Alexa Accessibility

Amazon held an Alexa & Accessibility Event in Toronto, Ontario for a thoughtful discussion around accessibility and inclusion. I had the pleasure of attending this event which started with a panel discussion from leaders within the disability community. Advocates for autism, dyslexia, the blind, and wheelchair users were represented in this panel discussion. Each shared how they use voice assistants and other assistive technologies in their day-to-day lives. In addition, I had the opportunity to interview Celine Lee, Country Manager for Alexa to learn more about the accessibility strategy behind the voice assistant. 

This event provided me with a newfound appreciation for the accessible features inside smart homes. No matter the disability, building a smart home can help people navigate their day-to-lives. Here’s how a voice assistants can help people discover new paths to accessibility. 

Voice commands for the visually impaired 

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Alexa provides a host of accessible tools and solutions for people who are blind or visually impaired. Amazon Echo smart speakers allow the visually impaired community access to voice commands anywhere inside their home. With help from voice assistants, users can control smart home devices through voice commands. Below are some examples of how the visually impaired use voice commands in their day-to-day lives. 

  • Lock the front door from bed: As part of their nightly routine, visually impaired users use their voice to lock their smart lock. It provides users with peace-of-mind knowing their front door is locked, and it’s incredibly convenient.
  • Use Alexa to identify products: Amazon Echo smart displays are equipped with computer vision front facing cameras. Thus, they act as an extra set of eyes for the visually impaired. Show and Tell is a feature available on Echo Show devices. For example, a low vision chef could hold up a can of soup to the Amazon Echo Show 8 and say “Alexa, what kind of can am I holding?“. Alexa can identify a can of beans from a can of chicken soup.  
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Alexa for mobility disabilities

The panel featured two wheelchair users. They highlighted how voice assistants helped them find new ways to get things done. Many used a combination of smart speakers and displays to control a variety of smart home devices. Here are some highlighted examples used by those with mobility issues.  

  • Controlling temperature with voice commands: Turning the heat up or down can be difficult for someone with mobility issues. Many wheelchair users use voice to control a smart thermostat. It’s convenient and helps them save on their energy bills. 
  • Use a smart plug with a portable heater: Smart Plugs make it easy to turn the heater on or off with voice. And, this could be done from anywhere in the home. For example, someone with mobility issues can use their voice to turn on their bedroom portable heater from the living room. After watching a movie, they arrive to a warm bedroom for bedtime. 

Using Alexa with speech difficulties

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At first glance, it might seem difficult for someone with speech difficulties to interact with a voice assistant like Alexa. However, there are many options to customize the Alexa experience. 

  • Interact with Alexa by touch: Tap to Alexa is a great way to interact with Alexa on Fire Tablets and Echo Show devices. Users can tap on-screen tiles to make requests like checking the weather or controlling smart home devices. 
  • Ask Alexa to speak faster or slower: Users with hearing loss or difficulty understanding can change the speed that Alexa talks. Many people with difficulties understanding speech prefer Alexa to talk slower. This feature is also popular among seniors.
  • Adaptive Listening for better interaction: Adaptive Listening gives users with speech difficulties more time to finish speaking before Alexa responds back. This helps foster a positive voice assistant interaction.

Hearing accessibility features with Alexa

Alexa can also help people with hearing difficulties communicate with others, watch shows, and even translate calls. For those with hearing difficulties, here’s how Alexa can help.

  • Accessible calls and chats: Users with Echo Show devices can use video calls with Alexa Call Captioning. This captions dialogue in real-time on the screen. Real Time Text lets users type text on screen during Alexa calls. 
  • Alexa Call Translation: With Call Translation, Alexa audio and video calls are translated in real time. This allows everyone, including those with hearing difficulties, the ability to communicate across languages. 
  • Close captions on Prime Video: The Fire TV Stick 4K is an excellent way to bring Alexa to your TV screen. With Prime Video, hearing impaired users get access to 160,000 captioned shows and movies. 
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Creating an accessible smart home

Echo Show Accessibility

This event opened my eyes to the accessible opportunities a smart home provides. No matter the disability, the right combination of smart home products transform day-to-day living. For example, with Alexa, a home with smart switches helps wheelchair users control their lights with their voice. This type of voice control is transformational for anyone with mobility issues. 

Alexa can speak slower to users with cognitive or hearing difficulties. In the event of an emergency, like a fall, they can call for help. This provides care givers peace of mind knowing Alexa is always there. An audio or video call with loved ones is one voice command away. Finally, those with speech difficulties can still control smart home devices with the help of Alexa. Simply tap on an Echo Show screen to view security cameras, check the weather, or turn off smart lights.     

Best Buy Healthy Homes

There are a variety of solutions to support health and wellness in the home. Best Buy Healthy Homes helps customers with specific needs simplify the decision making process. For those with accessibility needs, Best Buy carries a range of mobility aids. For example, mobility aids for disabled is a collection of products to help people with mobility issues navigate daily life. 

Some people with accessibility issues may not be familiar with voice assistants like Alexa. Best Buy Digital Citizen is a collection of digital skills courses to help people with digital living. One such course is the introduction to smart assistants. Now, everyone can learn the ins and outs of voice assistants.

Finally, if you or someone you love has disability issues, you don’t have to build an accessible smart home yourself. Geek Squad can help you set it up, bring Alexa into your home, and show you how to use it for day-to-day living. 

Andy Baryer
Andy Baryer aka “Handy Andy” is a technology journalist, gadget reviewer, and DIY/how-to content creator. Known as the handyman of tech, Andy enjoys fixing poor wireless networks, building smart homes, and cooking with the latest kitchen gadgets. He’s a competitive whistler, a budding woodworker, and loves gardening in his home-built smart garden.


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