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.
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.
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.
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.
Even just ten years ago, yelling out “Hey Siri” or Hey Alexa” would probably have resulted in some questionable looks from your friends or family. Yet today, these devices are able to provide peace of mind and safety for millions of users, including those with disabilities. Thankfully, the future of this technology looks promising as well, hinting at even more exciting capabilities to come.