A letter to the tech giants from a lone voice in the wilderness 

Guest blog: Colin Hughes

As someone living with a severe physical impairment it may not be popular to express the opinion that Apple is failing its most severely disabled consumers but it has to be said. Despite the recent introduction of Voice Control, the company's new voice recognition application, the tech giant has come up short when it comes to providing comprehensive voice access for users with physical disabilities whose only option is to control their Apple devices with their voice.
 
I am quadriplegic, as a result of muscular dystrophy, which means I have difficulty using a MacBook keyboard, iPhone screen, and Apple Watch face for sending a message, writing an email, posting to Twitter and Facebook, or controlling my smart home. Rather than typing on to a screen or keyboard, as many people do, I rely on voice recognition technology to get things done.
 
Now that iOS 13, macOS Catalina, watch0S 6, Watch Series 5, iPhone 11 and new Airpods, have been released in the past two months these are my conclusions on how effective and extensive voice access is on the Apple's flagship devices and operating systems. 
 
As I will explain, I am literally pulling my hair out with frustration every day as I struggle to write an email, send a text message, hang up a phone call, and post to Twitter and Facebook on my Apple devices. It doesn't have to be like this. All major tech companies could and should be doing more to make their products both accessible and affordable for disabled people. 

Voice Control

Voice Control is Apple’s biggest accessibility initiative ever. It is designed for people who may not be able to use traditional methods of text input on a Mac computer, iPad, or iPhone and it has two main features; firstly, it allows people to dictate emails or messages with their voice, and secondly navigate their screen with commands such as "open Safari" and "quit Mail".
 
Voice Control is good for navigation by speech commands but hopeless at accurate dictation, which makes it frustrating and not productive to use. It does not, as Apple claims,  allow you to dictate seamlessly into any text box. It’s a sad indictment that as a quadriplegic I do not use it all. It would take me several hours if I tried to dictate this article with Voice Control dictation as the application constantly fails to convert my spoken words into text on the screen correctly. It doesn’t come close to Dragon Professional Individual 15, the leading speech recognition software on the market, in terms of accuracy and productivity.
 
Some of Voice Control dictation’s poor performance may be due to the fact that only US English is powered by the Siri speech engine for more advanced speech recognition at the moment. Apple hasn’t said when UK English will be added.
 
Voice Control needs to develop if it is to be useful for people. It feels like Apple is only at the beginning of developing truly productive voice recognition technology, which will reliably transcribe the words you speak. For the company that has a reputation for nailing it with almost every new product or application it releases it is disappointing to see how mediocre Voice Control dictation is at the moment. It is not the game changer many people hoped for. 

AirPods Man holding an iphone in one hand and airpods in the other hand

One of the most useful Apple product releases this year is not an accessibility initiative at all, not as far as Apple is concerned. It is the second generation AirPods with built in Siri, the company's upgrade to its ubiquitous and iconic wireless earbuds.
 
Access to intelligent assistants like Siri is key to their mainstream consumer appeal nowadays, and for physically disabled users being able to get things done hands-free with help from Siri brings a real freedom from confinement. For anyone who has difficulty handling an iPhone or an Apple Watch the hands-free voice capabilities that wireless in-ear headphones are now offering is just so liberating.
 
This wearable on-the-go product lets me take Siri and her voice control abilities with me all day. I can go out alone in my electric wheelchair and feel secure by being able to make phone calls from my iPhone or Apple Watch with a Siri voice command. I can check the time by asking Siri via my Airpods. I can play my favourite music and podcasts. I can send family and friends a text message. In all these small but significant ways Airpods with built in Siri has allowed me to interact with my iPhone and Apple Watch almost like anyone else. The benefits for me are both in terms of personal safety and social interaction. I also wear the Airpods around my home and use them to turn on connected lights and and set the thermostat. 
 
However, significant obstacles in the road to full accessibility remain. You still can't use a Siri voice command to end/hang up a phone call. You can place a call hands-free by a voice command but you can’t end it. How ironic is that. This unfortunate state of affairs gets me into a lot of trouble every day, as I get stuck in people’s voicemail boxes when they don’t pick up my calls because I am unable to touch the iPhone screen and Apple Watch face to press the red button to end a call. It reminds me of the Blondie song; Siri, why do you keep me hanging on the telephone! If I am unfortunate enough to receive a nuisance call, or heaven forbid an abusive one, there is nothing I can do to end it. Come on Apple, this situation can’t be allowed to continue!
 
It is my understanding you can hang up calls by a voice command with Google’s forthcoming second-generation Pixel Buds and Amazon’s new Echo Buds though I am yet to try them.

Announce Messages with Siri

Announce Messages with Siri is another great new feature new in iOS 13 this autumn. Again, Apple does not bill it as an accessibility feature but by enabling anyone with Airpods to have their messages read out to them by Siri automatically, and the ability to transcribe with a reply, it clearly has a lot of use for people who have difficulty interacting with their iPhone screen. I find the feature incredibly useful and it will become even more useful when other messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger become integrated with it. 

Auto-Answer

Auto-answer is a little known feature buried deep in the accessibility settings on iPhones that enables phone calls to be answered automatically without the need to touch the phone screen. It is really useful for anyone who can’t easily reach for their iPhone and touch the green answer icon on the screen when a phone call comes in.
 
However, the problem is that for the people who rely on it as the only option for handling phone calls, you still can’t toggle Auto-Answer on and off by a Siri voice command, or create a Siri Shortcut where, every time you put your AirPods on, phone calls are answered automatically, and every time the earbuds are taken off they are not. This would be incredibly useful for many people, not least people in my situation. Most other accessibility features can be activated by a Siri command but, after a year of feeding back to Apple, my feature request for this has fallen on deaf ears at the tech giant.

Apple Watch Photo of an Apple Watch with black strap

Apple Watch cellular, which allows you to make phone calls, needs the Auto-Answer phone calls feature added; the ability to toggle it on and off by a Siri command; the ability to hang up a phone call by a Siri voice command; and Announce Messages with Siri functionality.
 
I have been reading of someone who would like Auto-Answer on an Apple Watch for an elderly family member with dementia who does not remember to press the green button on the iPhone or Apple Watch to answer a phone call in the conventional way. The writer says Auto-Answer would be amazingly helpful for people who need to keep track of elderly loved ones who don’t like the idea of carrying a mobile phone, and refuse to wear GPS devices for elderly people likely to wander, but are still willing to wear a watch.
 
For me, with a physical disability, Auto-Answer on the Apple Watch will mean more independence and personal safety. I will be able to leave my home in my wheelchair without the need to pick up my iPhone, (which I am unable to do), and I'll be able to answer incoming phone calls from friends, family and carers.
 
If Apple can provide these features on the Watch they will offer a more enhanced and holistic voice control experience. Until they do there are large gaps in their voice offering on the Watch, which are really curtailing my independence, and many people like me.
 
My hunch is there aren’t any big technical or cost barriers to adding these features. During the summer there was an outcry demanding Siri control of Dark Mode and Apple promptly introduced the functionality. Accessibility isn’t sexy, may not move unit sales, Auto-Answer is a little known feature, so getting the company to focus on it is difficult.

More inclusive

Voice Control is a joint effort between Apple’s Accessibility Engineering and Siri groups. Its aim is admirable - to transform the way users with physical disabilities access their devices. You talk, it gets things done for you.
 
Yet on a broader level Apple chose to develop Voice Control as a dedicated accessibility feature, but it could have done very similar things by expanding the capabilities of Siri so voice control of devices could be mainstream for everyone. This would be more inclusive and an approach that I would have liked to have seen. 
 
At the moment, companies like Salesforce with its Einstein technology, and Amazon Alexa, are really pushing the boundaries of what it is possible to do with voice recognition tech.  Rather than developing a dedicated accessibility application like Voice Control Apple would have been better making voice recognition technology on their devices more ingrained for everyone.
 
There is a danger Voice Control could become a bit of a ghetto, not used by many, not updated and improved often, except on the odd occasion when Apple wants to show off its accessibility credentials.
 
The future of voice recognition features, wireless in-ear headphones, and mobile voice assistants will only grow. Wearables are a potentially huge technology sector, which Apple and its competitors clearly recognise. It is not just people with accessibility issues that will be driving growth and calling for ever greater voice capabilities, there is a growing appeal from general consumers as the voice first revolution grows.
 
I feel Apple needs to embrace the idea of inclusive design even more than it already does. If you make things easier for people like me to use you make things easier and more convenient for everyone. That is a strong selling point these days.
 
Hopefully, in 2020 we will see Apple address these gaps in its voice tech to the benefit of everyone who wants to control their devices with their voice.

The price of independence 

The need for more accessible design and user-friendly features on devices is not the only issue disabled people face when it comes to technology. Apple products, in particular, are very expensive. The latest iPhone 11 Pro costs over a £1,000 and the Airpods Pro wireless earbuds £250. Yet for disabled people, especially, technology produced by Apple, and all the major tech companies, can be a great liberator. It can be the difference between holding down a job, or not. Keeping in touch with family and friends, or not. 
 
All my life technology has played a big role in providing me with independence. By using the rapidly developing digital technology I have seen over my life time, I have been able to go from a small village in Wales, first to university in Scotland, then a long career at the BBC. Currently, my personal campaign is to highlight the case for as many physically disabled people as possible to have affordable and accessible technology.
 
Technology has helped create a level playing field despite the difficult cards I have been handed in life. I remember when I joined the BBC in 1990 they were still editing reels of tape with a razor blade, which was something I physically couldn't do, but once the digital revolution got underway in the late 1990s I was editing documentaries for Radio Four myself on the first digital editing platforms.
 
Today using the latest voice recognition technology I am able to have a wide range of tools at my command to run both my home and personal campaign office with just my voice. However, all this independence has come at great cost, which not all disabled people can afford. 
 
Both Conservative and Labour parties announced plans to tax the tech giants more in the lead up to the election, but I believe both parties need to go one step further and ensure that the taxes raised do not just benefit the Treasury, but provide the tech giants with incentives to use their economic muscle and technological expertise for the wider social good. As a disabled person I rely heavily on new technology. It is a great boon to me and would be to many others if the tech multinationals did more to adapt their products to meet the needs of this significant group in society and make their products more affordable.
 
With features like Airpods with built in Siri, Announce Messages with Siri, and to a slightly lesser extent Voice Control, some good work on making technology more accessible is going on at Apple, and indeed other tech companies like Microsoft and Google, but it’s nowhere near enough in comparison to the vast resources at their disposal. When a decent smartphone costs more than £150, wireless earbuds with smart assistants built in from £130, a laptop more than £300, a smart speaker from £50, and when a much higher proportion of disabled people are living in poverty it is clear to see where the problem lies.
 
I have experienced directly through my life how technology can create employment opportunities for even the most severely disabled people, and jobs create taxes and so the Treasury and economy benefits as well. Now as my muscular dystrophy progresses voice activated smart home technology, produced by the likes of Apple and Amazon Alexa, has become even more important to my daily life: everything from communicating with family and friends, to turning up the thermostat and my lights on. It helps me get things, most people take for granted, done.
 
My vision is a world where physically disabled people particularly benefit in terms of independence, choice and control, from technical innovations in consumer devices produced by companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Why is it that charities, businesses and students get discounts and tax breaks on smartphones, laptops and tablets but disabled people who need technology to lead more independent and productive lives do not? 
 
It should be possible for the major banks, technology giants, and the government, in partnership, to devise a new scheme similar to Motability, which enables disabled people to own and adapt cars, to make the more expensive technologies affordable for the disabled end-user. This would widen access and encourage major tech companies to consider more how accessible their products are.
 
It's not just access to devices that is a problem, it is also access to websites and applications. There are laws in the UK, USA, and elsewhere that make businesses provide ramps and toilets to enable access for disabled people, but for some reason technology companies seem to get away with shirking their responsibilities on tech accessibility.
 
In the USA the singer Beyoncé, and Domino's the pizza company, have been sued over concerns about how accessible their websites are to disabled people. Device manufacturers like Apple and Google should ban developers whose websites and applications fail to meet accessibility standards. Google could go further and penalise websites in its search engine rankings if they don't meet certain accessibility standards. That would certainly concentrate minds.
 
I am using voice recognition technology to write this article but there are many text boxes on websites and apps across the internet where the technology I rely on simply does not not work because of thoughtless website design. Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Google and WordPress, household names on the internet, are all guilty culprits. This frustrates me, makes me less productive, and silences me. It should be a major concern for web democracy when disabled people can be shut out of substantial portions of the digital world and economy we all use.
 
Digital exclusion based on accessibility and affordability is a scourge of our times and should be the next major front in the battle for a more accessible world for disabled people.
 
In the digital world, as in the real world, accessibility should be a civil right.

Colin Hughes campaigns to make technology more accessible and affordable for disabled people and is a regular contributor to Aestumanda https://www.aestumanda.com/