Stuttering in the Age of Alexa
Amazon has an accessibility problem that quietly affects 70 million people worldwide.
I’ve talked to Siri for a decade, made occasional eye contact with Cortana, flirted with Google, and begrudgingly started a ménage à trois with my ex-boyfriend’s round plastic lady friend, Alexa.
As a woman, I have difficulty using voice assistants. There’s something unmistakably old-fashioned about the choice of a female voice. That’s why as soon as I discovered you could change Siri, I made him an Australian man — a virtual Crocodile Dundee ready to make planning for tomorrow’s weather into a kind of adventure, rather than ignite my feelings about gender norms.
As a stutterer, I have physical difficulty using virtual assistants. My vocal cords tighten, my tongue becomes paralyzed, and my consonants absorb into my throat as if they never were spoken, making me choke on “f”s, “p”s, and “b”s. I hate these letters. In these moments, I hate myself.
Because I don’t speak in the standard cadence virtual assistants like Alexa have been taught to recognize, I know this will happen every time, giving me pangs of anxiety even before I open my mouth.
Me: Alexa, set timer for f-f-f-f…
Alexa: Timer for how long?
Me: …f-f-f-f-fifteen minutes
Alexa: Timer for how long?
Alexa: [cancellation noise]
I know Alexa isn’t trying to be a bully. It’s a piece of plastic manufactured by Amazon, designed to help me. But in its current state, Alexa and similar voice assistants serve as daily reminders of how the world treats those who stutter differently.
An estimated 70 million people around the world are affected by stuttering. Among us, vocal patterns and blocks are inconsistent and unique to each stutterer, so the challenge to make virtual assistants accessible is a difficult one.
The simple act of asking Alexa to set a timer transports me to the moments I’ve been demoralized by my disfluency—when I’ve been mocked because I couldn’t say my name without stuttering R-r-r-r-achel, when the person on the other end of the phone hangs up on me mid-stutter, or when I pull up to see the annoyed face of the person waiting at the end of the drive-through window.
A naturally chatty person who feels connected to others through conversation, I was silenced by my speech disorder for many years. The physical disconnect between my body and my mind left me feeling isolated, eventually leading me into depression.
Over the years, I’ve had multiple speech therapists give me techniques and exercises to combat my vocal blocks. These have ranged from the mundane to the peculiar: easing into speech, blending words together for a sing-song effect, pulling an invisible string from my head to “control” my tongue, deliberately stuttering on certain words, reading a page of “s” words aloud each day as I sat in traffic, and even calling local stores to ask their hours. The most effective strategy has simply been an acceptance of my disability.
I’ve come a long way. In nine years, I’ve gone from having to write words down on paper as a means of communication to now, finally being able to articulate my thoughts verbally on a daily basis. Today, I speak to clients as part of my job.
But the reality is that even with treatment—and even on days with near-perfect fluency—I will always be a stutterer. For me, this means that every day is a battle. Every time I open my mouth, an internal war. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.
Home has been the only place where I haven’t felt judged for my stutter. My friends and family never interrupt me, even as they patiently wait for me to finish a story or get to the punchline of a joke. This is the case for most of us who stutter. As voice-controlled devices like Alexa become members of our households, I think about how the safety of this space has irrevocably changed for me.
With the recent release of Echo Dot Kids Edition — which boasts a version of Alexa to encourage both learning as well as manners — I think to how this technological failure affects children who stutter. As a solution, Amazon’s support documentation merely suggests, “Speak naturally and clearly to Alexa.”
I’ve found a hack for Siri — holding down the home button as I speak to avoid interruption. But for Alexa, I’ll continually be waiting for her to listen. Because what I say is worth repeating.
I shared my story for National Stuttering Awareness Week, May 13–19