What inspired you to become an author?
I have always wanted to write a book. As a kid, I had this idea that to contribute to society, I had to develop a tool kit. My father was a general contractor, and I suppose the imagery emerged from my surroundings. In my tool kit was working hard, going to school, getting a job, and at the time as a kid, earning a doctorate. I thought, once I get my doctorate, I would use that knowledge to write my book and change the world. I did not lose faith in working hard and going to school. However, the older I became, I realized that changing the world was an almost impossible task. Once I received my doctorate, I also realized you have to do something with it for the degree for it to be useful. I never let go of the desire to write a book, and I am grateful to have accomplished this goal. I considered becoming an author my opportunity to contribute to society.
Tell us about your book. (Synopsis)
My book is about rethinking how we consider individuals with cognitive disabilities in our society and the role technology, in particular, the growing field of artificial intelligence, can impact the life of the cognitively disabled. My book is about making you think about one of the things you take for granted if you do not have a cognitive disability, and that is thinking. How do you know what you know, and now with the advances in technology, we have machines that can accomplish some of the things we associate with thinking? There is considerable debate on how long before we have a fully thinking machine, but certain aspects of human cognition are increasingly becoming within reach of machines. Actions like voice recognition and discrete processing of information are two common examples often used in personal assistance like Google’s Alexa or Apple’s Seri. While we head toward more remarkable computing ability, what can be done today and in the future for individuals with cognitive disabilities to improve their lives? And since we are all connected as human beings, improvement in the lives of individuals also enhances the lives of everyone. My book explores these questions in the realm of education for individuals with cognitive disabilities. What are the possibilities we can access today, and what is possible soon?
What would you like for people to gain from reading your book?
I would like for people to question the status quo. I want people to recognize that individuals who may be perceived to start from a disadvantage because of a cognitive disability have something to contribute and maybe competitive contributors to society. And if we as a society can shift how we think about the use of technology, individuals with a cognitive disability may even surprisingly rival the contributions of those individuals who do not have a disability.
Having committed your professional career to education, what are some of the disparities that impact the African American community?
Some notable disparities affect the African American community that include lower graduation rates, lower proficiency in math and reading, and lower access to higher education or continuing education. I want to make clear, however, that being African American is not synonymous with educational disparities. Race relations, income inequality, gender equity, and the correctional system within the United States, among various other factors, all play a role in the overall disparities that impact the African American community.
African Americans from all backgrounds can and do excel. Still, there are many who, based upon the obstacles in front of them either from society or circumstance, fall short of achieving the outcomes of similarly situated individuals who do not have the same obstacles.
I like to compare it to two obstacle courses with two contestants. One obstacle course has two obstacles, and another has six obstacles. The two contestants may start evenly matched, but the presence of more things to overcome may slow a contestant down or even cause them to trip and fall.
What advice do you have for parents who have children with Cognitive Disabilities to ensure they are getting the best assistance from the schools?
The best advice I can offer is to work with your school to achieve the best learning outcomes you can for your child. Teachers and schools are there to assist you, but sometimes they miss the incipient skills you see emerging in your child or discount the ability of your child to produce academic growth. Work collaboratively, be as active as possible in the education of your child, and challenge limitations. Everyone can learn; some may need more assistance than others.
What does success look like to you?
Success, to me, is starting a conversation that shifts the way people think about how we engage with technology. The killer robot is a cultural icon, which almost everyone in our society recognizes. Super technology is more than harm and destruction. I think success would be looking at our current technology and talking about new and innovative ways that technology can be embedded in how we live that enhance us as individuals. Particularly individuals that have disabilities. Artificial intelligence will touch every aspect of our life, and I’d like our society to be at the forefront of designing impactful uses of AI within education.
Where would you like to see your career in the next five years?
I want to think of myself as being a successful contributor to society by introducing new thoughts into the discussion around AI and learning. I am an educator, and thinking is what makes my world go round. In five years, I’d like to have more opportunities to share and discuss technology and augmentation, whether through new books, speaking engagements, working with schools or technology companies to make my existing ideas a reality so that they may help individuals with and without disabilities.
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Dr. Al Jones, Jr. is an educator who has spent more than 25 years working at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. His background includes research and writing in educational policy and regulations, academic outcomes, knowledge management, communications and technology. Holding a Doctor of Education from the George Washington University, Dr. Jones is an Associate Division Director at the Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education.