Accessibility: mixing AI and empathy

15 Jan 2024

Professor Zentel holds the Chair of Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities and is a representative for the needs of students with disabilities. In this interview, he talks about the importance of accessibility and inclusion in teaching.

Professor Zentel advises students on compensation for disadvantages and is a person of trust in cases of discrimination. | © LMU

Professor Zentel, you have an exciting double role at LMU. You are the representative for the interests of students with disabilities and also hold the Chair of Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities. What are you currently researching?

Prof. Zentel: The suitability of artificial intelligence for people with intellectual disabilities is the topic that currently occupies me the most. It stands to reason that a technology that can augment human intelligence, so to speak, could benefit people with intellectual difficulties the most.
In the context of the discussion about how intelligent systems influence us and to what extent people with limited cognitive abilities are at risk as a result, I see an ambivalence. I therefore see it as my dual task to explore how we can harness the potential of AI while keeping an eye on the risks. The last thing we want is for AI-driven systems to replace human support and interaction.

Can such technologies also be used directly in universities to create a more inclusive and barrier-free environment?

Prof. Zentel: There are already AI applications that can be used in courses and are already in use. PowerPoint 365, for example, makes it possible to translate spoken words into subtitles in real time. This function is particularly helpful for people with hearing difficulties. In addition, AI can be used to support students with visual impairments, especially in subjects such as psychology, where visual representations are often used. By using ChatGPT, for example, we can describe visual content in seconds. So far, we have used a special printer that makes images tangible, but this requires prior processing. In contrast, the use of AI technology is much simpler and allows students to work independently.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, digital and hybrid teaching has increased significantly. Has this also helped to break down barriers at LMU?

Prof. Zentel: Many people at our university, as at other universities, have benefited greatly from the fact that teaching content is now accessible online. Text-based digital formats, such as PDF documents, are particularly helpful for people with hearing difficulties or visual impairments. Hybrid accessibility also makes learning easier for people with physical disabilities, as they can participate from home.

On the other hand, there are also new difficulties. For example, if the uploaded PDFs are not barrier-free and cannot be recognized by screen readers. This is a problem, as is poor resolution of images or scans, which pose challenges for people with visual impairments. Digitization alone is not necessarily automatically barrier-free.

Tactile images, subtitled presentations - it sounds like accessibility in teaching at LMU is doing well. How do you assess the situation?

Prof. Zentel: My colleagues from the Counselling Office and I have noticed an enormous openness and great commitment on the part of the faculties to support students with disabilities. However, there are also challenges. For example, mental impairments are often still not understood. This, however, is a broad social problem.

How great is the need for accessible teaching and testing methods at a university like LMU?

Prof. Zentel: The need is considerable. Mental health is a particularly pressing issue. There is an increasing number of students who describe themselves as suffering from mental stress and can prove this with certificates. The latest studies show that 16% of students across Germany have an impairment; more than half of them, around 65%, suffer from a mental illness. This poses an enormous challenge, both organizationally and for the examination offices, in order to ensure appropriate framework conditions and compensation for disadvantages.

As a representative for the interests of students with disabilities, you regularly come into contact with affected students. What concerns do they come to you with?

Prof. Zentel: In most cases, it's about advice on compensating for disadvantages in examinations. We give students advice on what a certificate should look like, whether an existing certificate is sufficient or needs to be improved. We also provide advice in advance on what measures can realistically be requested. In this context, we are in close contact with the examination offices. Of course, we also deal with individual cases, for example when applications are not granted. In such cases, we follow up and try to reach a common understanding. On rare occasions, however, we also step in as mediators when students feel that they have been treated badly because of their disability.

What compensation for disadvantages can students at LMU take advantage of?

Prof. Zentel: Typically, special room requirements or time extensions for the examinations can be taken into account. In more specific cases, the needs must be examined on a case-by-case basis together with the Examination Office.

What initiatives are you planning in the future to further strengthen the areas of inclusion and accessibility at LMU?

Prof. Zentel: In the coming summer semester, we will resume a project that existed before Corona - namely offering further education options in the area of barrier-free teaching. In the winter semester, we want to participate intensively in the diversity initiative. Our main aim is to raise awareness. We hope to raise awareness of accessibility and increase awareness of the support options and compensation for disadvantages.

How do you envision an ideal, barrier-free future?

Prof. Zentel: I am aware that it will never be possible to completely remove all barriers. However, we should strive to ensure that every student knows that there is easily accessible support. I hope that we approach each other in an empathetic, friendly, approachable and supportive way. Even more so than now. In the best-case scenario, we should no longer need to compensate for disadvantages because the framework conditions already allow everyone to flourish. That would be my vision. Options for achieving this include additional human resources, improved structural measures or technology such as AI. I think this mix will shape the future of accessibility.

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