31 Oct 2021
Inspired by the blacksmith Vulcan – the Roman god of fire who although considered unattractive and lame by some in antiquity was yet venerated by most as a powerful creator – Vulcan Coalition is a Thai AI start-up aiming to debunk stereotypes associated with disabilities. To date the company has hired over 200 disabled employees, qualified and efficient workers who are proud to be contributing to the nation’s progress. As CEO Methawee ‘June’ Thatsanasateankit said, “I’m not in the business of helping disabled people, I’m simply empowering my colleagues.”
How did Vulcan Coalition come about?
I have a friend, P'New, now a professor at Walailak University, who is blind. While we were students studying together at the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University, I came to realise just how much potential people with visual disability actually have. In many ways they are as capable, sometimes even more capable, than us. This sparked my interest in wanting to give disabled people the same access to educational opportunities as the non-disabled. I started by creating an organisation called The Guidelight through which disabled university students could access educational materials. In a way Vulcan Coalition grew from that. I wanted to expand the field of possibility for disabled students post-graduation and I was fortunate to meet Niran Pravithana who had been involved in the AI industry for over 10 years. He mentioned that the industry was lacking human resources to provide data preparation and I began to wonder if disabled people could pursue this kind of work. So we arranged a seven-month trial with 30 visually impaired participants. We discovered they were able to work twice as fast as their abled-bodied counterparts. That success really precipitated the launch of Vulcan Coalition.
What challenges have you faced creating this start up?
One of the problems I had with The Guidelight project was that I couldn’t find a suitable business model. We were trying to create a service to solve a social problem but we couldn’t figure out how to make it profitable. This also became a challenging step for Vulcan Coalition but we found a way to make it work for all parties. Under Thai employment law it is required that companies hire at least one disabled worker for every 100 they employ. Believe it or not, many big businesses struggle to manage even this slim ratio because they have no proper idea of how to utilize employees with disabilities. This is where Vulcan Coalition steps in. We partner up with companies so they can comply with the law and at the same time hire useful disabled workers to produce data for the client company. The disabled staff use Vulcan Coalition’s platform to do this – it is designed to accommodate incapacities ranging from impaired vision and hearing to physical and autistic disabilities. We request the right to use data from the client in order to develop and market our AI capabilities. In return, disabled workers receive 30% of revenue and the rights usage for certain AI resource they help to develop. With this business model not only does Vulcan Coalition help disabled find and produce valuable work for a stable, sustainable income, it also gives participants a sense of pride and worth through their contribution.
How can companies facilitate the employment of the disabled?
Adjust the mindset of the organisation for a start. We have to believe that disabled people, although they may have certain differences, are just as capable as we are. The Vulcan Coalition team works with more than 200 disabled people ranging from 18 to 54 in age and they are scattered across the country! Therefore, it is important to trust in a disabled worker’s potential and be empathetic where their limitations are concerned.
We use what we call the 2E strategy: Empower and Educate. When we hire disabled people our first role is to educate them. We show them the ropes, introduce them to AI, data labelling and other similar tasks. They all go through training and take an attitude/aptitude test to be qualified to use our platform. Throughout the training process we also try to empower them. If they run into difficulties or something new, we have a team to support them and teach them along the way. Our system is designed so that each team has an able-bodied group leader that guides 30 disabled teammates. The group leaders stand by to deal with any issues and the trainees can come directly to them with problems and questions. We also have a data specialist who provides private learning sessions when needed.
As for the working platform, employees enter a code relating to their disability. It calls up the different screen displays they need. The system also sets their preferred screen, mouse, keyboard and shortcut parameters. For example, there are enlarged icons for people with low vision and light sensitivity. We have a DNA that believes in unlocking potential, so it was important to have such a flexible platform. The understanding we gain and the constant improvements we make to it increases productivity, which in turn gives our company quality data to teach AI.
What are the best ways to integrate disabled people into society?
Many able-bodied people have never interacted with a disabled person and it can be difficult to know how to behave when you do. Education goes both ways, which is why we invite disabled speakers to talk to the able-bodied about their life experience. It helps the able-bodied to better understand the limitations of disabled colleagues and empathize. As an organisation it is our duty to foster an ecosystem or a culture where we accept people’s differences. We are all different to varying degrees but we can all participate and contribute. That should apply to society as a whole. Educate, utilize, empathize and include.
What motivates you?
A constant motivating thought for the Vulcan Coalition team and me is the belief that we are constructing a new image for society. We are showing that disabled people are not burdens but a force for progress, in this case driving the Thai AI industry to a position where it can compete with foreign businesses. Working with the disabled we get to see many miracles happening and I’m content knowing that we have established a successful business that is helping society on so many levels.