• September 1, 2003
  • Q & A

Jim Tobias, President, Inclusive Technologies

Why should speech technology companies get involved in accessibility?

Jim Tobias Well, there are two main reasons. First, we know that speech technologies can make information products and services easier to use for everyone. Speech recognition and speech synthesis are great ways to navigate and collect information. There's a general rule that says whatever makes things easier for most people makes things possible for people with disabilities. Speech synthesis lets blind users get whatever they want. Speech recognition lets physically disabled users control devices without their hands. Second, there are new laws and regulations that require improved accessibility. For example, the federal government must purchase only electronic and information technology that is accessible. This has created a new focus on how disabled federal employees can perform their job tasks, which carries over into how those products and services are designed.

So are you saying that speech technologies are a solution for these accessibility problems?

JT Yes. Almost all of the time, a speech technology is going to offer improved accessibility. So for this industry, accessibility is almost always a win. Marketers can add a bullet item on accessibility to every pitch they make: increased potential market and compliance with federal regulations.

You said "almost all the time." Can speech technology be a barrier as well?

JT Yes, it can. There are about 24 million Americans with some amount of hearing loss and 2 million Americans with speech impairments. For these people, speech alone may not work.

So what do we do to serve them?

JT Really what the information industry does in general: offer multiple ways to make input and receive output. For example, for input on the phone, have both DTMF and speech recognition as options. There are solutions for deaf and hard of hearing users as well, via text - Web sites, SMS, etc.

How are the speech technology industry leaders addressing accessibility?

JT The biggest companies have been in this area for years. IBM has a disability-focused organization of more than 20 people, and they offer several high-quality products for this market. AT&T operates many of the deaf relay services in the country, and has an active disability program - they're at all the major conferences. ScanSoft has built or acquired some of the most important accessibility products. And we are just beginning to see interest from the VXML/CCXML and VoIP worlds.

What should companies do to get started?

JT Well, of course they should come to the Accessibility Tutorial on Tuesday morning! Seriously, most companies should begin by getting a few staff up to speed on the issues: what are the market and regulatory drivers, what barriers do people with disabilities really face. Then they should perform what we call an "accessibility audit": evaluations of their products to see where improvements can be made and where there are current market opportunities. Most products are more accessible than people think - it's certainly not all bad news, especially in the speech industry.

Tell us more about the tutorial. What will people learn?

JT The tutorial is sponsored by the Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center at Georgia Tech. ITTATC is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It's job is to get the word out to industry about accessibility. So we will go through all the disabilities that affect the use of information technology products and services: vision, hearing, speech, dexterity, and cognition. What are those barriers? What are the solutions that relate to speech technology? Then we will cover the drivers: how many people have which of these disabilities? What does the law say we have to do? Then we will go through all the resources that are available to companies. There's ITTATC itself, research centers, industry associations, standards bodies, etc. We want people to leave the session feeling that accessibility is both important and manageable.

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