Will Amazon Echo, Google Home Be The Disability-Friendly Holiday Gifts Of 2016?

The world of people living with disabilities and technology are crossing paths more often in the past five years, and inventions like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple’s automated home models are all being touted as important tools for people with certain types of disabilities.

While there were some much-needed upgrades in the second generation of Amazon Echo, there are other reasons that people with disabilities consider this to be the perfect gift because it is their “lifeline.” However, time will tell if Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s version of these devices take the 2016 holiday shopping season by storm.

Amazon Echo is touted as a disability friendly gift because it creates entertainment options and is a headquarters for a smart home cloud, but also because the device is accessible by voice. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

For now, there is only the Amazon Echo on the market and it is in the second generation after being released in 2014. According to IT Pro, Google Home will not be released until “later” in 2016 and 9 to 5 Mac claims Apple is still developing their version of Amazon Echo that uses Siri instead of Alexa.

Unfortunately, there may not be a lot of product reviews when Apple or Google release their versions of Amazon Echo if they do indeed release them for the 2016 holiday shopping season. Outside of Brett Approved (which covers travel), there are few websites that attempt to rate the world based on the experiences of people with disabilities.

Some exceptions are reviews about assistive technology by the National Federation for the Blind that included the Amazon Echo in their 2015 holiday gift guide. The Perkins Institute for the Blind also gives Amazon Echo their seal of approval as a “smart home hub” and says it is a valuable device for the blind or those with low-vision because it is voice-controlled.

Forbes published a personal review on April 7 that talked about how technology like Amazon Echo will change the lives of people with disabilities such as Down Syndrome.

All of these reviews are likely welcome by Amazon Echo because the company was placing a focus on becoming “assistive technology” when it was in production around 2014, according to Ability Tools.

When the second generation of Amazon’s Echo was released around April 2015, it was upgraded to have more assistive technology features including a cloud that would allow for other smart home appliances to be operated through the unit, according to CBS.

Regardless, will products like the Amazon Echo ever focus on being a specific product for those only seeking assistive technology? For example, this was questioned on Quora in 2015. One of the responses included that it was highly unlikely that technology would ever be specifically focused on assisting with people with disabilities for items like the Amazon Echo.

On the other hand, there may be a likelihood that people with disabilities will be addressed by items like the Amazon Echo because using technology by people without disabilities often means they are “situationally disabled.”

For example, hands-free technology is important for situationally disabled drivers that need to answer their mobile phone, and the side effect is that this works out for people that have disabilities that include trouble using their hands.

The idea of what situationally disabled means to technology was also recently revisited when Facebook’s “first blind engineer,” Matt King, did an interview with Mashable in April.

Along these lines, companies like IBM are adamant about accessibility and RCR Wireless recently quoted them stating that by finding solutions for people with disabilities, they are addressing the situationally disabled and the future itself. To clarify, they stated the following.

“Making technology more accessible for a few makes it easier and more practical for everyone. In an economy increasingly reliant on brain power rather than brawn, being able to harness the potential of workers regardless of their physical impediments is a situation both empowering for those employees and good for the company’s bottom line.”

As far as other reviews about Amazon Echo are concerned and whether it is a good gift for someone with disabilities, Cherubino Health Center‘s Dr. Ron Cherubino adds his opinion as a doctor that treats people with vision disabilities as well as those that use wheelchairs.

One of the main benefits the doctor highlighted dealt with safety issues such as controlling the HVAC from the Amazon Echo and also the door locks. Very Smart Gadget also outlines the benefits for people with disabilities that are looking for a “personal assistant” device.

The Assistive Technology Blog gives a similar review of the same features but points out that the Amazon Echo is great for weather-related information that can cause safety issues for people with sight disabilities.

On the other hand, there are still opponents out there of some of the smart home technology and whether or not it is actually consistently reliable enough to help someone with disabilities such as quadriplegia.

For example, one user of the Smart Things Community webpage stated a warning in reference to Amazon Echo in June 2015 that implied the smart home systems set up by the U.S. Military Veterans Affairs department (VA) had a few bugs that still needed to be worked out.

Of course, unlike the past, according to David Kamerer‘s blog, Amazon Echo now has a lengthy section for skeptical users to read through hundreds of customer reviews.

One other disability-friendly option associated with the Amazon Echo is a five-month payment plan for the $179 cost that addresses those on a limited income. Amazon Echo also makes it easy for people with unique disabilities to post questions on the product page.

While Amazon Echo may continue to develop their product in the future to help people with disabilities concerning a smart home, the competition, Google Home, may eventually make their product also focus on assisting people with disabilities outside of the home.

Google's self-driving car is considered a top priority for people with disabilities
In addition to smart home technology, many people with disabilities consider the Google self-driving cars to be an important tool to making the world more accessible. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

For example, according to Computer World‘s report from a Google conference that took place around May 16, Google wants to further their focus on assistive technology with artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and automated transportation.

For many people with disabilities, this is a reminder that Google’s self-driving cars are just around the corner and some feel AI assistive technology will be a source of liberation for many people with disabilities. In addition, Google has started the Impact Challenge with a page about disabilities and technology.

[Picture by Mark Lennihan/AP]