Speech Technology Can Make the Boardroom Accessible to All

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With millions of veterans suffering from physical disabilities, and high percentages of the deaf, blind, and deaf-blind unemployed, a large pool of intelligent people with the desire to work are having their potential contributions to society go to waste. Considering today’s speech and assistive technologies, there is little reason for this. Indeed, the speech industry could be the key to revolutionizing the future for millions.

Communication is the main barrier to these groups’ employability. Disabled veterans return fully trained and ready, but lost limbs or damaged hands and arms affect the ability to type. People who are blind cannot see presentations, printed instructions, or printed manuals. The deaf cannot hear business meetings, conversation, or instructions.

Change by Invention

These groups are often referred to as having a “disability,” but over the past two years there have been dramatic shifts in technology. The speech industry, combined with other technologies, has actually removed these disabilities as a barrier to productivity, enabling this entire subgroup to function in business on an equal footing. Where in the past there was a dependency upon interpreters, today’s technology turns speech into captions, computer navigation is self-guided through voice, and devices convert text into Braille. There is even an invention that enables the blind to walk without a cane or a guide dog.

What is vital to comprehend is that now it is we—those who can see and hear and are able to type—who are responsible for the “disable” part of their disability. We are still thinking in legacy terms—and we are doing business the way things were. If people who are sighted and hearing use digital files in lieu of printing, and if personal microphones become a cool accessory, then the “disabled” part would no longer exist, there would only exist “enabled.” Considering that sighted and hearing people in the Western world are now immersed in the digital era, why are we distributing paper printouts at meetings? Why are we working in groups without personal microphone accessories?

For the blind, today’s screen reader software for computerized devices speaks what is typed. The iPhone scans printed paper like business cards and laser documents and describes the images that it sees as text, then turns its computerized “vision” into text-to-speech (TTS) output. For the deaf, software creates captions of everything that is spoken into a microphone. And specifically for the deaf-blind, Apple devices generate Braille from text that pulses words into the fingertips of the deaf-blind through special little Braille “finger keyboards” and now—new this year—Braille through iPads. Importantly, all major devices can be powered by speech, so typing is no longer required by people who have lost their hands, fingers, or arms.

“Microphoned Business”

We already attend every meeting with our smartphones in our pockets, yet we continue to use our smartphones exclusively to communicate with people who can see and hear. By keeping our phones in our pockets, we exclude viable and intelligent members of the workforce. But if we expand our dress-for-success wardrobe to include a light, thin headset microphone, our voices could pass into our smartphones’ speech recognition or pass to a centralized server to become captions viewable by the deaf and felt by the deaf-blind. Moreover, if our LCD wall screens were prepared for captions at the bottom of the screen, then the deaf and deaf-blind could participate by texting their contributions for all to see, and that text could be spoken aloud through TTS.

This technology is here; it works amazingly well, and in dozens of languages. A whole new company could spring to life based on the creation of decorative headset microphones for business speech recognition that not only enable the deaf and deaf-blind to be an equal part of the organization but also create an instant transcript of meetings and telephone calls. The technology even empowers communication between people who speak different languages. All are perks of doing microphoned business.

Our workplaces are still organized for the last century, when such technologies did not exist. Today it is no longer necessary to do business as usual. It is time to move the corporate world into 21st-century accessibility. 

Sue Reager is CEO of @International Services, a company specializing in translation and localization for technology and marketing, and president of Translate Your World, developers of software for across-language speech communication. She can be reached at sreager@internationalservices.com.

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