In the UK, more than two million people live with sight loss – including around 360,000 who are registered as blind or partially sighted. Many of those people are turning to voice assistant technology like Alexa, and devices like Amazon Echo, to improve their day-to-day lives.
The wide-ranging benefits of voice assistant technology for those living with sight loss is highlighted by Amazon’s collaboration with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). The collaboration enables Alexa to provide information directly from the charity’s Sight Loss Advice Service, improving the accessibility of online information.
The importance of accessibility to information and technology is highlighted by RNIB research showing that more than half of blind and partially sighted people (54 per cent) claim their sight loss is a barrier to using the internet.
To find out more about the importance of voice assistant technology for those living with sight loss, we sat down with Life of a Blind Girl blogger Holly Tuke, who explained why internet access is so important and how voice-connected devices support her day-to-day living.
“I’ve always had a keen interest in technology, and I love anything to do with assistive tech,” Holly explains. “So naturally I was intrigued by the Amazon Echo when it first launched. I’ve now had an Amazon Echo for around three years, in fact we’ve got a few Alexa-connected devices dotted around the house.”
“I’m a firm believer that companies like Amazon have normalised voice-activated technology and they are leading the way in making accessible technology completely mainstream”, she adds.
“Every Amazon Echo is fully accessible for people with a visual impairment like myself, including the Amazon Echo Show which has a screen and comes in three sizes. These products have been developed with accessibility in mind – for example there’s a screen-reader called VoiceView, a screen magnifier, colour inversion and colour correction.”
Previously, specialist technologies that provided spoken explanations and other areas of accessibility support were prohibitively expensive for many people. But voice assistants are now an affordable way to enable independence, break down accessibility barriers and help to build a more inclusive society.
From telling the time to controlling the lights at home, here are Holly’s top ten ways that Alexa makes her life easier on a daily basis.
Access news, weather and more
Alexa has a range of skills for news, weather, time and date. One simple command can bring up the day’s headlines, or you can ask about the weather first thing in the morning. That’s always useful when deciding what to wear!
You can also set up routines, so Alexa will read out headlines as part of a list of actions. Asking Alexa the date and time is a great example of a skill that’s useful for everybody, regardless of sight loss.
You can even say good morning or “how are you?” to Alexa, and she’ll give you a fact of the day!
Manage your smart plugs
Controlled by an app, a ‘smart plug’ lets you turn off and on any appliance that plugs into a standard wall socket. That means I can operate anything that runs on mains electricity via Alexa. I have a smart plug connected to my hair straighteners, for example, and it’s so useful being able to tell Alexa to turn them on or off.
One of the things that I really like about some smart plugs is that they make a clicking sound when turned off or on, which is really helpful for me as someone with no useful vision.
Reading and audiobooks
Growing up, I found there was a shortage of books transcribed into braille. But tools like Audible and Kindle have now transformed reading and made audiobooks hugely popular mainstream products.
I can play books from Audible or Kindle on my Amazon Echo with one command and Alexa will start reading straight away. Some of my favourite authors include Jojo Moyes, Louise Pentland and Matt Haig.
One book I really enjoyed this year has been Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.One feature that I love is that I can listen to a book on my smartphone or tablet and then pick up where I left off with my Amazon Echo.
Alarms, reminders, timers and calendar invites are all quick and easy with Alexa.
In terms of reminders, I previously used my phone to write them down with the notes app. But with Alexa I can set reminders much quicker and she will announce them for me. I also get push notifications sent to my phone, so I never miss them.
You can also voice activate a timer and Alexa will let you know when time’s up – she’ll even let you know how long is left on the timer.
Another very useful feature is the ‘speak slower or speak faster’ capability. You can customise Alexa to speak at the rate you want. This is a feature that is great for people with a visual impairment, but also sighted people as well.
I really like this function as it means that I have full control of the speaking rate and can set it to my liking. It is a small feature, but it can make a big difference in terms of accessibility.
Control heating and lights
Amazon Echo allows you to control the heating and lights in your house through an app on another connected device like a phone or tablet. For example, we have ‘smart bulbs’ dotted around the house which I can control through Alexa.We recently purchased an Alexa-compatible thermostat which has been a real game-changer.
I’m able to turn the heating on and off without worrying whether I’ve done it correctly. Even for those with full vision, we should all be paying attention to our energy usage – so this is a quick and simple way to be more conscientious.
Find me a recipe
Voice search is useful for all kinds of things – whether it’s opening times for a business, finding a local restaurant or what’s on at the cinema.
But Alexa has really helped me when cooking! People may assume that blind and visually impaired people can’t cook, however we have our own methods and can cook independently with a few adaptions.
You can find new and interesting recipe just by speaking to Alexa. She even reads out the ingredients and cooking method. Some online recipes even include suggested adaptations for visually impaired people
Stream the songs you love
Just by using one command, you can listen to your favourite radio stations. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t listen to music. Whether I’m streaming music or listening to the radio, I’ve always got music playing.
Listening to music on the Amazon Echo is really easy to do and it has great sound as well.
You can also create groups of devices to have music in every room. By adding devices to a group, you can control them with simple commands like, “Turn on [group name]”.
All the games on Amazon Echo are fully accessible for blind and visually impaired people because they are voice controlled.
The best example is Alexa’s skill for the game Jeopardy! – your device delivers clues, complete with music and sound effects, so it’s a similar immersive experience to playing the game on other platforms.
Accessible gaming is an exciting area of development and it will be interesting to see how games developers take advantage of voice assistant technology in the near future.
Shop for what you need
Voice shopping is a very convenient and accessible way of shopping, and if you are an Amazon Prime member then you can re-order products from your order history by talking to Alexa. If you have an Amazon Echo Show, you can also search for and order specific products.
What's on TV?
Although some blind and visually impaired people may not be able to see the TV screen, we can still enjoy watching our favourite films and TV shows.
Audio description enhances the experience for us, informing us of the visual aspects such as body language, expressions and movements.
However, I’ve never been able to read the TV guide – so I either use pre-set channels or I have to ask somebody to help.
Sighted people can just look at the TV to see what’s on, whereas many people with sight loss can’t, so that’s where Alexa comes in.
Alexa will not only tell me what’s on – she will even remind me when one of my favourite shows is coming up.