Voice recognition assistants help people with severe speech impairments

Assistive technology news, policy and events. Clive, smiling at the camera

DispATches is written by Clive Gilbert, freelance research consultant and specialist writer in public policy, social affairs and technology.

Born with cerebral palsy, Clive is an extensive user of assistive technology and has first-hand experience of the transformative potential that technology can bring to the lives of disabled people. 


Mainstream voice-activated technologies such as Alexa, Google Home, and Siri are a powerful force for disabled people's independence and social inclusion.

While assistive technology often acts as a bridge to greater social inclusion, it can also be a sign of difference. The very fact that disabled people may need specialist equipment or software to get from A to B, surf the web or express their thoughts can undermine one's efforts to just be part of the gang. That such technologies can sometimes appear alien to the uninitiated who might be more familiar with the visual stylings of their MacBook and their pocket-sized Android smartphone can make it even harder to fit in.

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This is one of the reasons the growing accessibility of everyday technologies - from the introduction of native support for eye tracking systems in the latest version of Windows to the automatic subtitling features in video conferencing tools - has proven to be game-changing for many disabled people. An example of this phenomenon that has recently been highlighted by researchers is the impact of voice-activated technology such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, and Windows' Cortana on people with communication-related impairments.

A black Google Home next to a smart phone
Doing by speaking

A new study by Pranav Kulkarni and colleagues from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Monash University in Australia examines how people with speech impairments can benefit from using such technologies to undertake tasks such as setting reminders, sending emails, and retrieving information from the Internet. It found that users often experience greater independence, less social isolation, and better therapeutic outcomes.

The findings are based on a survey of 230 speech and language therapists in the UK. It was conducted to explore their experiences of using voice-activated assistants with the people they support and identify opportunities and barriers to adoption and point to avenues for future research.

Previous research has already suggested it is possible for people with communication needs to benefit from voice recognition tools. For example, a survey of 290 people with Parkinson's disease (most of whom had a mild to moderate speech impairment) found that 25% had noticed improvements in their speech after using a voice-activated assistant.

Excluded from the conversation

Voice-activated technology doesn't work for everyone. Kulkarni and colleagues list several pitfalls provided by the professionals who responded to their survey. These include the technology's failure to understand different accents or detect unclear and low-volume speech and a tendency to misinterpret particular words.

The study also shows that the opportunity to try simply does not arise for many people; just under 80% of respondents said that they had never used voice-activated assistants in their work, citing cost, limited internet connectivity, and a lack of awareness and training as key reasons. But, among the therapists who said they had worked with voice-activated assistants, the researchers found that the results were often positive, including for people with severe speech impairments. Of the 57 people whose support was described by survey respondents, 39% experienced improved independence, 10% enjoyed greater accessibility and 8% reported feeling more confident.

One therapist described creating a visual list of icons and images for a young eye gaze user with a progressive muscle condition so she could use Alexa to control music and play with her toys after losing function in her hands. They also said that the fact that the system used mainstream technology meant her parents found the setup "acceptable and exciting to use".

The story underlines the message that the power of technology often lies as much in its form as it does in its function.

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Further resources 

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