While visiting Seattle a few weeks ago, we stayed with a relative who was born without sight. Shannon can see color but cannot recognize people or objects. Yet from the time at age 7 when she learned to ride a bicycle, Shannon has embraced her life and learned how to navigate easily without sight. She’s built a career in marketing and technology companies in Portland and Puget Sound, living on her own and relying on public transit. Her blindness is part of who she is, not a disability.
Shannon embraces new technology at every opportunity, with more than a gadget-geek’s interest in the latest product developments. It was at her home that I learned about Echo, an Amazon “personal assistant” product that the company attempts to humanize with the name Alexa. My introduction to Alexa literally seemed to come out of nowhere.
“I didn’t understand your question,” Alexa intoned from the kitchen as we conversed in the living room of Shannon’s home. “Alexa, be quiet,” Shannon replied to the distant voice.
Alexa, living within a tabletop black column that’s plugged into the wall, is a great friend to have. Think of her as a voice-activated big sister to Apple’s voice-activated Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana: she can find music to fit your mood, launch a timer during meal preparation, order take-out pizza or call for an Uber driver. The features can be mere novelties in our technology saturated lives — indeed, another Seattle friend asked her Alexa to tell a joke or two just for fun — but they’re more than a little helpful to a person who relies on other senses to fill a void left by a lack of sight.
Echo is hardly a life-changing technology, the way that the personal computer, the Internet, and mobile phones have opened endless possibilities for people who are blind. But it’s a valuable convenience.