Smart Speakers & Web Accessibility: How Voice Technology is Helping Disabled People

The market for smart speakers has exploded in recent years. According to TechCrunch, nearly one-third of all U.S. customers own a smart speaker as of August 2018. The report also predicted that nearly half of all U.S. customers will have purchased a smart speaker by the end of the previous year’s holiday shopping season.

While millions of customers have enjoyed the convenience that comes with voice-activated search, commerce, and games, the technology that powers these speakers has also opened up new capabilities for users with disabilities.

Up until recently, devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s HomePod, and Google’s Home are empowering disabled users to connect to the world in unprecedented ways, opening up a new era in digital accessibility.

How Smart Speakers Work

Smart speakers connect to the internet through the home wi-fi connection. When a user wants to make a request from a smart speaker, the user must first say the “wake word”, a word or phrase that activates the speaker. For instance, the wake word for Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker is, “Alexa”; for Apple’s products, the wake word is “Hey Siri”, and for Google’s speaker, the magic phrase is “OK Google”.

The speakers then apply their speech recognition software to translate the voice request into text. The speakers send the text request to the cloud, receive the answers to the user’s request, and re-translate the results from text to voice. The system can also store payment and account information, so users can make purchases with a simple voice request.

An example of a smart speaker in action can be found within the dormitories of Gettysburg College. The college used dotCMS to build several Alexa Skills, helping students quickly find timetables, lunch menus, and staff contact details using voice commands only.

How Smart Speakers Are Helping Those With Vision Impairment

The use of smart speakers has enabled those users with vision impairment to access information, make online purchases, and contact other resources, all just by speaking to their devices. While most devices will allow users to look up phone numbers, some can allow a user to place phone calls from a request. The device can either look up a phone number on the internet via Google Directory or access the user’s contacts details.

Many advocates for the blind and visually impaired have praised how smart speaker technology have helped them and their constituents. Steven Tyler, director of assistive technology at the UK-based group Leonard Cheshire Disability, told PC Magazine UK about how these products have created new means of accessibility for those with vision problems.

"Five years ago, Alexa would have definitely been an accessibility product. Today it's a mainstream product," Tyler said. "It just so happens the Echo ticks all the boxes around digital accessibility. And it's accessibility in spades!"

How Smart Speakers Are Helping Those With Limited Mobility

The voice-activated devices removed the need for a keyboard or touch screen to enter requests, which has proven to be helpful to those users with limited dexterity. For instance, users with degenerative joint diseases such as arthritis may find it difficult to type or use touchscreen controls. Smart speakers give these users the access they need through simple voice commands.

For those with more severe mobility issues, the smart speakers can give them control over nearly every aspect of their homes. Todd Stabelfeldt, an IT consultant, became a quadriplegic at the age of eight due to unforeseen circumstances. Stabelfeldt told NBC News in May 2017 about how Apple’s voice-activated tools have helped him maintain his independence.

"Between Siri and Switch Control, I can use my phone just as good as anyone with 10 working fingers," he said. "HomeKit and Switch Control and Siri have given me a lot of value and a lot of opportunities to demonstrate that I'm a quality man and I'm a man of integrity."

How Smart Speakers Are Helping Those With Mental Health Issues

The devices have also been employed to help users suffering from depression, isolation, and loneliness.

Even though Alexa and Siri can’t replace actual human companionship, it is able to spot signs from low mood, loneliness to even suicidal thought, and provide the appropriate response. For instance, if you tell Alexa you’re feeling low, it will return a response saying: “I'm sorry to hear you feel that way. Sometimes talking to a friend, listening to music, or even taking a walk can help. I hope you feel better soon."

For extreme cases, the devices would recommend contacting the relevant authorities or organizations.

And while this technology is still in its early stages, we expect sentiment analysis, which is the ability to recognize changes in the emotional tone of the user’s voice, to go even further.

“It’s early days for [sentiment analysis] because detecting emotion on far-field audio is hard,” Rohit Prasad, chief researcher for the Amazon's Alexa development team, told VentureBeat. “Where we want to get to is a more implicit place from your acoustic expressions of your mood.”

The Challenges of Speech Impairment

While smart speakers can be a great benefit to those who have the power of speech, these devices may not always serve the needs of those with hearing or speech impairments. One potential solution is Tap to Alexa, which enables users to tap a button on the device’s screen to activate pre-programmed "Routines". Users can also request transcripts for any incoming voice messages and read on-screen captions for everything Alexa says.

Technology blogger Steven Aquino, who suffers from a stuttering disorder, expressed his frustration with the current crop of products and how they need to address users with speech impediments.

“I hope Apple and Amazon and other companies are investing in training Siri and her ilk to learn speech impediments,” Aquino wrote in May 2017. “If voice is the future, as many in the commentariat believe it to be, then accessibility must be looked at differently.”

Bringing Forth a New Era of Web Accessibility

As the technology evolves, smart speakers and other associated smart home devices will provide disabled users with new avenues to assert their independence, maintain their daily routines, and express their thoughts and emotions.

These factors will become even more important with an aging population and strained health care resources, as those users who may need the technology the most can now attain what they need with the oldest form of communication: the spoken word.  

January 22, 2019

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