How do Alexa and Amazon Echo help disabled people?

The Amazon Echo has been on sale in the UK since the end of October and a few weeks ago I was given the Echo Dot for my birthday. Virtual Assistants such as Siri and Cortana have been in our phones for a while, but this standalone gadget heralds the arrival of a new type of device that could be of enormous benefit to many - and disabled people in particular.

Echo Dot is the smaller cousin of the Amazon EchoAt around an inch thick, the Dot is exactly the same as the normal Amazon Echo but with the bottom 90% of the shiny black column (comprising the big bassy speaker) lopped off. It still has a great-sounding speaker in there (and it can also be connected via cable or Bluetooth to a beefier speaker if you wish for a bigger sound) and is a snip at £50 compared to the standard Echo price-tag of £150?

What can the Amazon Echo Dot do?

It’s probably easier to ask what the Echo can’t do. All you have to do is say “Alexa – play me some Queen” or “Alexa – order some more Toilet Duck” and within a trice you’re listening to your favourite tunes or running to the door. Well ok, perhaps deliveries aren’t that instantaneous but with Amazon Prime next-day delivery it’s almost that quick.

Seven things a blind person can ask their Amazon Echo

As a blind person the Amazon Echo offers loads of useful functions - my current favourite requests are:

  • News: “Alexa, give me the news” - my fave is Sky News as it changes every hour
  • Facts: “Alexa, how tall is the Queen” or “Alexa – tell me a random fact”
  • Jokes: “Alexa, tell me a joke” and “Alexa – tell me another one”
  • Timers and alarms: “Alexa – set a timer for 3 minutes” or “Alexa – wake me up at 7”
  • Radio: “Alexa, play Radio 4 Extra on TuneIn” or “Alexa, play The Prairie Home Companion station on TuneIn”
  • Podcasts: “Alexa, play This Week in Tech on TuneIn” or “Alexa, play 99% Invisible on TuneIn”
  • Books: “Alexa, play Ready Player One on Audible” or Alexa, play my book" to resume listening

Adding Skills to Amazon Echo

Echo Dot has skills that can be accessed via the Aamzon store

Several thousand ‘skills’ are available to Alexa – these are mini apps you can enable to give her added abilities. For example you can ask “Alexa, enable the National Rail skill” to be able to plan journeys and get info on delays. “Alexa, Enable the Grand Tour skill” adds the skill associated with the new Amazon show from the makers of ‘Top Gear’, which tests how well you watched each show and unlocks exclusive content.

And “Alexa, enable the Birdsong skill” to be able to ask for any bird’s song or to be tested to see if you can guess a mystery song - so although you can’t check Twitter on the Echo yet you can check your tweets (sorry about that).

Use your Amazon Echo to control the internet of things

The internet of things promises a smarter, more connected world for everyoneYou can also control smart internet of things (IOT) devices such as the Philips Hue lights, the Nest thermostat and your Sonos wifi speakers. And if you want to control any electrical device around the house by your voice alone, you can buy a simple wifi-enabled switchbox.

Plug it into the wall and then plug into it the device that isn’t itself ‘smart’ and you will be able to turn it on and off with a command to your Echo.

How can the Amazon Echo help people with disabilities?

Whilst all of the above is fantastic fun for everyone, the applications for people with disabilities are obvious. Anyone who struggles with technology or physically controlling their environment would benefit from the Echo (or cute little Echo Dot) so long as they are able to speak and hear well enough.

So it certainly doesn’t replace a full computer or smartphone but it can already do so much to help with everyday tasks and queries, and new skills are being added every day.

Does the Amazon Echo work with artificial voices?

Finally I have just tested my Amazon Echo Dot with synthetic speech and yes it works just fine. I used VoiceOver on my phone to speak out commands to the Echo and Alexa understood every word.

This means that someone using a communication aid, like Prof Hawking, would also be able to use it without difficulty. You don’t even need to have good speech to use the Amazon Echo.

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