Zoe Kothari, a 12th-grade student, met with a major accident in Italy in 2019, resulting in five broken bones, a punctured lung, and a head injury. She went through many MRIs, surgeries, and a metal rod in her leg. Moreover, physical, neurological, and psychological trauma made her realise that she was fortunate enough to get the right treatments and therapies, which made her recover quicker, but that's not the same case for all. The incident motivated her to do something about it and that's how she came up with ZIAI.
ZIAI (Zoe's Inclusive AI), is an Artificial Intelligence chatbot that serves as a resource for disabled communities and their loved ones. ZIAI is an AI bot and platform designed to help users apply for accessible jobs, create inclusive institutions, learn about laws that protect disabled citizens and work on themselves to be better allies. The AI is accompanied by an information page, where one can interactively work on making inclusive language a habit, read about supporting disabled loved ones, see data on ableism, and more. Primarily, ZIAI aims to create empathy, awareness, and understanding.
"ZIAI was my first time quantifiably working with programming, and I learned a lot along the way using university course videos I found online and the esteemed student favourite: trial-and-error. The logical, systematic, and all-around clean nature of the process appealed to me, so the learning curve was definitely fun, although at first, it felt daunting," Zoe Kothari told The Logical Indian.
"I was always aware of the fact that although I do deal with chronic pain, this is temporary as I recover—I don't identify as disabled, and I have grown up completely able-bodied. This puts me in an extreme position of privilege, and I made a point to be meticulous with my research to make sure I could give voice to the authentic experiences and challenges of living in systems designed solely for the able-bodied. Specifically, I wanted to make sure I wasn't talking over the very voices I was trying to shine a light on due to my own shorter experience," she said.
The 18-year-old pointed out that most of the systems and norms around the world are designed as if everyone has the exact same needs. Labels like 'special needs', pleading student requests for accommodation, and slurs enter the picture. Casual ableism in the form of the assumption that everyone is able-bodied is present in most simple ways humans operate. ZIAI includes language checks to see if the way one would describe an amazing experience or an unfriendly encounter equates disability with negativity or uses it as a 'clever' metaphor.
"The reason 'disabled people' is preferred by many over 'people with disabilities is that it is the system and the society that is doing the disabling, so to speak," Kothari said.
With ZIAI, users can understand how deeply ableism penetrates into the everyday, and see proactive ways to help undo this cumulative effect.
Over 1 Lakh Users Globally
ZIAI has over 1,15,000 unique users globally and has been used over 1,58,000 times. The app is offered on the Google Playstore or the browser and is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Malayalam. The app has been used to facilitate workshops on anti-ableism in rural India and has worked with several non-profits across the country.
The website is compatible with screen readers and uses trigger warnings before mentioning ableist slurs non-disabled people should eliminate from their speech. Primarily, the platform aims to bring awareness and empathy to non-disabled users and a resource to share for disabled users.
"Still, I want to make the platform more actively accessible to disabled users as well—image descriptions or tone indicators, for example. Although this is probably not the audience that needs a resource to understand why ableist slurs are ableist, of course, accessibility is something that should just be a given," Kothari said.