Speech and Language Practitioners' Experiences of Commercially Available Voice-Assisted Technology: Web-Based Survey Study

JMIR Rehabil Assist Technol. 2022 Jan 5;9(1):e29249. doi: 10.2196/29249.


Background: Speech and language therapy involves the identification, assessment, and treatment of children and adults who have difficulties with communication, eating, drinking, and swallowing. Globally, pressing needs outstrip the availability of qualified practitioners who, of necessity, focus on individuals with advanced needs. The potential of voice-assisted technology (VAT) to assist people with speech impairments is an emerging area of research but empirical work exploring its professional adoption is limited.

Objective: This study aims to explore the professional experiences of speech and language therapists (SaLTs) using VAT with their clients to identify the potential applications and barriers to VAT adoption and thereby inform future directions of research.

Methods: A 23-question survey was distributed to the SaLTs from the United Kingdom using a web-based platform, eliciting both checkbox and free-text responses, to questions on perceptions and any use experiences of VAT. Data were analyzed descriptively with content analysis of free text, providing context to their specific experiences of using VAT in practice, including barriers and opportunities for future use.

Results: A total of 230 UK-based professionals fully completed the survey; most were technologically competent and were aware of commercial VATs (such as Alexa and Google Assistant). However, only 49 (21.3%) SaLTs had used VAT with their clients and described 57 use cases. They reported using VAT with 10 different client groups, such as people with dysarthria and users of augmentative and alternative communication technologies. Of these, almost half (28/57, 49%) used the technology to assist their clients with day-to-day tasks, such as web browsing, setting up reminders, sending messages, and playing music. Many respondents (21/57, 37%) also reported using the technology to improve client speech, to facilitate speech practice at home, and to enhance articulation and volume. Most reported a positive impact of VAT use, stating improved independence (22/57, 39%), accessibility (6/57, 10%), and confidence (5/57, 8%). Some respondents reported increased client communication (5/57, 9%) and sociability (3/57, 5%). Reasons given for not using VAT in practice included lack of opportunity (131/181, 72.4%) and training (63/181, 34.8%). Most respondents (154/181, 85.1%) indicated that they would like to try VAT in the future, stating that it could have a positive impact on their clients' speech, independence, and confidence.

Conclusions: VAT is used by some UK-based SaLTs to enable communication tasks at home with their clients. However, its wider adoption may be limited by a lack of professional opportunity. Looking forward, additional benefits are promised, as the data show a level of engagement, empowerment, and the possibility of achieving therapeutic outcomes in communication impairment. The disparate responses suggest that this area is ripe for the development of evidence-based clinical practice, starting with a clear definition, outcome measurement, and professional standardization.

Keywords: health technology; mobile phone; professional practice; rehabilitation; speech and language therapy; speech therapy; voice-assisted technology.