People with Disabilities Helped Launch Speech Tech. Don’t Leave Them Behind
Does our industry really care about accessibility for people with disabilities, or is it just good PR to pretend?
I’ve been writing about accessibility and usability for people with disabilities for nearly 25 years. When I started my career in speech technology, the technology was designed mainly for people with profound disabilities, to improve their lives, to increase their independence. The technology was pricy for the day to say the least, but when implemented properly, it was a game changer.
Making people aware of the technology and helping them implement it gave me the opportunity to see firsthand how the technology changed peoples’ lives, and allowed me unique and invaluable insight as my clients experienced whatever new ability they may have hoped for—and that the software provided.
Whether it was being able to write, use a computer, or control their environment by voice—for the first time in a long time or for the actual first time—the emotions were vast, ranging from laughter to joy to excitement, and often to tears.
One of many memorable clients was a girl who was hit by a drunk driver when she was 12 years old, the collision paralyzing her from the neck down.
This young woman was smart, thoughtful, responsible; she was capable of working—cognitively, intellectually, emotionally—but had found herself unemployable because she could not take notes or use a computer or phone without assistance.
When it came time for her to use the software for the first time, she dictated her first sentence and then stopped. The silence was followed by a deep sigh as she released years of pent-up emotion.
Staring at the computer she said, “You don’t understand. There are things I have been holding inside me all this time. I need to get them out, but they’re too personal to have someone else write them down. So they’ve been inside me all this time.… Now I can do it.”
A couple of weeks after she was trained and thriving using the software, I asked her if she would join my team at Computer Talk. In those two short weeks she had already been offered—and accepted—a job, because of the abilities the technology provided her.
Over the years, however, speech tech manufacturers have changed their priorities to exploit the mainstream market, seemingly believing that a solution has to be 100 percent speech-driven, even though the result is often less effective, and leaves people with disabilities behind.
Ironic, because without the disability community, who would have been the early adopters? Who would have allowed companies their initial successes and subsequent expansive growth? It wouldn’t have been the able-bodied doctors and lawyers.
I hear the stories more times than I can count. And I see the toll it takes on people. Smart, capable, successful, independent, seemingly able-bodied people who are thriving in their lives, who may not even identify as disabled … until they pick up the phone to pay a bill or to get a live person on the line and are met by an inaccessible phone system, which often results in the IVR disconnecting them, requiring them to endure the IVR again or abandon the task.
It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally detrimental. And it’s a whole lot more real than you might imagine.
IVR is so inaccessible, so often, that I’ve been writing about it for about five years. But instead of getting better, it’s seemingly getting worse. It’s bad enough that companies including Macy’s, Schwab, Sears MasterCard, and Spectrum do not have accessible IVR. But how is it possible that the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Automobile Club of Southern California don’t have dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF)?
Speech technology doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. It doesn’t have to be All Speech All The Time. Simplicity in design is what gives it its power.
There’s nothing wrong with an IVR saying, “To do [X], say [Y] or Press [Number].” In fact, it’s an effective way to appeal to callers who want to use voice and callers who want to use DTMF. It can be artfully done. Ask American Express.
Too many IVR designers are either unwilling to make the technology accessible, don’t know how, or don’t care. And that’s failure.
Ample resources exist to understand the difficulties people with disabilities encounter with IVR and to design systems to eliminate those difficulties.
Stop pretending to care. Do something.
Robin Springer is an attorney and the president of Computer Talk, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in implementation of speech recognition technology and services, with a commitment to shifting the paradigm of disability through awareness and education. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or firstname.lastname@example.org.