While technology has allowed us to do incredible things, it doesn’t unilaterally benefit everyone. In fact, it often exacerbates existing discrimination and structural barriers. Among those concerns is disability justice. According to the CDC, an eye-opening 1 in 4 Americans have some form of disability. But despite the fact that disabled people comprise such a significant portion of the population, the tech field rarely takes them into account, resulting in significant biases.
A new philanthropic fund is looking to make a difference. Borealis Philanthropy and the Ford Foundation have launched the $1 million Disability x Tech Fund to support disability-led groups in the U.S. working to bring about change at the intersection of disability justice and technology. The fund has announced its inaugural cohort of grantees, which consists of five disability-led organizations — the Autistic Nonbinary Network, CommunicationFIRST, CymaSpace, Suma and the Surveillance Technology Project — as well as two fellows at Community Legal Services and Deaf Spotlight.
The fund will be housed at Borealis Philanthropy as part of its Disability Inclusion Fund, while Ford’s Technology and Society Program has provided the funding. According to Ford, this is the only national fund dedicated to supporting disabled-led groups working to bring about transformational change at the intersection of technology and disability justice.
“For too many funders, addressing inequality hasn’t necessarily included folks focused on disability justice,” said Lori McGlinchey, director of Ford’s Technology and Society program. “It’s sort of been seen as a separate issue space.”
How the fund came together
In 2021, the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Center for Democracy and Technology, with support from the Ford Foundation, published a report on the intersection of disability and tech, and how tech-focused organizations can include a disability lens in their work.
The report found that while technology has the potential to improve the autonomy and quality of life of people with disabilities, it is crucial to identify and mitigate any harms it may impose on communities that are already marginalized. The report identified several issue areas of focus, including access to high-speed internet and devices, economic security, equitable employment, privacy and commercial data practices, education and student surveillance, and law enforcement, among others.
For example, the report notes that people in positions of power can abuse collected personal data and AI to discriminate against disabled people. In some cases, algorithms used to screen potential tenants have made it easier to discriminate against people with disabilities, locking them out of housing and commercial opportunities. As we’ve covered before, the use of algorithms and automated systems can also let employers and landlords deny responsibility.
Following the report, Borealis and Ford put together an advisory committee of people with disabilities to inform the funders’ grantmaking strategy. “At Ford, we believe that those who are closest to the challenges should be at the table and at the center of determining interventions and solutions,” McGlinchey said. “What is well-known in the disability rights community is that people with disabilities have never been prioritized.”
According to McGlinchey, one of the reasons Ford partnered with Borealis was the knowledge that the organization — which encompasses nine collaborative funds working across numerous social justice issues — would prioritize and center people with disabilities in deciding where the funding would go, a rarity in the tech sector.
Crucially, the committee included both cross-sector technology experts — including experts on tech research and tech policy — and cross-disability representation.
“Oftentimes, when people think of disability, the image that comes into our mind is a person in a wheelchair. And while I think disability is often associated in that way, it is really important to us to recognize that disability is a cause and consequence of any number of life experiences and also systemic injustice, including poverty,” said Sandy Ho, director of the Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis. Ho also noted that ableism as it intersects with technology does not affect every community or person in the same way.
McGlinchey added that technology in the U.S. is largely developed by a homogenous group of people — white, able-bodied people, most of whom are men. This means that the technologies that have become part of our everyday lives are designed, deployed and governed by people who have no lived experience of the kind of discrimination that many disabled people face.
“When people with disabilities are excluded from… being part of the development of new technologies, it means that the technologies are more likely to fail to effectively meet the full range of needs, that people have exacerbated inequalities or just exclude people,” McGlinchey said.
The side effects of surveillance
One of the Disability x Tech Fund’s grantees is the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based nonprofit organization that seeks to address discriminatory surveillance in the city and state.
Surveillance has become increasingly commonplace for both workers and students. During the early days of the pandemic, when students had to take their classes online, many schools used eye-tracking technology to ensure that students didn’t cheat during their exams. The AI involved, however, is only trained to find behaviors that are consistent with able-bodied individuals. Those with movement disorders were accused of cheating simply because their bodies moved in different ways, according to S.T.O.P.’s Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn.
Another example: In an effort to protect students’ wellbeing, a number of mental health surveillance applications and AI are built into school devices and platforms, which monitor keyword searches and trigger words. While this is usually done with the best intentions, these methods can put neurodivergent students at risk of being falsely deemed as a threat to themselves.
“It was hard enough in an analog world, but in a world where suddenly everything is monitored digitally, the risks are much worse,” Fox Cahn said.
S.T.O.P.’s work includes impact litigation and direct legal services, legislative work, educating the public on how to protect their communities and themselves from surveillance, and advocacy.
“There is no technology justice without disability justice”
Philanthropy still has a lot of ground to cover in stepping up for those working at the intersection of disability and technology justice. Even as philanthropic funders increasingly open their pocketbooks for equity and justice movements, disability justice is often an afterthought at best.
“I think it’s really crucial that we see this sort of commitment, financially, from the philanthropic sector to support these issues that, sadly, have gone undressed for far too long,” Fox Cahn said. “And quite frankly, this is helping to rebut some of the techno-solutions that we see fueled by other philanthropists. I think it’s quite crucial for funders to recognize that not only are there times when technology isn’t the answer — oftentimes, it’s actually making people’s lives worse.”
Disability justice has often been siloed from other justice and equity movements, such as racial justice and gender equity. For Borealis and Ford, this new fund represents an opportunity to break down those silos and encourage collaboration, especially given the fact that so many Americans are both disabled and part of other historically marginalized groups.
“What this indicates to the tech sector is that there is strength and power in community, that this is an opportunity for the tech sector to encourage and be more thoughtful about understanding that disability is not an individual, it is not just one community, or one issue area, but it is about the collective,” Ho said.
Both Ford and Borealis hope that the fund will help with collective capacity-building and foster relationships between organizations.
“There is no technology justice without disability justice,” McGlinchey said. “They’re both really, really deeply entwined, and we have to invest in the leadership expertise and experience of those people that are most directly impacted.”