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Google Wants to Make Voice Assistants More Accessible for People With Down Syndrome

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It’s becoming more and more common to ask a voice assistant, like Siri or Alexa, to give you a hand with common tasks like turning on the lights or sharing the weather forecast before heading out for the day. For people with Down syndrome, however, voice assistants don’t always understand. Google wants to fix this and they need the voices of those in the Down syndrome community to help.

In November, Google announced a partnership with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society called Project Understood to start teaching Google assistant how to better understand people with Down syndrome. Currently, voice assistants can’t understand about every third word spoken by people with Down syndrome because it was designed to recognize typical speech patterns. The fix is to teach automatic speech recognition (ASR) through voice samples from many people with Down syndrome.

For many people with disabilities, voice assistant technology is more than a ubiquitous convenience — it can be a key tool for living independently. Voice assistant technology makes it easier to set up schedules and reminders, have more control over the home environment and lets people to connect with others easier. Plus, it can help young people learn language and communication skills.

“Smart homes can empower people with disabilities to live more independently, giving us control over our environment and freedom to make choices able-bodied people may take for granted,” wrote The Mighty’s disability editor Karin Willison. “As smart home technology becomes more widespread and affordable to those who need it most, our world will continue to become a more accessible place.”

Google’s Project Understood is now collecting the voices of hundreds of people with Down syndrome, with the goal of recording at least 500 voices to train its voice assistant. According to its website, so far the project has collected 300. Volunteers with Down syndrome can donate their voice by applying online. If you are eligible, you’ll be given 1,700 simple phrases to record for Google’s database like “Strawberry jam is sweet” or “I owe you a yo-yo today.”

“For most people, voice technology simply makes life a little easier,” Laura LaChance, interim executive director of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, told AdWeek. She added:

For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives.

Project Understood is an offshoot of Google’s Project Euphonia, a similar effort to make voice assistants more useful to people with disabilities. Project Euphonia collects donated voices from people with trouble pronouncing words due to neurologic conditions like stroke, cerebral palsy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

You can learn more about donating your voice to Project Understood here or Project Euphonia here.

Originally published: December 5, 2019
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