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Debra Ruh

Voice assistants and smart home technologies transform the lives of people with disabilities and the elderly.14 min read

Voice assistants and smart home technologies transform the lives of people with disabilities and the elderly.
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LaMondre Pough, CSO of Ruh Global IMPACT - using Alexa
LaMondre Pough CSO of Ruh Global IMPACT using Alexa

We are in the golden age of innovations, an era in which digital technology is transforming the underpinnings of human existence, transforming lives within the community of disability and the elderly.

This revolution is impacting every industry, including the one you may have never considered: accessible and adaptive technology. From Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to Voice-Enabled Technology, the way we interact with technology is evolving right before our eyes.

Now, with advancements in voice technology such as natural language understanding, people with disabilities and the elderly are empowered to do more to improve humanity’s quality of life.

Technology has the power to transform all our lives; from the television to the smartphone, and from a video camera to a 3-D printer. Technology can promote improvements in efficiency, reliability, and speed, and can reach across boundaries of class, gender, and geography to deliver the benefits to all.

Google Home

And while much of this technology is accessible and valuable to people of all ages and ability, it is in the world of assisted technology where we can find global technology companies such as Alexa, Google at the forefront of developing new devices, equipment, and apps that will enhance the day-to-day lives of the elderly and people with disabilities in assisted or independent living during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Read more about Amazon donations in devices for communities around the world.

Disability affects more than 1 billion people on Earth, and in the United States, according to the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey conducted by the US. Census Bureau in 2018, the overall percentage of people with disabilities 13.1% of the U.S. population.

The population age 65 and over numbered 49.2 million in 2016 (the most recent year for which data are available). They represented 15.2% of the population, about one in every seven Americans.

Improving accessibility is very important for all these people. It is also essential for people concerned with electronics or the elderly. Indeed, seniors can face constraints due to the decrease of some of their capacities but also difficulties in learning and mastering the use of new technologies. The field of action of voice recognition is therefore very broad and crucial!

Voice technologies enhance independent living

There are many smart devices that can help improve the quality of life for the elderly and people with disabilities. They provide more independence for them and life easier for all users.

Individuals in the community of disability, and in a senior living community can talk to smart speakers the way they would speak naturally. Voice assistants allow members to speak naturally as they communicate what they need or request the information they are seeking, immediately benefiting those with limited dexterity or sight.

From an accessibility perspective, voice-controlled, home-based intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) have the potential to greatly expand speech interaction beyond dictation and screen reader output.

When you think about smartphones and smart home technology, you probably picture Millennials making their living spaces as convenient as possible. That is not an inaccurate picture, but it is not a complete one either. Boomers and seniors are an enthusiastic and growing market for these features, which can make living independently easier, safer, healthier, and more enjoyable for the 55-plus crowd.

Voice assistants, or virtual assistants, are more than just the cool, often-female voices that respond to your verbal requests: They are the point of communication between you and all your connected devices. But whether your voice assistant is the hub of your smart home, or simply a smartphone-based helper that tells you if it is raining, the best assistants streamline your relationship with technology.

Voice-controlled intelligent personal assistants (IPAs), have introduced a new interaction paradigm into the mainstream. These devices provide a conversational interface in the home to allow users to ask for and save information (e.g., check the weather, ask for the time, add to a shopping list), control smart home appliances, control home lighting or door locks by voice, and perform a range of online actions (e.g., shopping, banking). 

Although some accessibility challenges exist, users with a range of disabilities are using Amazon Echo and Google Home, including for unexpected cases such as speech therapy and support for caregivers. Richer voice-based applications and solutions to support discoverability would be particularly useful to users with visual impairments. These findings should inform future work on accessible voice-based IPAs.

People with disabilities are very adept to deal with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice technologies. In the next few years, the big tech companies will put voice technologies in every home, to enable people to empower themselves and Another key aspect will be peer-to-peer learning, connecting people who can share experiences and creating a community of AI users.

Sara Ruh

The voice-enabled technology is truly a breakthrough in elderly care because they can accomplish tasks by simply doing something, they have been doing all their life –and that is through talking! Older adults, service providers, and caregivers are quickly taking to voice-assisted home care for its sheer simplicity and usability. As life expectancies increase, the time elders spend at home will also increase. Voice technology can make staying at home more comfortable and connected. For example, see how to use Alexa and Amazon Devices to stay informed and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic?.

According to Pew Research Center. Adults above the age of 74 are using more tech these days, too: the same study shows that nearly 40 percent of the Silent Generation have smartphones, and 68 percent of Baby Boomers own smartphones, and 59 percent use social media. In other words, older adults are increasingly open to using technology. What makes voice technology so great for senior living, though, is that it has no learning curve.

“The use of Smart Speaker Technology is a huge advantage for Senior’s with Dementia or Alzheimer’s. As their brain disconnects with how to physically perform tasks, (like using a light switch), asking a smart device to perform the task still offers them the ability to retain some level of independence and quality of life.” Richard Streitz COO Ruh Global IMPACT

Smart home technology transforms the lives of vulnerability

A growing number of regular household items such as light bulbs and door locks are becoming smart, one of the major benefits being that they can be controlled with your computer or smartphone – even if you are not home. 

While each item usually includes its own dedicated app, if you choose to incorporate several smart items, you can opt for a system that allows you to control them all from one central hub.  You can add a smart speaker into the mix. As these also include a microphone for voice commands, all the above to be operated simply by speaking aloud.

mart Home Devices - Source: HelloTech.com
  • People with Disabilities

In recent years, creating a truly accessible home has become easier thanks to smart home technology. Gone are the days of needing to purchase a disability-specific, specialized device just to perform one simple task. Today the Internet of Things and a smartphone give us access to tools that can transform our environments.

For people living with chronic diseases, be it multiple sclerosis, arthritis, or any number of other conditions, reduced physical mobility can cause a problem when it comes to everyday tasks around the home. However, the rise of ‘smart’ homes – in which household items become connected – can greatly improve accessibility and be life-changing for people living with disabilities. The key change for many people with disabilities is the introduction of alternatives to typing information into a device and transform towards a world where input via voice – to a smart speaker or a personal assistant on a wearable device or smartphone, this technology has the potential to make their homes accessible in order to foster self-reliance and have the opportunity to live life as they choose.

Thanks to integrated systems such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant people with disabilities can now expand their smart home capabilities bit by bit, starting with what they need most.

  • The Elderly

We all have to eventually deal with the challenges of getting older and gradually losing some of the abilities that once came naturally to us. For elderly individuals, those shift’s inability and mobility often cause resentment and depressed moods. Then, their caregivers—which may be professionals but are often family members—struggle with feelings of worry and inadequacy, especially if they cannot always stay with their loved ones due to personal obligations.

Although smart home technologies cannot typically replace the types of assistance those devoted people give, companies are coming up with innovations that could let them know when something happens in a senior relative’s home, such as a fall.

Older adults are also at high risk for feeling lonely and isolated from social problems that smart home technology could help ease. However, emerging technology from smart devices and robotics companies may very well help.

A smart speaker with a voice-activated virtual assistant can be very helpful to seniors living alone—both as a tool and a digital companion. The smart speakers are easy to use, and they can improve the elderly living everyday lives. Voice assistants can offer everyday administrative, clinical, and emotional support to them.

On the administrative side, voice assistants can solve many of the common pain points in community-wide communication. Overall, communities struggle to circulate information, and residents with memory loss and mobility limitations may easily forget or miss announcements.

On the clinical side, smart speakers can also help the elderly manage their individual healthcare needs, and for the emotional, voice technology can help prevent isolation and loneliness in older adults.

Intelligent Voice Assistants

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an increasingly critical competitive advantage for companies, especially the big technology companies that build voice personal assistants.

There are billions of voice assistants in use today. Those billions speak to the ubiquity of voice assistants today. Smart speakers and smartphones may be the most common way to interact with them, but televisions, cars, office equipment, and even clothing can all offer access to the voice of a powerful AI. The ways people use voice assistants are expanding almost as quickly as the options for interacting with them.

Voice assistants are on track to become a staple of modern tech use. NPR and Edison Research’s 2019 Smart Audio Report found that more than 53 million Americans now own a voice assistant. That is nearly one in three households. Voice assistants are changing our lives every day.

Smarter Voice Assistants

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are the market leaders when it comes to voice operating systems for both systems.

The best smart speaker for you will depend on several factors. For many of us, it is between two brands: one of the new options from the Amazon Echo range or one of the smart Google Home / Nest speakers.

Every device in both ranges, as well as the flagship Amazon Echo and Google Home / Nest speakers, make fantastic smart home devices.

What is more, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (the smart Artificial Intelligence voice assistants you will find inside the smart speakers) are both becoming more useful and even smarter with every passing day too.

Applications of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

The software behind the Google Assistant app and Amazon Alexa app is constantly improving. Every platform has its own focus points. For example, Amazon Alexa can be linked to more smart products, and, Google Assistant has its own cloud service to store your favorite music. Both platforms are compatible with both Android and iOS devices. The integration of existing apps on your smart device goes smoothly in both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa app.

For the smart home integration, the gap between Alexa and Google Assistant has closed.

Both Alexa and Google Assistant let you combine your devices into rooms, so you can say things like “turn on the living room lights,” and both support Routines, which let you combine multiple actions into one command.

Voice Assistants and maintaining our collective privacy

Digital assistant’s technology undoubtedly presents exciting opportunities, including making it easier for people to access the online world or control other devices. But public concerns about smart speakers have been expressed. Many of these focus on the seemingly intrusive aspects of the devices and the use of the data captured. Others have raised questions about their longer-term disruptive impact on the consumption of information, user profiling, and people’s relationship with technology. Now, the future is here, and this future is embedded, augmented, and ubiquitous.

Smart speakers can be found everywhere. They have recently undergone a massive transformation and run on operating systems that are fueled by artificial intelligence (AI).

They observe and collect data in real-time and have the capability to pull information from different sources such as smart devices and cloud services and put the information into context using AI to make sense of the situation. Although we have come a long way in the design and execution of these AI technologies.

In the digitally divided society, someone who is privacy savvy would not invite such equipment into their lives, while others may accept or rationalize such behaviors.

Respecting others’ privacy is a social norm that we must work together to maintain. First, we need to educate ourselves on CyberSafety and the potential risks of digital technologies. We should also be proactive in keeping current with the latest news on technologies and act when required.

Privacy law in the United States is fairly patchy right now. However, the direction of travel is unarguably towards tighter regulation and greater consumer rights.

“Although Privacy Laws are important, it is critical to balance privacy with the nature of why voice data is captured and stored.  This provides the benefit for increased data sets for AI speech algorithms when smart devices are used by those that may have progressive speech difficulties.” Richard Streitz COO Ruh Global IMPACT

The government’s role in this complex paradigm is critical. We need stronger privacy laws to address privacy issues associated with personal digital assistants.

California, which has long been a frontrunner in protecting its residents’ privacy, has recently passed some of the strictest data protection legislation that the US has ever seen with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

Now, companies such as Amazon, Google, and others are making the rules for addressing privacy issues with personal digital assistants.

Conclusion

Voice assistant technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and the question naturally arises as to how this technology can be used to help promote the independence of people with disabilities and the elderly.

Coming to fulfilling the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities, intelligent voice assistants or assistive robots score higher than human caregivers. Although technology can only underpin and not replace human service, a well-programmed robotic assistant could be more patient and efficient than a human caregiver.

These smart devices allow persons with disabilities and people over 65 that are aging into disabilities to remain more independent and to have a better quality of life.  My daughter Sara Ruh born with Down syndrome now lives in a supported apartment and she uses many smart home devices to stay independent.  My husband Ed, has acquired Early Onset Dementia because of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) he sustained when being hit by a car a child.  We utilize many voice technologies to help him remain as independent as possible.

Ruh Family
Debra Ruh

Debra Ruh

Chief Executive Officer

Debra Ruh is the CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT.  The UN President’s office invited Debra to address the United Nations General Assembly at the Conference of State Parties 9th session on May 13, 2016.  Selected as the North American representative for UN ILO Global Business and Disability Network (GBDN). US State Department global speaker and ambassador since 2018. Nominated as Global Goodwill Ambassador in 2018.  Author of three books, Inclusion Branding (available in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Voice via Audible), Tapping into Hidden Human Capital, and Finding Your Voice using Social Media.  Learn more at www.RuhGlobal.com or https://tiny.cc/DebraRuh

She is a global influencer, with over 300,000 followers on social media. Co-founder of award winning #AXSChat one of largest tweet chats in the world with over 8 billion tweets. Named in the “Top 5% of Social Media Influencers” and “Top 0.1% of people talking about Disability Inclusion and Accessibility” by KLOUT, #15 in Digital Scouts, and Top 100 Global Digital Influencers in Sept 2018.  Debra has been featured on CBS, ABC, NBC, Washington Post, INC, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Huffington Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, and more.

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