Apple, Google Among Tech Giants Committing To Improve Accessibility

Several big tech companies are supporting a University of Illinois Urbana Champaign project focused on improving the ability of voice assistants like Siri to respond to people with disabilities. (Omid Armin/Unsplash)

Some of the biggest names in technology are part of a renewed effort to expand the accessibility of smartphones and other devices for people with disabilities.

Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with a handful of nonprofits, support the Speech Accessibility Project, a research initiative at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that aims to make speech recognition technology more useful for people with a variety of disabilities.

Currently, voice assistants like Siri and Alexa, as well as translation tools, don’t always understand people with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other conditions that can affect language behavior. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the new effort seeks to eliminate this disparity.

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The Speech Accessibility Project will collect speech samples from people with a range of speech patterns, which will then be used to train machine learning models.

All technology companies that have pledged their support to the Speech Accessibility Project have pledged to use the data collected as part of the initiative to improve their speech recognition services, according to the project’s backers.

“The ability to communicate and operate devices with voice is critical for anyone involved in technology or the digital economy today,” said Mark Hasegawa-Johnson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who is leading the project. “Voice interfaces should be available to everyone, including people with disabilities.”

This isn’t the first time a big tech company has tried to improve speech recognition for people with disabilities. Last year, Google asked people with disabilities for help testing an app designed to better decode speech patterns of people with disabilities. And the company worked with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society in 2019 to collect speech samples from adults with Down syndrome and program its algorithm to better understand their unique speech patterns.

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