RNIB teaches Alexa to give sight loss information

Post date: 
Friday, 24 January 2020
Dolly with Amazon Echo Dot

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has worked with Amazon to provide information about living with sight loss through its voice assistant, Alexa.

Alexa users will now instantly be able to hear RNIB-verified information using voice commands such as:

  • “Alexa, how do I register as sight impaired or severely sight impaired?”

  • “Alexa, what assistive technology do blind people use?”

  • “Alexa, what should I do if I think I'm losing my sight?”

The collaboration will enable Alexa to provide information directly from the charity’s Sight Loss Advice Service. It is hoped the tool will help improve the accessibility of online information for more than two million people across the UK who are living with sight loss, after RNIB research showed that vision impairment remains a major barrier to accessing the internet.

According to the charity, more than half of blind and partially sighted people (54 per cent) claim their sight loss is a barrier to using the internet, and nearly two thirds (61 per cent) report feeling unable to make the most of new technology, with many citing accessibility issues1

Dolly McLoughlin, aged 71, is a retired administrative assistant from Harrow. She started to lose her sight in her forties due to retinitis pigmentosa, which is a genetic disorder that causes gradual loss of vision. She finds it difficult to keep up to date with developments in technology and says researching on the internet is particularly challenging for her. She said: “While I was working, there was always someone there that could help, like the IT department, but since retiring it’s been difficult to keep up with how quickly technology changes. I can use emails and documents, but I find navigating the internet with a screen reader very difficult indeed. Websites are all designed differently, which makes it hard to find what I am looking for. I’m no good at looking up specific information or ordering things. I have to get someone to help me.

“Alexa is different. I can just ask her questions and she will tell me the answer. Listening to music, the radio and my audio books through Alexa is wonderful, but getting direct information – like a short biography of an author, or the synopsis of a play I’m interested in – is priceless. It’s fantastic that organisations like RNIB are starting to use it in this way and I hope more companies will follow.” 

David Clarke, Director of Services at RNIB, said: “Voice assistant technology is playing an ever-increasing role in transforming the lives of blind and partially sighted people. Members of our Connect Community tell us they often use voice assistants, like Alexa, to stay up-to-date with the latest news and information – and many say they find it easier to use than screen-based tech, like smart phones, tablets or computers. 

“Voice assistants can enable independence, helping to break down accessibility barriers to a more inclusive society. By using this technology to increase the reach of our own resources, we are ensuring that people can immediately get essential information about sight conditions, their rights, and the support available, simply by asking out loud.”

As well as sight loss information, RNIB also offers practical tips and advice on how to protect eyesight and how to support someone who is blind or partially sighted via Alexa.

“We love hearing feedback from customers about how they use Alexa throughout their day – whether that’s listening to music, setting alarms and timers, or making an announcement at home that dinner is ready,” said Dennis Stansbury, Alexa UK Country Manager. “We are delighted that customers can now access information from the RNIB website using voice technology.”

The new support offered by Alexa is the latest in RNIB’s digital offering, adding to its wider Sight Loss Advice Service which provides practical advice and emotional support over the phone and online, as well as face to face in eye clinics. To find out more about RNIB’s Sight Loss Advice Service, visit rnib.org.uk/advice, call 0303 123 9999 or ask Alexa: “What is RNIB’s Sight Loss Advice Service?” 

1. RNIB My Voice (2015) https://www.rnib.org.uk/myvoice

ENDS

Notes to editors

All media enquiries to RNIB’s PR team on [email protected] or 020 7391 2223. For urgent enquiries out-of-hours, please call 07968 482812. 

Additional case study

Madleen Mann, aged 38, lives in Gravesend, Kent, with her partner and three daughters aged from seven to 14. She’s totally blind and uses Echo devices throughout her home and the Alexa app on her phone to help her run her household. She said: “Going online can become a big challenge if your sight isn’t what it used to be. I’ve got four of the Amazon Echos in my house and I use them to be informed about news and find out information, as well as helping with simple everyday tasks like reminders and alarms. Owning these devices has helped me to lead a more independent life. I don’t feel disabled – I feel enabled and empowered.

“Anything I ask, Alexa usually always has the answer. I think it’s really important for people to have access to all the information to do with sight loss from the comfort of their own smart speaker in their home, so it’s great that RNIB has worked with Amazon to make this information available.”

Video footage of Madleen talking about how Alexa helps her is here. Further footage is available on request. 

About RNIB

We are the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

Every six minutes, someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. RNIB is taking a stand against exclusion, inequality and isolation to create a world without barriers where people with sight loss can lead full lives. A different world where society values blind and partially sighted people not for the disabilities they’ve overcome, but for the people they are.

RNIB. See differently.

Call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk