Voice assistants: another effort for people with disabilities

Laura doesn’t like technology very much. In fact, when you talk to her, she quickly makes you aware of the inaccessibility of anything related to technology for people with disabilities.

Even voice assistants like Siri or Alexa didn’t convince her, and they seemed like the perfect solution for her visual impairment (or, as she calls herself, the blind).

Note: In this article, the concepts of functional impairment or disability will be used depending on how these people call themselves; and in the case of entities or foundations, according to which they appoint their users, respecting their decision in each case.

That being said, we come back to Laura, whose last name is Mora and whose goal in life, until she finishes her thesis, is to be a researcher at the University of Zaragoza.

She believes that, even if this digital universe seemed predestined to improve the lives of people with disabilities, the truth is that it is still far from being fully accessible and inclusive for them: “Technologies were not designed for people with disabilities. They were created and then applied to people with functional impairments, so it took longer for these technologies to come to us.”

However, she herself admits that the smartphone has become “an extension of her body” which, with its Braille line and voice assistant, manages to guide her where she needs to go. She jokes about her relationship with Siri: “For me, for example, it’s very good to say to Siri, hey Siri, I think I’m lost and I didn’t cross the street I was supposed to cross. And then Siri confirms or disproves her doubt, helping to guide Laura’s path.

Laura uses her mobile phone by touch and sound. Photo: Rocio Duran Hermosilla

Amazon and iPhone: ready for the visually impaired?

Laura admits that she hasn’t used smart speakers much yet. However, she stresses that, although she does not use this type of device, the technology should be as accessible as possible to everyone: “Although everyone can do what they want, use it (the technology) or not. The important thing is to be able to choose “to be or not to be”.

Gabriel Sánchez, technician of Plena Inclusión, a Spanish association for people with intellectual disabilities, explains that technology must be centered on people, that is to say, we must look for technologies that can help everyone to achieve her goals.

In this sense, Laura says that one of her friends, also blind, uses Alexa in her daily life: “My friend told me that she uses Alexa and that, thanks to her, we can register for an activity , for example. My friend also told me that in the morning she asks Alexa to tell her the news, which would take a lot longer with a mobile phone or a computer”.

Laura, who speaks like a machine gun, directly, quickly and without compassion, underlines one of the main reasons why technology has not yet taken hold in the population with functional impairment: the economic gap. “There’s the class bias, not everyone can buy an iPhone, which is the most accessible phone for the blind, and not everyone can control their house.”

One need only consult the official Apple website to understand why Laura considers the iPhone to be one of the most suitable mobile phones for the visually impaired. It has specific functions such as Voice Over (a screen reader that tells you exactly what is on your device’s screen) or Voice Over with Braille (it also describes your screen, but in Braille instead voice), among many other things.

However, the lack of economic resources will be the leitmotif of this article, because all the people interviewed ended up mentioning, in one way or another, the difficulties of access to employment, aid or subsidies from authorities for people with disabilities. After all, to be able to use this technology, you have to buy it, and to buy it, you need money (and a lot of money).

A virtual assistant for people with disabilities

Without losing sight of the economic gap, some entities have already become aware of the infinite possibilities offered by new technologies. This is why, with more or less resources and often thanks to the voluntary work of developers, they try to offer their users applications that help them in their daily lives.

This is the example of the computer engineer specializing in artificial intelligence, Pablo Almajano, who collaborates voluntarily with the organization Plena Inclusión to create a virtual assistant adapted to these people with intellectual disabilities. Although still in the early stages of development, he explains what it will consist of..

“The assistant will be personalized for each user to help them in their daily tasks. In addition, it will be an empathetic assistant, able to adapt to the person according to their mood. It will also motivate the user to follow sound guidelines”, explains this engineer who, even before I asked him the first question, warned me of the difficulty of finding financing for this type of technology.

He points out that although people with intellectual disabilities also use digital devices in their daily lives, there is no virtual assistant (or any other type of application) suitable for them on the Spanish market.

One of the main intentions of this virtual assistant for people with disabilities is to make them feel much more independent. Gabriel explains that someone who receives support from an app will feel much more empowered than if they receive support from another physical person. If we put ourselves in their shoes, you yourself will feel a lot more empowered looking up something on Google rather than asking someone else.

Adapt technology or make it accessible from scratch?

“Sometimes, he explains, you can’t adapt a technology, but what you can do, thanks to cognitive accessibility, is adapt the instructions of the technology itself”. And it was in this task that the Plena Inclusión team found themselves desperately immersed when the pandemic burst into our lives.

If they wanted to continue their workshops, activities and sessions, they needed to make apps like Zoom understandable for people with intellectual disabilities. So they released easy-to-read guides so anyone who wanted to participate could tune in from home.

Another pioneering project of this entity is the creation of the application Creating Accessible Spaces, which allows to analyze whether buildings or large events are accessible to people with intellectual disabilities. David Lasaga is responsible for this project, which is already being exported from Aragon, in Spain, to other Spanish regions.

1650375811 986 Voice assistants another effort for people with disabilities

This application is not only accessible, but it also allows you to give your opinion without mediation. Photo: Plena Inclusion

Footer: This application is not only accessible, but it also allows you to give your opinion without mediation. Photo: Plena Inclusion.

With this application, which is for the moment reserved for the internal use of organizations working with people with intellectual disabilities, users can easily assess whether the space has signage, clear indications or it is comfortable for them to move around. They have collaborated with town halls, banks and hospitals.

Monitor your health from your mobile phone

Another organization that has also jumped on the tech bandwagon is the DFA Foundation, which has promoted a pilot project that uses big data to monitor the health of its users.

One of its users is César Belsué, who lives surrounded by technology. Between his mechanical wheelchair that helps him get up, his Smart TV, his watch with telephone assistance, his computer and his mobile phone, he has the world at his fingertips despite his 66% disability and reduced mobility.

1650375811 290 Voice assistants another effort for people with disabilities

Thanks to this application, her doctor can follow her health day by day without having to visit the health center as often. Photo: Rocio Duran Hermosilla

If we focus on his health, through the app he can monitor his blood pressure, blood sugar and weight. For him, the fact that his mobile phone is able to monitor his weaknesses allows him to live in peace and not have to resort to the health system so often: “It would be interesting if the Spanish health system integrated these technologies. We would be much more under control and less hospitalized. What we would lose in equipment, we would gain in the number of hospitalizations”.

He adds: “Preventive medicine is the basis. I was sick for 28 years, the first years I was hospitalized every two years, if I had had these technological aids, I would probably have been less sick” .

The watch he wears on his wrist and his smartphone have a telecare system activated and, together with several GPS devices placed in his home, they complete his health armor. César repeats it at will, technology has brought him “peace of mind”.

1650375811 279 Voice assistants another effort for people with disabilities

If Caesar has a problem during one of his walks, all he has to do is press his watch or activate a button on his mobile phone and someone will contact him. Photo: Rocio Duran Hermosilla

Footnote: If Cesar has a problem on one of his walks, all he has to do is press the watch or press a button on his cell phone and someone will contact him. Photo: Rocío Durán Hermosilla.

What are the most popular apps for people with disabilities?

But it’s not just work and health. So when asked what apps they use, the vast majority of respondents were clear: social media! Being able to talk to friends, laugh at memes, catch up on the latest viral video, flirt or meet new people is just as important for everyone.

The preferred and most accessible for everyone is Whatsapp but also Facebook or Instagram. Amanixer social workers Laura Aranda and Isabel Toro say Whatsapp “works by strengthening support networks”, which is essential for empowering people with disabilities.

In the same vein, Laura Moya reminds us that Instagram is also accessible to blind people, but for that the rest of us must do their part by describing what appears in the image in the option of alt text

To do this, there is a function on Instagram, as you can see in the image, which allows you to include a description of the photo you have posted. This descriptive text can be written by you or generated automatically.

Voice assistants another effort for people with disabilities

In the advanced settings section of Instagram you can describe your image so that it reaches even more people

However, whether you buy a smart speaker or not, Laura Moya is clear: “Technology is very good, but there are things that technology does not do”.

Adapted from the original article that appeared on our sister site PCWorld.es.

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Voice assistants: another effort for people with disabilities


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