Last Christmas I bought a 2nd generation Amazon Echo for my partner and daughter who are both visually impaired, in an attempt to make our home more accessible for them. We love that Amazon have taken essentially an ‘environmental control system‘ and turned it into an every day gadget, that is growing ever popular in more and more households. No longer does “voice activation” SCREAM – Disability, Amazon paved the way to normalise a feature that anybody could find useful. Dare I say Amazon are leading the way in inclusive technology?
It took some time to get the hang of how you set up skills, routines and lists but a year on and a Echo Dot addition later, I can’t imagine life without Alexa in it!
Here’s the run down of the top 10 functions both my partner and 6 year old use Alexa for that makes life easier for them being visually impaired…
1. Syncing with iOS/Google Calendars
This was actually one of my top picks that sealed the deal for us. Like many people, I primarily use my phone calendar (Google) to keep track of the family’s hospital appointments, when bills were due, Events coming up etc. We paired this with a Large Print wall calender from RNIB and I’d just update it in large, bold writing for Mark to read. Only as his eye condition worsened, large print materials simply weren’t cutting it anymore. That’s where Alexa saved the day, no longer does he have to ask me what is on the agenda for the day/week or month even. I simply synced my Google calendar on my android phone via the Alexa App and he merely just asks his own personal assistant – Alexa for a brief for the day!
Having Alexa read the calendar equally benefits our Abbie. She’ll ask Alexa things like, “how many sleeps until Monday?” as she’s still getting the hang of the days of the week but knows Monday is when school re-starts. If she has an event coming up she can also say; “Alexa, how many days until my dance class?”
2. Adding items to the food shop
Like most Mum’s, the big food shop is left upto me in our house. Yet, despite my best efforts my partner always finds something I’ve missed to moan about. With Alexa’s ‘Shopping List’ feature synced with our Morrisons log in, anything my partner asks Alexa to add to the shopping list will end up automatically in my Morrisons basket when I go to do the shop online. It saves alot of arguments I tell you… Still waiting for one of the girls to realise how easy it is to add things as I’m sure they’ll start chancing it by sneaking in chocolate or ice cream hoping Mummy doesn’t notice haha!
3. Use of Alexa compatible plugs
We haven’t actually done this yet as we are moving house early next year but it is HIGH on our list for being an essential accessibility feature in the new home – both for me as a wheelchair user and my partner and daughter being VI. Not often do we find a tool that aids both worlds so this gets a double 👍 👍 from us!
Getting an Alexa compatible plug pack will enable ALL of us to operate anything that runs on electric in the home by voice activation. Lights, TV, radio, burglar alarms – you name it. For Mark and Abbie inparticular – visually it’ll stop the dilemma of finding the right switches and buttons amongst the many remote controls we’ve accumulated, unplugging things to save money only to have to search through a maze of wires to plug it back in when it’s needed again (as they’d be able to turn it off via voice) and paired with HIVE/NEST Mark would be able to operate the heating independently without me or other sighted person there.
4. Radio function
Being of the late 80s generation, we did grow up with the radio playing and cassette tapes. That being said we still have it playing as adults while cooking, showering or if we simply don’t want the TV on but it’s a bit too quiet! Having the ability to play our favourite local radio station via Alexa and TuneIN takes the stress out of physically finding the right station on a proper radio when if you have low vision, those station markers on the traditional dial can be unrecognisable.
5. Pairing with Audible
Before audio books became a “trend” (if you will), Mark and other visually impaired extended family would receive the free talking book service via the charity RNIB that came on CDs. Although this service is incredible, sadly when this way of reading was only for those living with blindness, there simply wasn’t a huge selection to choose from. Now with popular audio book App and website ‘Audible‘ you can find almost any title ever written! With the inclusiveness of audio books, it’s normalised this way of reading and really raised the bar, quality and quantity wise for people with Visual Impairments. Better still not only can Mark play a book on Audible on his iOS device (he’s an Apple lover) but he can pick up where he left off on either of our Echo devices whenever the mood strikes. Abbie also enjoys listening to children’s books via Audible too as an alternative and way “cooler” way of having a bedtime story than your Mummy reading! 😩
6. Reading the TV Guide
It’s not something sighted people think about – the on screen TV guide. While the TV guide magazine seems pointless now with every TV package provider having an on screen guide and audio description being more mainstream on most channels. Sometimes we’ve come across providers such as TalkTalk who sadly didn’t put a function on to read the TV Guide. How is a visually impaired individual meant to tune into an audio described show, if they won’t know when or what channel it’ll be on? It’s crazy, but that’s where Alexa saves the day. Enabling the TV Guide skill on the Alexa App will read out channel guides and even set reminders for your favourite shows. Perfect!
7. Alarms and reminders
Speaking of reminders. Back to basics here. Before Alexa was a thing, the VI community had to buy or charities like RNIB would give them a “talking clock” on the permanent equipment loan scheme for disabled people. You’d still have to set your alarms using the buttons though and it was often very frustrating. Especially if you needed multiple alarms like say for medications. Alexa makes setting alarms and reminders a breeze with a one sentence command!
8. Forecast reports
While most people check the weather forecast on a phone App upon waking up, for families like ours it’s not that simple. Sure I could simply read it out for them but regardless of what a person’s disability is, promoting independence in any daily life activity is paramount. With Alexa, simply sync the Alexa App with your location and ta-da she’ll have the forecast ready to read out upon your command. Or set up a morning “routine” on the App to have Alexa read it automatically as part of a list of actions.
9. An alternative to Newspapers
I read out the sports section in our local paper for Mark every week for 5 years. Thanks to Alexa’s wide range of News and Football related skills, Mark now has instant access to all his football enthusiast heart desires by simply asking Alexa his burning football related questions.
10. Recipes and timers
Yes visually impaired people do and can cook! It’s unreal the amount of people who think people with low/no usable vision cannot cook – period! There are many techniques and methods the VI community use to combat cooking issues. Now days, one of these methods is to use one of the many Recipe skills via the Alexa App to read out ingredients (you can even add the items as Alexa reads them to the “shopping list” I mentioned earlier), cooking methods, recipe and reviews. Then of course setting a timer is a no brainer.
I hope these 10 things helped you see how Alexa improves the daily lives of those living with sight loss and equally I hope it made sighted readers understand more how access to things in a different format such as voice control can truly open up someone’s world.
Are you visually impaired and use Alexa for something not mentioned above? Please consider sharing with us.