Open Letter to Microsoft – Voice and Touch Control jeopardises accessibility of Smart Phones

I’m Aideen and I’ve recently launched my own business.  The business takes me all over the place and I decided I needed a phone that could keep up with me, as well as keeping me up to date with my business. In my mind, there was only one choice – Nokia Lumia 710 with Windows Phone 7.5.

I received my phone 3 weeks ago and boy, was I excited!  The phone isn’t just a phone – it’s a mini computer.  I love the tiles and being able to ‘pin’ what’s important to me – my email, calendar, twitter feed all keeps me in touch with business, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing.  The tiles are brilliantly accessible and interactive so I can see at a glance what’s new.  The phone is absolutely brilliant and given a choice, I wouldn’t choose anything else.

However I do have one important issue to raise.  I have cerebral palsy and subsequently, I also have a speech impairment.  As you know, the phone has voice recognition built in so that you can speak rather than type messages, emails, searches etc.  This would be a brilliant feature for me, as my condition results in a lack of co-ordination which means typing messages can be quite slow.  That’s also why having OneNote on my phone is so good – I can record messages for myself and play them back later.  And of course, it syncs to my OneNote on my PC – awesome!

I recently decided to try out the voice activation function to create a text message and I can’t tell you the laughs I had trying to make myself understood!   A simply word such as “open” was interpreted as “Are you going?”, “Are you playing?”, “I’m home”, as well numerous “Didn’t catch that……”.  I sat with the phone for a good quarter of an hour trying to get it to recognise me saying that one word! After many bursts of laughter at the phone’s suggestions, I decided to quit for the time being.  There’s only so many times you can repeat yourself before someone overhears and wonders what is going on!

In recent years, technology has come a long way and accessibility for disabled people has become much more of a priority.  Although my little experiment provided me with some great entertainment, it also raised quite a serious problem.  By moving more towards voice and touch control,  businesses once again risk alienating their disabled customers and missing out on their huge spending power.

I appreciate that my speech impairment is an extreme case but the same must be true for people who have strong accents, stutters or where English is their second language.  Voice and touch control has the potential to make technology even more accessible to millions of people but without refinement, it poses the huge risk of making technology inaccessible to equal numbers.

Please don’t consider this a complaint.  I love my Windows Phone and wouldn’t consider any other.  As an experienced disability consultant, I would be delighted to be involved in any plans you might have to refine the system and the development of further accessibility features.


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