How Amazon’s Echo Device, Alexa, Has Changed the Game for Disabled Users

By Jemima McEvoy Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Like many industries, the technology world can be ableist. In other words: alienating to people with disabilities. However, consistently advancing technologies also pose unique opportunities for accessibility, which, if embraced, opens new doors for disabled users. This is the case with Amazon’s popular virtual assistant, the Echo device, which Amazon has — over the years — evolved into a device that’s indispensable to many disabled people.

Accessibility in Tech

Americans with disabilities are categorically subject to unequal treatment across all industries. Over a third of disabled people report experiencing negative bias in their current workplace. Those with disabilities are also unemployed at twice the rate of the general population. Furthermore, disabled people earn much less on average than non-disabled people with the same level of education.

The advent of technology offered unprecedented opportunities to level out the playing field — and, in many ways, has done just that. Among countless other impacts, tech has helped with the development of exoskeletons and bioconics, telepresence robots which help those physically unable to move still be able to participate in society, democratized medicine via 3D printing, and autonomous cars that will be able to help blind people drive. Outside of self-driving cars and robot arms, less flashy technology (simple phone apps and wearable tech) has improved the quality of life for many with disabilities by an immeasurable amount.

“There is no greater feeling than having a sense of independence among those in the disabled community,” explains an article published to iAccess life about the benefits of smart devices. “Thanks to rapidly improving technology and ever-continuing disruption, accessibility focused mobile applications & smart devices for people with disabilities have been invented to improve the lives of everyone.”

That being said, activists and advocates are frustrated with a general lack of focus on accessibility in everyday technology. Some devices still aren’t adapted to those with disabilities, which can impede reaping the benefits of what could be revolutionary technology.

Alexa and Accessibility

The Amazon Echo device, better known as Alexa, which was launched to the market in November 2014, has proven to be a game-changer for many disabled people due to its various accessibility features. The Alexa is powered by artificial intelligence and responds to vocal commands, like “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather like today?” and “Hey Alexa, text Dad ‘Where do you want to meet for lunch?’” The Alexa device is on its face a medium through which people can access news, facts, jokes, alarms/timers, radio, podcasts, books, and more, which is inherently useful for those who may have physical impairments. However, the device has become so much more.

Since the product was created, Amazon has continued to develop its capabilities. One example of this is Alexa Skills, which are mini-apps you can download to your device to add to its abilities. Thousands upon thousands of these extensions are added to Alexa’s arsenal each year, and you download the ones that suit you. For example, there’s a Dominoes skill, which makes it easier to order pizzas. Or you could download a more practical skill like one that allows you to check how much gas your car has.

Another benefit of Alexa is that it can also control the smart internet of things (IoT) remotely. This includes your Sonos speakers, your lights, and your thermostat. The device can also help lock and unlock your doors if connected to compatible devices. The consequence of these features is that you don’t have to get up or move to change your surroundings, which has obvious benefits for those who are unable to do so.

“With the help of Amazon Echo smart speakers and connected gadgets such as thermostat, lights, television and blinds, I was able to achieve good levels of independence despite my physical limitations,” wrote Colin Hughes in AbilityNet blog. Hughes has muscular dystrophy, which makes it hard to use his hands and arms.

These capabilities are ever-expanding. Hughes pointed to a video he saw on YouTube of someone using an Alexa extension to control their driveway gates and says he continues to experiment with what he can accomplish using the device. Additionally, these commands all work with robotic/synthetic voices, so those who can’t speak with their own voice can use them too.

“Of all the gadgets for disabled people you may have, the Alexa is a game changer because it can do many things for you,” explains an article about the usage of Alexa among senior citizens. “It doesn’t matter if you want to listen to an audiobook while you’re relaxing in the sun, or if you need to call on Uber for your doctor’s appointment.”

To make sure all these benefits are known, Amazon launched an Alexa Accessibility Hub in August to showcase all the different ways those with disabilities can take advantage of Alexa. This hub explains Alexa’s very specific features, which allow it to accommodate those with disabilities ranging from hearing to mobility to speech to vision.

For hearing, you can adjust the device’s speaking rate, take advantage of closed captioning and general captions for the device’s responses. In terms of mobility, Amazon explains how users can use the device for things they never thought possible, like making coffee or ordering groceries. To help those with hearing disabilities, Amazon has introduced “Tap to Alexa,” which, on supported Echo devices, allows you to use Alexa like a tablet. Additionally, once this feature is enabled, you can use the device to call and message without speaking. Blind users can take advantage of its “Show and Tell” feature, which identifies items users are holding before the camera. Another feature for visually impaired people is the VoiceView Screen Reader, which allows users to navigate the device using gestures and immediately narrates the information back to them afterward.

Needless to say, Amazon has created a device that enhances the lives of many disabled people on an everyday basis — and is only looking to improve its offerings. If you are disabled, make sure to check out the Alexa Accessibility Hub to make sure you’re not missing out on any of its new developments.

About the Author

Headshot for author Jemima McEvoy

Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.

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