To Stutters, Alexa May be Just What We Don’t Need

To Stutters, Alexa May be Just What We Don’t Need

Maegan Fitzpatrick, Writer

I have stuttered since I was very young – as long as I can remember. So I have gotten acutely used to the awkward silences, sideways glances and impatient interruptions, all while navigating this world so foreign to me and yet so normal to everyone else – the world of being able to speak openly when I have something to say. A world that everyone takes for granted. Thanks to great ol’ James Madison, we’re able to live with “free speech.” For me, I might as well live in a scary and terrifying dictatorship with extreme laws against speaking up. As writer and artist Rachel G. Goss notes “Every time I open my mouth, an internal war. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.” 

About 70 million people worldwide stutter, about twice as many people that are visually impaired. People with speech disabilities are just like everyone else – they speak the same language and use the same grammar. But our speech musculature – such as our tongues and jaws – results in slurred vowels and long pauses before consonants, producing all different types of stutters.

My family and I first got our Alexa when we ordered something through Amazon and I guess they were just sick of having so many in the store, so they kinda just gave us one. I was SO excited cause I’d seen all the ads and I thought, “Hey! Now I can be as cool as people in the ads!” Turns out I couldn’t be because I couldn’t even talk to it. I have tried and tried until my lungs are exasperated but I couldn’t get out her name, not to mention the song I wanted to play. Many stutterers understand this problem such as Frank Rudzicz, professor at the University of Toronto, who studies speech and machine learning, he notes that “it can be challenging to use machine-learning techniques to develop inclusive voice-enabled technology” as there so many different speech disabilities that require massive amounts of data to adjust and maintain. Alexa is often called a miracle for people suffering from limited mobility and vision and is hailed as increasingly accessible, convenient, and basically fun. But for many people, this helpful friend can quickly become your most embarrassing enemy.

The number of Americans over the age of 65 will increase by 28 million people by 2035, meaning that the number of strokes and conditions that will affect their speech will increase. Experts predict that by this year nearly ¾ of all US households will own a voice assistant, ½ of our searches on the Internet will be done by voice, as well as Tesla leading an automobile instruction voice revolution. Fitzenrider, a data specialist with the Seattle Police Department, adds, “‘It’s kind of like in Star Wars when Han Solo says, ‘Chewie, I don’t think they had wookies in mind when they made her.’” It is clear that when designers were sitting around a conference table with their pressed suits and lobster mac n cheese, the last thing they were worried about was how stutterers would manage in this voice-dependent technology. 

Andy Theyers, who has struggled with stuttering and written about his challenges with using Alexa, explains that hard vowels, such as the first letter of his name, are difficult for the majority of stutterers. These sounds, created at the back of the throat without much tongue or lip movement, are used in the words “Alexa, Siri, Google, Cortana, OK Google, and TV”. Yes. How helpful. Meaning that for most stutterers, we can rarely even turn on the machine.

One major issue we face that increases the chances of stuttering is over-rehearsal. If we have to memorize or practice lines that cannot be changed, our minds will begin to wander, worry, and as you can imagine with such a specific sentence like, “Alexa, play Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen from my Amazon Library,” there is no improvising, no relaxation, and no “winging it.”

The other issue Andy faces with his office Alexa is often due to social anxiety or, more specifically, “being the focus of an activity… or from disturbing the normal flow of activity around them.” In order to demand action from Alexa, he has to shout “Alexa,” and the silence would be broken, his colleague’s ears turned on and waiting anxiously and silently for his demand.

Marc Winski, an actor who struggles with stuttering, experienced this same feeling of defeat when installing Siri on his phone, “As soon as you pause or stop over a word, [Siri] stops listening.” For example, if I said, “D… D… ” the machine would think that I am saying “the” over and over again because repeating “D” has no meaning. Once it realizes that there is no command for “the… the…” it shuts off. This misunderstanding is due to the programming of the device designed to find phonemes or sounds that, when combined, make words. These sounds help the device tell the difference between “tan” and “pan.” The “T” and “P” are phonemes, and the voice assistant’s job is to collect the phonemes and understand the instructions. However, voice assistants do not understand the rapid repetitions of phonemes. So when we try to ask Alexa something and even just begin to stutter, Alexa will make up words, realize its complete foolishness and hang up. Fraser adds, “When you try to tell it what you want, you get the same experience on the phone with a machine or another person – both hang up.” 

But I have always wondered, is it really that hard for Alexa to ask people when they first open the package whether they have a speech disability? And adjust the needs of the owner in its settings, such as patience or feedback?

The difficulty continues, however, in finding a computer that is adept in all areas of stuttering. There are good and bad days, as well as blocking, prolongation, and repetition. The world will continue to evolve, and I am by no means saying that it is essential to include stutterers in everything because it is difficult. And we are different. And there will be things we cannot physically do. But as far as today goes, if you can just wait a few more seconds before hanging up, that’d be appreciated. Someone once said, “People who stutter have the unique opportunity to teach the world to listen.” And in this world full of hands-free driving and talking computers, shouldn’t that include technology?


Corcoran, Moira. “People With Speech Disabilities Are Being Left Out of the Voice-Assistant Revolution.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 16 Oct. 2018,  slate.com/technology/2018/10/voice-assistants-alexa-siri-speech-disabilities-recognition.html. 

Goss, Rachel G. “Stuttering in the Age of Alexa.” Medium, The Startup, 18 May 2019, medium.com/swlh/stuttering-in-the-age-of-alexa-b2d32661c36d.

Theyers, Andy. “Stuttering towards Accessibility: Isotoma: Our Blog.” Isotoma, 10 Oct. 2016, isotoma.com/blog/2016/10/10/stuttering-towards-accessibility/.

Wheeler, Kevin. “For People Who Stutter, the Convenience of Voice Assistant Technology Remains out of Reach.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 6 Jan. 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/01/06/voice-assistants-remain-out-reach-people-who-stutter/2749115001/.

——————.  “Why Voice Assistants Don’t Understand People Who Stutter.” Curbed, Curbed, 12 Dec. 2018, www.curbed.com/2018/12/12/18135195/alexa-google-home-tech-stuttering.

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