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  • Writer's pictureJaime González Gasque

How Voice Assistants are Empowering Independent Living for Individuals with Disabilities

Updated: Apr 29, 2023


Nearly 60 years ago, an MIT professor named James Weizenbaum created the first language processing computer, ELIZA. While ELIZA didn’t quite become a household name at the time, she did pave the way for millions of users today to yell “Alexa” or “Siri” without a second thought. For some of the 50 million people who use voice assist technology, it may just be a fun way to play a favorite song or check the weather forecast. However, for users living with a disability, voice assist can be a gatekeeper to independent living.


According to a 2014 study, the top three barriers to independent living for individuals with disabilities are personal safety, assistance with household skills, and assistance with medication. While each individual’s specific needs may vary, there are various ways commercially available voice-activated devices can improve the quality and safety of independent living for many.

Safety


While most voice assistants cannot directly call an emergency line such as 911, they can relay an emergency message to others. This can be done by programming the device with emergency contact information. If the device receives a verbal command to do so, it will use wi-fi enabled calling to connect with the emergency contact.


As these systems do not require a user to wear an alert bracelet or necklace, they can provide a sense of safety in tasks where accidents often occur, such as bathing. Additionally, the ability of these devices to read messages aloud and convert talk to text responses can provide essential communication. Studies have shown individuals with disabilities experience significantly higher rates of isolation and loneliness, so the option to communicate without the physical requirement of dialing or texting can provide a sense of freedom.


Household skills


Voice assist devices can also be programmed for household tasks which provide a safer environment for users. For example, an individual that utilizes a wheelchair for mobility and receives a grocery delivery every morning may benefit from the use of voice assistant technology − rising from the bed, transferring, navigating to the light switch, turning on the lights, getting to the front door, unlocking the door, and finally receiving their delivery.


With a voice assist device, this individual could turn on their lights before they get up, respond to the doorbell, and unlock the door as they’re making their way over. Limiting the number of steps in each task can greatly improve efficiency and help build a sense of self-confidence.


Medication management


Individuals with disabilities receive an average of 40% more prescription medication annually. The majority of voice assist devices are equipped with medication trackers which can deliver either verbal or visual alerts to users. For those with hearing impairment, these devices can provide visual cues such as flashing lights to inform a user of a scheduled medication dose.


Additionally, certain medications can be ordered or re-filled through voice-activated commands or wi-fi calls to the pharmacy. The devices can also provide medication information, searching the internet to answer questions such as “What is this medication used for?” or “What are possible side effects of this medication?” Easy access to this information can provide greater awareness of one’s medications and a stronger sense of self-management.


What Is Voice Recognition?


In essence, voice recognition refers to technology that is used by computers and other devices to capture human speech/words and convert them into a machine-readable language that can be processed by the same computers/devices.


As the technology continues to improve, voice recognition will continue to find more uses among both able-bodied and disabled persons.


As it stands, this technology has been used to make it possible for users to use the internet without a keyboard or mouse, and also use touchscreen devices with ease. Simply put, people who cannot see or use their arms are able to use phones, computers, TVs and other devices/ enabled appliances, all thanks to speech recognition technology.


Now that you have a good idea of what voice recognition is, read on for a description of some of the ways it is actually being used to help people with disabilities.


Making Calls: One of the main uses of voice recognition is in making voice-activated calls. If you have a personal voice assistant like a smart speaker or smartphone app, you can configure it to make voice-activated calls. Once you have set up everything correctly, you can make calls using voice commands that involve calling out the name or number of the contact you want to call.


Sending Messages: Speech recognition also plays an important role in helping people with disability communicate through text messages and email. By converting your speech into text, you are able to send clear and concise text messages without any problem. The use of this technology also goes beyond simple communication tasks. If you want to create lists and even set reminders on smart devices, you can use properly configured speech recognition apps to make easy work of these otherwise impossible tasks for people with disabilities.


Using Computers: Voice recognition is also used in helping people with disabilities use computers without the need to use a mouse or keyboard. Using a microphone or headset and the right speech recognition software, individuals with disabilities are able to surf the internet or dictate notes on computers and laptops. These solutions normally try to recognise what the user says by analysing sounds and how the English language is normally spoken to make sense of what the user is saying. As such, when properly configured and the user is speaking clearly, you can be sure that 95 per cent of what is being said will be captured by the software. These solutions are especially invaluable to people with dyslexia, as all words are always spelled correctly, in a quick and effortless manner.


Summary


As it stands, voice recognition technology has made it possible for people with disabilities to use a variety of devices and even appliances; and with it, make their lives easier. And, while the current capabilities of this advanced technology are limited by the available solutions and applications, the future looks to be quite promising, as improvements continue to be made as time moves. More inclusive payments for the blind and visually impaired.Paying with a card should be easy for everyone. But for millions of sight-impaired consumers, it can still be a challenge.


by Cristina Roy

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