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Alexa For Blind Seniors And Adults Who Are Visually Impaired

Amazon’s Alexa devices are slowly but surely changing the lives of millions of people, including those who are visually impaired or blind.

How can Alexa help blind and visually impaired seniors? – Because Alexa is a voice activated tool – those who are blind or visually impaired can use it for tasks such as texting, phone calls, list making, checking on the calendar, turning devices on an off, calling 911 and much, much more.

Any product that can be initiated by a voice command should be easier for anyone who is visually impaired to use and Alexa fits that very well.

Can Alexa Help The Blind?

The short answer is “YES” – Alexa can definitely help those who are blind or visually impaired – in many ways.

Bill Boules has an audio podcast on the topic of assistive technology (he’s been blind since birth) and he recorded several episodes on the topic of Amazon’s Alexa devices.  The podcast is called The AT Junkie.  These episodes were recorded

“I’m blind, I can’t see the on-screen guide,” says Boules. “But I can [access it] independently now. I no longer have to depend on someone else to help me find something to watch.” – pcmag.com

The fact that these voice activated devices are “hands free” is one reason why they are becoming more and  more popular for anyone with disabilities.  The second main reason that Alexa is so very popular is simply because of the sheer number of skills (things that she can do) for you. 

As of this writing in February 2019 – there are over 100,000 skills that Alexa can perform and the number just keeps growing.

What Can Alexa Do For Visually Impaired Adults?

How?  There are practical ways that Amazon’s Alexa can help those who low vision or are blind and there are also some fun things that it can do as well. 

In other words, it’s much more than just a took or a luxury item -it can become a vital part of your home.

1) How To Use Alexa To Listen To Music

When anyone with an Alexa device wants to listen to music – it’s just a matter of asking her to play either that song, or songs from that artist, or a specific genre, etc.  Because it takes voice commands to get Alexa to do this – individuals who are blind or have low vision don’t have to fumble with screen readers on their PC’s or mess around with other tools to listen to music.  They can just simply GET that music by asking Alexa to play it.  Saves alot of time.

For the entertainment skills that I am mentioning below, you do need to be an Amazon Prime member (a paid membership program).  But note that along with this membership you do get a good amount of free music, video and books.

To listen to music:

  • Simply say “Alexa, play my music.”  You can also ask for specific bands or singers, specific genres of music or radio stations.
  • If you have an account set up with Amazon Music Unlimited (you do pay monthly for this service) then you’ll be able to listen to just about any piece of music created (at least it seems that way!)
  • If you have an Amazon Prime account then you’ll automatically be able to access Prime Music which is the free version of streaming music from Amazon.  You can still get alot of songs (2 million or so) but it’s just not as extensive as the unlimited program.

2) How To Use Alexa To Get Information

Same holds true when it comes to asking for the time of day, the weather outside, today’s news, the phone number to a restaurant, how many miles to a specific location or business, etc.  Most any piece of information can be asked for which makes it much easier for anyone with vision problems to function.

Note: Alexa uses the Bing search engine which is unfortunate because we all know that the majority of information online is on Google.  I personally own both Alexa and Google Home products and I can tell you honestly that when I ask Alexa a question and her response is “Hmm, I don’t know that.”  – I simply go to my Google Home device and ask it the exact same question and I have always gotten an answer and 99% of the time it has been the answer I was searching for.

Hopefully, someday, these two giant companies will form some relationship where Alexa can use the Google search engine!

3) Making Phone Calls With Alexa

Because you can make phone calls through Alexa – a blind person can ask her for the phone number of a particular place (let’s say an restaurant) and then ask her to call that number.  Most any place of business can be contacted this way.  Again, another time saver.

I have information below on how Alexa can be used to call 911, to call people on your contact list and even to call local businesses.

4) Ordering Groceries

Being visually impaired or blind prohibits most people from grocery shopping.  Yes, you could take an Uber or Lyft to the grocery store but being able to see the products that you want to purchase and maneuvering through the store would be a problem.

To the rescue come programs like PeaPod or Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods and there may be more.  In my opinion, as the baby boomer generation grows older and older and younger adults become more comfortable with technology – the online ordering of groceries is going to grow and keep growing.

5) Alarms And Timers For Tasks, Kitchen, Etc.

Two easy, built in features in all Alexa devices are the alarm and the timer.

To use either one simply say something like “Alexa, set potato timer for 40 minutes.” or “Alexa, set an alarm for 6 am tomorrow.”

Then when the time is up Alexa will sound the timer and say “Your potato timer is done”.  She will repeat to you which timer is done and that works out great when you have multiple tasks going on at the same time.

When it’s 6 am, she will sound the alarm to wake you up.

To cancel either of these, simply say “Alexa, cancel”

6) Calendars, Reminders and Lists

Keeping up with your calendar and lists and creating reminders are all excellent Alexa skills that can make life easier and more productive for anyone with visual disabilities.

By integrating your calendar with Alexa, you’ll be able to simply ask her “What’s on my calendar today?” or most any other time.  What a great benefit that is for anyone who is visually impaired.

You can read here on how to use and set up your calendar on Alexa.

Also, there are skills that can give you reminders for anything that you need to be reminded for.

  • when to take medication
  • when to take the casserole out of the oven
  • when to take the garbage out
  • when to take the clothes out of the dryer
  • when to get ready for that lunch date

You can set up any reminder you like simply by saying something like “Alexa, remind me to take my heart medicine at 3 pm every day.”

And then there are the lists!  You can set up a shopping list, a to do list, any type of list you would like.

When you need to add something to your list simply say something like “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list.”  Simply state what you want to add to what list.

7) Texting And Reading Text Messages

Phone and video calls are not the only way to communicate with others via Alexa.  You can also send and receive test messages.

Note:  In order for someone to get your text message that you sent via Alexa onto their phone they must have one of these operating systems as reported in hellotech.com:

  • iPhone or Apple devices with iOS 10.0 or higher (which came out in 2016)
  • Android phones with OS 5.1 or higher (which came out in 2015)
  • FireOS 5.6.0.1 or higher (Fire tablets only)

And also, that person must be on your list of contacts.

You can get the instructions on how to set up texting and receiving text messages on your Alexa device by clicking here for a great guide on setting up SMS with Alexa.

8) Sending And Reading Email Messages

What about email?  Yes, you can ask Alexa to read your emails to you and you can also respond to them.  Another great benefit for anyone who is visually impaired.

But know that currently, this only works with Microsoft email and Google’s Gmail programs.  Also, you cannot create a new email.

How To Set Up Alexa For Email

  • Open your Alexa app on your phone
  • Tap on the hamburger menu in the top left corner (the 3 short horizontal lines)
  • In the dropdown box tap on “Settings”
  • Scroll down and tap on “Calendar & Email”
  • Once in there you’ll be able to connect your email account with Alexa
  • I would encourage you to select the Email Security option which allows you to set up a 4 digit code so when you ask Alexa to read you your email she will ask you for that code.

How To Use Alexa To Send And Read Email

  • To read your email simply say “Alexa, read my email.” or “Alexa, check my email.”
  • Once she reads the email she will give you an option to reply, archive, delete or skip it.
  • Then she will move on to the next unread piece of email

9) Controlling Home Appliances

Smart home applications are another wonderful Alexa addition that can help those with poor vision.  With voice commands, the user can control the home alarm system, turn the television on and off, change the TV channel, temperature control, lock the doors in the home, etc.

You can use Smart Plugs that can be plugged by your existing devices such as TV, lamps, coffee makers and much, much more.  Once those are set up, you can set up a routine for Alexa to automatically turn on / turn off the device or you can simply say something like “Alexa, turn on the coffee maker.”

There are also a list of appliances and devices that are not Alexa enabled which means that Alexa capabilities are built in

And it seems like more and more come out every few months. 

10) The Show And Tell Feature Using Echo Show

Okay, so in the last several months Amazon added a new skill to their every growing list which I think is quite awesome.  Now, it’s a new skill so it’s not going to work 100% of the time but it does work fairly well at this point.

I’m talking about the Show And Tell feature that you can use with an Amazon Echo Show product (that’s the Alexa product with the screen).

This currently works only for objects / products that have written text on them like a can of soup or a box of instant rice, etc.

There’s nothing to set up – you simply hold a product to the camera and say “Alexa, what am I holding?” or “Alexa, what’s in my hand?”

It may ask you to turn the object or to hold it closer and once it reads what the object is then it will beep a few times and tell you what you are holding.  It’s not 100% as of yet, but I have to say it’s pretty darn close!

Here I am showing you how it works:

11) Call For An Uber Or Lyft With Alexa

This is an excellent skill that Amazon’s Alexa  Echo provides.  For older adults who cannot drive, both Uber and Lyft have been an amazing ride sharing service that can make life so much easier.

How To Use Alexa To Call Uber Or Lyft

  • It’s truly as easy as saying “Alexa, ask Uber (or Lyft) to request a ride.”
  • If it’s the first time you’re doing this – you’ll be asked to state your default pick up address (and then for future requests – Alexa will know what address to provide to the Uber or Lyft driver)
  • This skill automatically sends you an Uber X type of car so if you are looking for the larger car then you would say “Alexa, ask Uber to order an Uber Black.”
  • You can also get updates by saying “Alexa, ask Uber where’s my ride?”
  • To cancel you simply say “Alexa, ask Uber to cancel my ride.”

How To Set Up Alexa To Call Uber Or Lyft

  • Open the Alexa app on your phone
  • Tap on the hamburger menu in the top left corner (the 3 short horizontal lines)
  • In the dropdown box tap on “Skills & Games”
  • Tap on “Categories”
  • Scroll down and tap on Travel & Transportation
  • Choose either Lyft or Uber
  • Click on the Enable button
  • Provide your Uber or Lyft account information

12) Can Alexa Read To Me?

Yes, Alexa can read books to you through Audible.com and Kindle eBooks as well.  Both of these are Amazon owned services.  

To listen to books:

  • Amazon owns and operates the Audible program which is a monthly for pay program of audio books.
  • Amazon also owns and sells Kindle products and the Kindle Unlimited program.  There are free books on the Audible and Kindle program but for the most part you do have to pay to belong to one or both of these to listen to the books in their libraries.  Here’s a link to a good comparison of these two audio book programs.
  • Simply say “Alexa, play (name of book)” or “Alexa, play my book.”  This last command will re-open the last book you were listening to.

13) Can Alexa Call 911?

Yes, you can call 911 with Alexa but you need an external product to do so.

  • To call 911 you need the Echo Connect product. (with Echo Connect you can make phone calls in the USA, Mexico and Canada)

How To Use Alexa To Make Phone Calls With Echo Connect

  • To make a call you simply say “Alexa, call “name of the person you want to call”
  • As long as their name is in your list of contacts – Alexa will make the call

Here’s a video that goes into more detail on the different methods you can use to make a phone call via Alexa.

How To Set Up Echo Connect For Alexa

  • Purchase the Echo Connect device
  • Open the Alexa app on your phone
  • Tap on the Communication icon at the bottom of the screen
  • Follow the instructions to get started on setting up contacts and verifying your phone information
  • Place the Echo Connect device in a place where it’s close to a phone jack, your Wi-Fi router and a power outlet
  • Plug the Echo Connect into the power outlet
  • Connect the Echo Connect to the phone jack (or your Wi-Fi router if you’re using a digital phone service)
  • Complete setting up the device in the Alexa App on your phone
  • Tap on the hamburger menu in the top left corner (the 3 short horizontal lines)
  • Tap on Add Device or Alexa Devices
  • Then follow the instructions to add the Echo Connect device

14) Can Alexa Make Phone Calls?

In addition to being able to call 911, you can also use Alexa to make phone calls.  Being able to use your voice to initiate or to accept a phone call is of great benefit to anyone who is visually impaired or blind.

The Alexa product can make phone calls three ways.

  1. You can use the Echo Connect product that I mentioned above.
  2. You can sign up for and install the Mastermind Skill for Alexa (can also send text messages)
  3. To simply make phone calls to your contact list you can set that up in the Alexa app on your phone by clicking on the Communication icon at the bottom of the screen. 

Once you’ve set up your list of contacts to be connected to your Alexa device, then all you need to do is say “Alexa, call (name of person or business).”  As long as it’s in your contact list it will go ahead and make the call.

Now, you can also make calls to businesses like a restaurant or grocery store or even an attorney’s office.  You just need to know the name of that business.  To make these types of calls to businesses that are NOT in your list of contacts…

  • Simply ask “Alexa, what’s the number for (name of business)?” Alexa will then tell you the phone number for that business and then ask if you want her to call it.
  • You can then just answer “Yes.” and you will be on the phone with them.

Conclusion

All in all – there are multiple skills that can make life easier and safer for older adults who have low vision or are completely blind.

For many people with visual impairments, including seniors who may not desire to acquire a lot of computer skills, devices such as the Amazon Echo can simplify tasks such as reading books, playing games, and listening to music. Home automation is most certainly the wave of the not-too-distant future, and talking to your home appliances will appeal to many people. – afb.org

We hope you found this information useful for you and/or your senior loved ones.

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