This is a guest post written by Olga Wojnarowska - a UX Researcher / Writer with a strong focus on making technology more inclusive through localization and accessibility. Olga attended one of "Create For Voice" meetups and decided to research how voice technologies can be used to provide better accessibility.

In the wake of Alexa/Google Assistant’s growing popularity, more and more companies decide to make their services available through voice. There is a growing demand for VUI designers and developers who can make these plans come true, and the opportunities that this technology brings are often discussed at tech meetups and conferences.

As exciting as these new possibilities are for an ordinary user, I always thought of how revolutionary they are for disabled folks, especially those with vision impairments. Turns out, of course, I am not the first person to come up with that. I found a scientific article about speech recognizers for (among other things) wheelchair control that was published in 1984, long before Amazon or Google were established. The idea is not new, but the technology has definitely advanced over time, and there is definitely more to look forward to.

In this article, I would like to take a look at how Alexa, Google Assistant, and other similar solutions can tremendously improve the quality of life for such people. For convenience, I will be further using Alexa as an example, as it is the most popular one.

Recently, I attended a meetup hosted by Wiedza Babel in Kraków. The most interesting talk was given by Jacek Zadrożny. He became completely blind at 26 as a result of a retinal condition. Since 2002, he has been involved in various projects in the area of web accessibility. During the meetup, he showed the audience how difficult it can be to make a purchase in an online store with the use of a screen reader.

The thing with a screen reader is that it reads every small element of the website out loud. When you browse one with a lot of links and images, even a simple activity can be a huge pain. I strongly recommend watching the video below to get a grasp of how it works:



Pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Especially if the website is not accessible. It took Jacek almost the entirety of his presentation just to buy an ebook.

Now, think about it: how much time would it save a blind person if they could just say, “Alexa, buy me a audiobook edition of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn” and be done with it!

There are many more things that Alexa can do than just make shopping easier. She can translate stuff for you, play Despacito (at its finest), handle your calendar, shopping and to-do lists, provide news and weather forecast, remind you to take your medication and drink water, and even tell you a joke to cheer you up. When paired with Echo Look, it might help blind people dress properly for work or any other occasion. I suppose for lonely folks, it could even replace human contact to some extent (hopefully much less extreme than what we saw in the movie "Her").

But it is not just people with vision impairments who can make use of Alexa. It is also folks with physical disabilities, Parkinson disease, or those who simply have problems with mobility (like the elders or simply people recovering from accidents). It may also help autistic children practice their language and social skills as unlike humans, Alexa will engage with them and answer their questions without any sign of annoyance.

You can find many articles and Reddit threads where Alexa users describe the positive influence the technology has had on their lives or the lives of their friends and family members.

  • “The Echo is definitely a game changer [for the blind users]. You can get the information much faster, at least 10 times faster.”

  • “My blind 89-year-old father often tells me how much he enjoys using Alexa daily. Thanks to Alexa, his life is richer and more secure than otherwise possible.”

  • “While Alexa is far from natural, it still allows [my autistic son] to practice language skills by asking questions, use his listening and problem-solving skills to respond appropriately during games, to even gain knowledge through some of the fun questions he comes up with. But more importantly for us, he’s doing this all independently and having so much fun doing it!”

  • “Echo is huge in providing part of the equation that I need for independence.”

Every rose, however, has its thorns. Like any technology, Alexa is far from perfect. Challenges that her makers have yet to overcome include, but are not limited to the following:

  • It turns itself off. While a sighted user will see the blue light disappear and say “Alexa” to turn it back on, the blind user might keep asking questions and be left without a response.

  • It is paired with a GUI app. The setup (including logging in to third-party apps) and some activities (such as providing more detailed information for Alexa to better understand your intent) need to be done through an app or a website, which — according to users — are not perfectly accessible.

  • It might teach your kids bad manners as it does not require phrases like “please” or “thank you” and can be just ordered around. In order to prevent it, Amazon introduced a politeness feature called Magic Word, that rewards children for asking things nicely. However, Alexa will still reply, even if the pleasantries are omitted.

  • It poses a security threat. Alexa’s biggest pro and con are that it is always ready to work. Many folks are concerned with the fact that it never stops listening unless it is unplugged. They are also worried it might get hacked and their private information will be compromised. (which, I’m afraid, is the case with any modern device…)

Still, for many users, pros seem to outweigh the cons. Voice user interfaces seem to bring invaluable convenience for people with disabilities. If these technologies are further developed with their needs in mind (just think how great it would be to have a voice-controlled web browser!), possibly one day, screen readers will no longer be needed, and disabled folks will no longer feel excluded from the digital experience.




Sources:

  1. Damper, Robert I. Voice-Input Aids for the Physically Disabled. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 21, no. 6 (1984): 541–553.
  2. Jacek Zadrożyn's talk on buying online as a visually impared person (in Polish)
  3. Reddit thread "Alexa for the blind and visually impared"
  4. Why Amazon's Alexa is life changing to the blind
  5. Amazon Alexa for Eldery
  6. Alexa helping child disability
  7. Amazon Echo – my blind dad’s new best friend
  8. 'Alexa generation' may be learning bad manners from talking to digital assistants
  9. Amazon Alexa to reward kids who say: 'Please'