More and more people are using assistive technology (AT) these days. And recently, I’ve started hearing questions like: What’s next? What does the future of AT look like? Based on what I’ve seen so far from home assistant devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, I think they could be the next big thing in AT.
Home assistant devices (also called smart speakers) are voice-activated and hands-free. You can ask them questions or give them commands. The devices can handle many tasks on their own. Certain tasks require app-like tools, called skills on the Echo and actions on the Home.
They’re designed to make everyday tasks easier (like playing music and controlling the lights), and they can be a big help for people with learning and thinking differences.
I recently set up two home assistants in my office: an Amazon Echo and a Google Home. I asked Alexa and Google Assistant (the devices’ computerized voices) to do different things to help me with reading, writing, math and tasks that involved .
I quickly discovered a number of ways home assistants can be used as AT.
1. They can help with spelling.
When kids are writing, they can ask a home assistant how to spell a word they have trouble with. If it’s a word that has more than one spelling (like beat vs. beet), it’s a little trickier, but kids can clarify which spelling they want. For example, to find out the spelling of the vegetable beet, they can say, “Alexa, how do you spell beet root?”
2. They can give definitions and synonyms.
Kids with reading issues can also ask home assistants for the meaning of words they don’t recognize. For instance, they could say, “OK Google, what does dyslexia mean?” Kids can ask for synonyms if they want to change particular words in their writing. They could ask, “OK Google, what’s another word for happy?”
3. They can help sound out words.
Kids who struggle with can ask how to pronounce a word by spelling it out. With Google Home, they can say, “OK Google, how do you pronounce p-h-o-n-e?” With Amazon Echo, they can use a skill called Pronunciations and say, “Alexa, ask Pronunciations how to say r-o-u-g-h.”
4. They can read books aloud.
For hands-free listening to books, Amazon Echo has two options. If you have an Audible account, your child can listen to a particular audiobook just by saying, “Alexa, read Alice in Wonderland.” Alexa can also read aloud Kindle books that are text-to-speech compatible. Kids just have to say something like, “Alexa, read Fish in a Tree in Kindle Books.”
(Unfortunately, Google Home can’t read books aloud, but I expect that function will be added soon.)
5. They can help with math.
Home assistant devices can be a big help to students with math issues. Kids can ask for basic calculations by saying, “Alexa, what is the square root of 25?” or “OK Google, what is 32 percent of 500 dollars?” If kids need help with unit conversions, they can say something like, “OK Google, how many degrees Fahrenheit is 25 degrees Celsius?”
If kids forget math formulas, they can get a reminder by saying, “Alexa, how do you find the area of a circle?” Kids can even practice math by using an interactive tool called 1-2-3 Math. It asks various math problems in a quiz format. It’s available as an Echo skill and as a Home action.
6. They can set timers and alarms.
Kids who have trouble staying on task for a certain amount of time can say, “Alexa, set a timer for three minutes.” Kids who have difficulty getting started on homework can say, “OK Google, set an alarm for 4:30pm called start homework.” With the Echo, they can say, “Alexa, remind me to start my homework at 4:30pm.”
7. They can create to-do lists.
Kids who have trouble keeping track of school assignments and chores can use a home assistant to create a to-do list. With Echo, kids can add tasks to their list with a command like, “Alexa, put practice trumpet on my to-do list.” To access the list, they can say, “Alexa, what’s on my to-do list?”
With Google Home, kids can use a third-party action like Todoist to create and keep track of a to-do list.
8. They can manage calendar events.
Keeping track of due dates and events can be tricky for kids with . Home assistants let kids manage calendars by voice. They can add events with the command, “Alexa, add calendar event.” To hear what’s coming up, kids can simply say, “OK Google, what’s on my calendar for Sunday?”
We’re just starting to see the potential of home assistants. It’s hard to predict the future. But I have a strong feeling that these devices will soon be added to the AT tool belts of many people with learning and thinking differences.
Keep in mind that if you do want to try a home assistant, you’ll need a mobile device like a smartphone to set it up.
Watch a webinar demonstration of home assistant devices. And if you don’t know where to start, read the author’s suggestion for the first assistive technology to try with your child.
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About the author
Jamie Martin is an assistive technology specialist at the New England Assistive Technology Center (NEAT) in Hartford, Connecticut.