Ford Foundation Creates First-of-Its-Kind Fund to Tackle Disability Bias in Technology
Expanding its work on disability rights and inclusion, the Ford Foundation announced on Tuesday a first-of-its-kind national fund targeting discrimination in technology against people with disabilities.
The Disability x Tech Fund, which Ford launched with Borealis Philanthropy, will earmark $1 million for work to, among other things, research accessibility and inclusion, develop litigation strategies, and promote tech development with the help of people with disabilities. It will be housed at the Disability Inclusion Fund
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Expanding its work on disability rights and inclusion, the Ford Foundation Tuesday announced a first-of-its-kind national fund targeting discrimination in technology against people with disabilities.
The Disability x Tech Fund, which Ford launched with Borealis Philanthropy, will earmark $1 million for work to, among other things, research accessibility and inclusion, develop litigation strategies, and promote tech development with the help of people with disabilities. It will be housed at the Disability Inclusion Fund, which Borealis manages.
The effort is relatively small compared with the more than $300 million that Ford has invested since 2018 in disability organizations and social-justice groups that feature disability in their work. But Ford officials and the fund’s proponents say it’s an important first step that will bring attention and additional funding to inclusion in tech creation and the built-in biases of tech products.
Policymakers and regulators typically focus on ensuring access for people with disabilities, said Henry Claypool, who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations and was one of the individuals with disabilities who advised the fund’s start-up. Disability x Tech broadens that lens to consider the consequences of excluding the experiences of disabled people in, for instance, the training sets for large algorithms.
Tech companies generally are evading such issues and will only address them when policymakers force the issue, added Claypool. “The way they are competing for market doesn’t allow them to be in a position to say, ‘We’re going to be more thoughtful about this.’ It’s more: ‘Let the regulators catch up to us.’”
There’s a relatively small roster of people and organizations with expertise in issues related to disability and technology, and “the support for them is not large — it’s not even modest,” said Lori McGlinchey, Ford’s director of technology and society. Through the fund, the grant maker hopes to expand the field and highlight issues for policy makers, civil-rights groups, disability organizations, and other philanthropies.
“I feel confident that we will bring in some other donors both to this fund and also this intersection of tech and disability,” McGlinchey added.
The fund’s inaugural grantees include five organizations and two individuals working as fellows for groups. The fund will support organizations led by individuals with disabilities, particularly those led by people of color, and people who are Indigenous, queer, gender nonconforming, and women.
“Many people with disabilities live at the intersections of inequity, bias, and discrimination, but we are often siloed from broader equity and justice movements,” said Sandy Ho, director of the Disability Inclusion Fund, in a statement. “The Disability x Tech Fund intentionally supports disabled leaders who are most directly impacted by systems of oppression and who understand that we all do or will experience disability at varying times, to varying degrees.”
Lydia X.Z. Brown, a disability-justice advocate, was among the individuals with disabilities who, with Borealis, identified and selected the grantees. Disabled people rarely lead grant efforts, Brown said, which means a host of powerful organizations are often excluded.
“The organizations doing the most cutting-edge and revolutionary work at the grassroots level aren’t getting funding,” Brown added. “Our presence in the process enabled us as advocates to address [that] head on.”
One of the grantees, CymaSpace, a Portland, Ore., group, has developed tech solutions to translate music and other audio into light and vibration, creating sound that can be seen and felt by deaf people. It also runs a 3,000-square-foot maker-space studio that makes available to advocates and artists an array of equipment — from 3D printers, laser cutters, and LED displays to tools for music composition and video and film production.
With the Ford grant, the largely volunteer-run organization will make its first full-time hires and recruit additional paid staff to support individuals from a wider range of disabilities. “I like to say that we’re a small organization that does really big things,” said Myles de Bastion, CymaSpace’s founder and one of its artistic directors. With the grant, “we can really dig into our pool of volunteers who are committed and passionate about what we do and offer them some paid roles.”
The organization also will expand work with Black, Indigenous, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. This includes providing media equipment, professional development, and mentoring to artists and advocates. Marginalized communities suffer the most in tough economic times, de Bastion said. “We’d like to flip the narrative and make an investment in the people who need more equitable support.”
(The Ford Foundation is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)
Controversy Around A.I.
With the new fund, Ford steps into a debate about inherent discrimination in artificial intelligence that has swelled since November’s release of ChatGPT, an artificial-intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI, an A.I. lab. Liberal advocates warn of race and gender bias embedded in technology, and President Biden earlier this month signed an executive order addressing equity and cited “algorithmic discrimination in automated technology” as an “emerging threat.” Conservatives, meanwhile, see potential for censorship and “woke A.I.” in defenses against such discrimination threats.
Research suggests that algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other increasingly common tech tools carry the risk of discrimination for disabled people in many walks of life, including when they apply for jobs and housing, seek government safety-net support, and navigate the criminal-justice system.
One example: Advocates are reporting that thousands of low-income seniors and people with disabilities in more than a dozen states are fighting cuts in their home health-care services that followed the introduction of algorithms to establish the level of care needed.
Also, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice last year warned that A.I. and other software tools that companies use to hire, monitor, and determine pay may discriminate and violate the protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Automated evaluations of recorded job interviews, for instance, may score applicants poorly if their speech is impaired.
The fund’s launch comes a little more than a year after Ford opened its disability-rights program. President Darren Walker apologized in 2016 for failing to include the disability community in the grant maker’s shift the previous year to focus on equality.
With the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ford convened the 16-member Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. In 2020, that group opened the Disability Inclusion Fund, which supports only organizations led by a person with a disability.
Disability x Tech will be housed at the Disability Inclusion Fund and supported through Ford’s technology and society program. That program focuses on how tech products amplify inequality and disproportionately affect communities already facing persistent discrimination. Although a decade old, it turned to disability only in recent years following Walker’s apology. “We had this civil-rights framing, yet we were missing a very significant component of civil rights,” McGlinchey said.
In addition to CymaSpace, the first group of grantees includes:
- Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, which increases accessibility for autistic and disabled people who do not speak English and/or have intellectual or cognitive disabilities.
- CommunicationFirst, which is making communication technologies more inclusive and accessible.
- Community Legal Services fellow Rieko Shepherd, in partnership with the Autistic People of Color Fund, who is analyzing algorithmic decision-making systems, automated tools, and other artificial intelligence applications used in determining eligibility for benefits and programs.
- Deaf Spotlight fellow Topher Ávila, who is increasing internet accessibility for the deaf, deaf and blind, and deaf and disabled LGBTQ+ communities.
- Suma, which aims to create an open-source, web-based platform for people with disabilities to participate in the digital economy and access essential goods and services.
- Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which advocates for a ban on the use of discriminatory surveillance technologies and practices broadly through litigation, legislation, education, and advocacy.