Accessibility issues and strategies for people with speech Impairments

A speech impairment is defined as an impaired ability to produce speech sounds.  According to Communication Access UK around 14 million people in the UK have some form of speech impairment.  These can range in severity from mild impairments such as the inability to produce certain sounds all the way to having no speech at all.


In terms of digital accessibility people with speech impairments may have issues with the following:


  • Automated phone lines. Organisations which are only contactable via automated phone lines and where the caller is required to speak instead of pressing buttons on their phone number pad. An example would be the automated service asking questions such as ‘After the tone clearly state your problem?’ To provide fully accessible services it is recommended that organisations have both a telephone and text/email based contact service.  If the contact is to be solely through telephone then questions should be asked in a way that requires a predefined answer (such as yes or no) and that this answer can be sent via button presses as well as speech.  Extended time periods can also be in place for answering questions where the caller would not be put back into the loop of having the question asked again if they hadn’t answered within a few seconds.


  • Speech operated websites or apps. While websites requiring speech input are rare it is becoming much more common in software packages. Organisations providing these software packages should be aware of the need to also provide additional methods to communicate with the software such as button presses.


People with limited or no speech can also use speech synthesisers such as the system used by Stephen Hawking.  Professor Hawkings system utilised a computer into which he could enter text which would be read out by a speech synthesiser.  This text was chosen from a menu of common words with a hand switch at first but when he lost the mobility in his hand text would be entered by highlighting letters or words on his computer screen with the movement of a muscle in his cheek.  This movement would be picked up by a sensor in his glasses and he would blink to actually select the word or letter.  In later versions of the system it would utilise predictive text to predict what he would type next and give him a series of words to choose from.  The designers of his communication system said that one of the predictive settings was to give him a choice of the word ‘black’ after he chose the word ‘the’.  If he chose the word ‘black’ he would then automatically be given the word ‘hole’ as a choice.