Voice commands for empowerment: How Amazon Alexa is helping people with disabilities live their lives better | HT Tech

Voice commands for empowerment: How Amazon Alexa is helping people with disabilities live their lives better

Amazon has rolled out a host of features for the virtual assistant that are catered to help people with disabilities to interact with their environment and with people more easily and naturally.

By: SHWETA GANJOO
| Updated on: May 14 2020, 19:06 IST
Technology today has revolutionised our lives in a way that everything, right from food to our daily commute, is a click away.
Technology today has revolutionised our lives in a way that everything, right from food to our daily commute, is a click away. (AP)

Can you walk till the end of the room to turn off the light? Can you type a message to your friends to let them know how your day went? Can you read the morning newspaper with ease? If you can, you are among the 98% population of India that is fully capable of living their lives independently.

But there are people who cannot do these seemingly simple things on their own. There are people who cannot see specific colours or hear music or simply get out of the bed in the morning by themselves. And there are also some people who cannot ask for help because they cannot speak and even those who cannot stand straight because their muscles are too weak to support them.

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Technology today has revolutionised our lives in a way that everything, right from food to our daily commute, is a click away. It has given us -- the lucky people who are a part of the country's 98% population who can ease through life -- the means to do simple things such as ordering groceries or keeping a watch on our homes when we are away. And to the other half, technology has given them accessibility to live life with some degree of independence.

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Virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa have been a big part of this change. Amazon has rolled out a host of features for the virtual assistant that are catered to help people with disabilities to interact with their environment and with people more easily and naturally.

How is Alexa helping people with disabilities?

Dr Sam Taraporevala is the executive director Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), which provides support for blind students across the country. He uses Alexa for a variety of purposes such as setting calendar entries, booking cabs and for light entertainment.

"As a blind person myself, I am far more comfortable in using an Echo device and asking Alexa to do something like tuning the radio on My Tuner Radio. So you have the whole range of radio stations at your disposal. I also use it for conducting conferences. Scheduling calendar entries, that's another use… you can just drop a reminder or a calendar note. Beyond this, the whole reminder service is very useful," he told HT Tech.

He also uses it for reading Kindle books and audiobooks via audible.com. "I don't need to have a kindle or app on my phone. I just ask Alexa to read my Kindle book by mentioning the title of the book," he added.

Nipun Malhotra, who has arthrogryposis and runs an advocacy firm called Nipman Foundation for the rights of persons with disabilities, uses Alexa for a variety of purposes such as listening to music, controlling the smart TV and lights in his house.

"I think the biggest empowerment that it gives to people with disability is easy access to their smart home technology. Another thing that I love is how it can connect you to adjacent rooms in the same house and you can also connect when you are out of town," he told us.

"It has given me that kind of autonomy that I didn't have before," he added.

Like Malhotra, Shishir Bhatnagar, who is a quadriplegic and works as a nautical consultant, also uses Alexa to control smart devices in his houses such as smart lights, smart TV, radio, geyser and AC. He also uses Alexa for entertainment.

Unlike Taraporevala, Malhotra and Bhatnagar, Berty Ashley does not suffer from any disability. However, he works as a molecular biologist at the Dystrophy Annihilation Research Trust (DART). DART is a research lab that works with a rare disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) - a rare genetic condition that leads to wasting away of muscles over time. He regularly interacts with kids with DMD, and in his experience, Alexa helps them study and learn about various other interesting things while they are at it.

"One of our kids, his name is Karan, he is 19 years old and he has an Echo at home. Whenever he is reading something and comes across a word that he doesn't understand, he doesn't need to open a dictionary. He doesn't need to open his phone. All he has to say is 'Alexa' what is the meaning of this word'," Ashley said.

Kids with DMD also need to perform certain tasks such as drink water, take medicines and do physiotherapy through specific time intervals. Ashley says that Alexa's reminder feature is extremely useful in helping kids perform these routine tasks without fail.

Room for improvement

Alexa with its ease of use and accessibility features has been helping people with rare genetic conditions and locomotive disorders in gaining some level of autonomy, some level of control, over their lives. But there is still room for improvement.

Taraporevala says that one of the features that would make Alexa even more useful is the ability to read and navigate web pages and e-newspapers using voice commands -- a feature that Google Assistant already has. "Especially web page enhancement, it is very, very necessary," he said.

Both Nipun and Shishir, on the other hand, believe that for locomotive disabilities "the more physical tasks that it can replace the better it is".

"General mobile calling through Alexa would be great," Bhatnagar pointed out. Currently you can only ask Alexa to call those who also own an Echo device and use the Alexa app.

Technology is ever-evolving, while a virtual assistant like Alexa is already been helping humans replace a lot of physical tasks with voice commands, we hope to see this going further to include a lot more in the future.

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First Published Date: 09 May, 07:37 IST
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