mild”:

“Nothing I do is fucking mild. Mildly so? No, wildly so.”

That's a match. In India, Abhishek Annica's new memoir The Grammar of My Body explores daily life, and trepidations around dating with a disability:

“That's a match
In my fantasies
I draw you
with a pencil
I draw myself
with an eraser”



Please share this with friends, as that's how people find the Debrief. On socials we're on Linkedin, twitter at @DisDebrief and I'm @desibility. And hit reply to say hello!


Thanks to Tan Kuan Aw for his illustrations of the year of the dragon. Last year he did one for the year of the rabbit.

Thanks to Yoshiko Miwa for the information and correspondence relating the JAL flight, and likewise to James W. for support on same