Accessibility helps everyone, not just people with disabilities. That’s why it’s important for our physical and digital worlds to be designed for barrier-free access. One way we can accomplish this is through the development of assistive technologies.

An assistive technology is a device that enables and promotes inclusion and participation, especially for people with disabilities and aging populations. Wheelchairs and hearing aids are familiar examples. But you’ll also find some assistive technologies that are starting to be used by everyone. Just look at how ubiquitous virtual assistants have become.

In 2017, researcher Mary Meeker determined that Google’s voice recognition software was able to understand human language with 95 percent accuracy. The rapid pace of improvements in machine learning algorithms combined with large collections of speech samples has resulted in virtual assistants that can easily interpret (and accurately respond to) whatever we say.

You can already find virtual assistants in most smartphones, computers, TVs, and automobiles, with more integrations being added almost every day. But Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri aren’t just made for answering trivia questions and playing music. They’re also powerful accessibility tools.

How Virtual Assistants Help People with Mobility Impairments

Virtual assistants are making a tremendous difference in the lives of people with mobility impairments. Due to their high level of accuracy when interpreting speech, they can take excellent notes. This makes daily living activities like making grocery lists, writing emails and sending text messages possible through dictation.

And the best part? Anyone with a temporary hand injury benefits just as much from this technology as a person with Multiple Sclerosis.

Virtual assistants are also helpful when they’re connected to other devices in a home. They can turn lights off and on without requiring anyone to move from where they’re seated. They can also provide a valuable lifeline for anyone who gets injured while at home. In addition to being used to call for help, they can unlock doors so emergency services can enter.

Virtual assistants bring the world to people with mobility impairments. Almost anything can be ordered online, but this can be extremely difficult to accomplish for someone who isn’t able to use their hands. Virtual assistants make it possible to shop for clothes, food and other items without leaving home or even needing to reach for a keyboard.

How Virtual Assistants Help People with Cognitive Impairments

There are a number of conditions that can cause someone to have memory problems, such as a stroke or dementia. Virtual assistants are all built to look for patterns in behavior, which makes them a perfect solution for providing timely reminders. For example, they can announce scheduled appointments and even recommend using Uber or another previously-used ride-sharing service for transportation.

People with cognitive impairments may also benefit from simple instructions. It’s easy to ask questions like “How do I vote?” or “What do I need to get a driver’s license?” that return a step-by-step response. The same search on the web can sometimes yield too many results that result in confusion, instead of the most relevant information that’s provided by a virtual assistant.

Following a traditional map can be difficult for people with cognitive impairments as well. Virtual assistants can provide turn-by-turn directions and quickly reroute if a mistake is made. Without this type of help, many of us, not just people with disabilities, would have a difficult time navigating new and unfamiliar places.

How UserWay Helps Make the Web More Accessible

People with disabilities need the option to navigate websites with just a keyboard, hear content while using a screen reader, and be able to use assistive technologies to complete online forms and make purchases. Most websites either do not offer this type of functionality, or don’t do it well.

UserWay offers a suite of digital accessibility services that help organizations meet the needs of their audiences. Our most popular tool, an AI-Powered Accessibility Widget, can be installed on any website and immediately begins remediating code to make it more accessible according to ADA and WCAG standards.

The AI writes any descriptions that are missing from photos as well as any missing alt-text that’s needed for buttons. The AI also ensures that all users can navigate a website with just a keyboard, which is necessary for any visitors who use a screen reader.

The UserWay widget also provides all website visitors with customization options, including increasing the font size, pausing animations, and switching to a dyslexia-friendly font. And a new virtual assistant feature is going to be released soon, which will allow all visitors to navigate a website with only voice commands.

What’s Next for Assistive Technologies

Everyone will use assistive technologies in the not-too-distant future. We can already see this transition happening as cars move from assisted cruise-control to fully-autonomous driving. It’s also happening on a smaller scale with devices like hearing aids.

While only about 16% of people who need hearing aids have them, an entire generation has embraced bluetooth earbuds like the Airpods developed by Apple. Even though most people use their Airpods to listen to music, these devices already contain some hearing-enhancement features that rival the best hearing aids on the market. As you can see (and hear), the assistive technology revolution is already upon us, and everyone’s lives will be better because of it.