Beyond barriers: the role of technology in disability-related inclusion

Thursday 21 September 2023

Lauren Salt
ENS, Johannesburg


A seismic shift is under way as the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and collaborative robotics redesign the workplace as we know it. These technological advancements have, and will continue to have, a profound influence on the way we work. While to some these developments present profound concerns about the negative disruption they may cause in the labour market, they should, particularly in certain spheres, excite, as they present opportunities to overcome barriers that have negatively impacted many workplaces until now. As such, this article explores the opportunities virtual reality and assistive robotics create for people with disabilities in the workplace.

How do virtual reality and assistive robotics work?

Virtual and augmented reality technology enables people to step inside virtual worlds by using 3D-generated images to immerse users in simulated environments, such that they feel physically present in that space. The environment is accessed through the use of virtual reality headsets or glasses and users can engage in the environment using gaze control technology or hand controllers, such as virtual reality gloves. These devices are linked to virtual reality software and, of course, the internet, which enables multiple users to be present in the same virtual space. Currently, these virtual realities exist primarily in the gaming sphere, with increasing take-up in the entertainment and work spheres. Employers are tapping into virtual reality to create experiential learning in the workplace and, in time, there may be a move to entirely virtual workplaces.

And while human–robot collaboration is not uncommon in the working environment, robot technology has evolved to a level where robots can now interact and collaborate with humans in their day-to-day lives. Assistive robotics is a branch of robotics that focuses on providing sensory, perception and physical abilities to the elderly and physically disabled. Advances in the field of assistive robotics have empowered people with disabilities to increase their independence and improve their overall quality of life. Today, there are robots for people with visual impairment, telepresence robots for people with physical impairments and social robots for people with cognitive impairments.

How can employers leverage this technology to improve inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace?

Our era of technological advancement presents employers with a remarkable opportunity to cultivate a workplace that is genuinely accessible and diverse. Virtual reality can visibly enhance the experience of people with disabilities, offering them alternative forms of interaction. In this regard, transitioning to virtual or augmented reality workplaces, such as the Metaverse, would enable employees with disabilities to actively move, participate, engage, collaborate and socialise in ways they could not otherwise in the physical workplace. It allows employees with physical disabilities (especially motor disabilities) to overcome certain physical limitations – for example, wheelchair users with muscular dystrophy could walk up the stairs in the virtual workplace instead of taking the lift, or engage in physical team-building exercises like virtual sports. It also allows those with social disorders and autism to engage with the required level of comfort and safety, which may enable them to overcome social anxieties.

Turning to assistive robotics, the use of telepresence robots in the physical workplace provides an opportunity for people with physical disabilities, who would not otherwise be able to be in the workplace at all, to be ‘physically’ present and actively participate. An example of where telepresence in the workplace has been successful is the Diverse Avatar Working Network (DAWN) Café in Japan, a unique concept first piloted with a series of pop-up cafés in 2018. DAWN’s robot servers and barristers are operated by employees whose disabilities preclude them from leaving their homes, and in many instances, leaving their beds. Employees can use a mouse, iPad- or gaze-controlled remote to control the robots from anywhere. DAWN has indicated that its ‘ultimate goal is to use technology as a means to lower the many obstacles that prevent people from participating evenly in society, creating a more inclusive society where avatar robots are the norm’.[1]

Why aren’t virtual workplaces and avatar robots currently the norm?

The threshold at which employers are required to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace is, in many jurisdictions, including South Africa, linked to reasonability. Where the cost of avatar robots and virtual platforms (and accompanying devices) is high, this is unlikely to be considered reasonable or financially feasible. For now. But, as these technologies become more mainstream, the cost of acquiring and implementing them is likely to decrease significantly.

While virtual workplaces and avatar robots are not currently the norm, that is not to say we will not see this become a reality in the foreseeable future. In anticipation, Japan is at the forefront of adopting a more inclusive approach towards the integration of AI and advanced technologies. In 2019, the Japanese government published the Social Principles of Human-Centric AI. These principles set forth three basic philosophies concerning human dignity, diversity and inclusion. Since then, Japan has developed and revised various AI-related regulations with the goal of maximising the positive impact of AI on society, rather than stifling the opportunities it presents. This is consistent with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s AI Principles, which seeks to achieve ‘inclusive growth, sustainable development, and well-being’ through AI. Other nations are likely to follow in Japan’s pioneering footsteps, recognising the need to re-design legislative frameworks to address and integrate these technological advancements, particularly within the realm of diversity and inclusion.


If employers are considering introducing these technologies in their workplaces, whether now or in the near future, they will need to pivot how they view, manage and regulate their workplaces. Employers must ensure that existing policies and procedures are fit for purpose and that through the introduction of these alternative ways of working, they continue to safeguard and promote the interests of all employees with the view to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace where people, robots and AI work seamlessly together.


[1] ‘Feeling weird about being served by robot staff? What if your humanoid waiter was creating employment opportunities for flesh-and-bone workers living with disabilities?’ (Atlas of the Future) https://atlasofthefuture.org/project/dawn-cafe accessed 20 August 2023.