When Alexa Can’t Understand You

Someone looking frustrated while talking to an Amazon Echo.

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In the United States, 7.5 million people have trouble using their voice and more than 3 million people stutter, which can make it difficult for them to fully realize voice-enabled technology. Speech disabilities can stem from a wide variety of causes, including Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, even age. In many cases, those with speech disabilities also have limited mobility and motor skills. This makes voice-enabled technology especially beneficial for them, as it doesn’t involve pushing buttons or tapping a screen. For disabled people, this technology can provide independence, making speech recognition that works for everyone all the more important.

Yet voice-enabled tech developers struggle to meet their needs. People with speech disabilities use the same language and grammar that others do. But their speech musculature—things like their tongue and jaw—is affected, resulting in consonants becoming slurred and vowels blending together, says Frank Rudzicz, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Toronto who studies speech and machine learning. These differences present a challenge in developing voice-enabled technologies.

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Uber Me to My Airbnb? For Wheelchair Users, Not So Fast

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There are many companies that are part of this new economy, but for the purposes of accessible travel, Airbnb and Uber are the most relevant. And sadly, wheelchair users are largely being left out of it.

Because Airbnb involves people renting out their private homes, the company lives in a sort of regulatory gray area. Homeowners in the United States who use Airbnb are not required to make their properties comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, although they are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities and those who use service animals. A few years ago, Airbnb gave homeowners the option of describing their properties as wheelchair accessible. But in most cases homeowners who are able-bodied tend to believe “wheelchair accessible” means a wheelchair user can get through the front door — and that’s about it. This puts wheelchair users in the exhausting position of having to contact every Airbnb host who has listed a home as wheelchair friendly in their destination to ask questions about roll-in showers, doorway widths, ramps and other items, over and over again.

The little-known iPhone feature that lets blind people see with their fingers

The VoiceOver Rotor.

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A few years ago, backstage at a conference, I spotted a blind woman using her phone. The phone was speaking everything her finger touched on the screen, allowing her to tear through her apps. My jaw hit the floor. After years of practice, she had cranked the voice’s speed so high, I couldn’t understand a word it was saying.

And here’s the kicker: She could do all of this with the screen turned off. Her phone’s battery lasted forever.

Ever since that day, I’ve been like a kid at a magic show. I’ve wanted to know how it’s done. I’ve wanted an inside look at how the blind could navigate a phone that’s basically a slab of featureless glass.