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Will Alexa help blind clients with their accounts?

Financial advisor Brice Carter was meeting with a client who had lost nearly all vision in a stroke a few years ago. Sitting there on her coffee table was an Alexa. He asked her what she thought of using the voice assistant device to listen to her account balances.

“Her face lit up. She was super excited about it,” Carter says.

Amazon Alexa 3/11/2019
An attendee operates the new Amazon.com Inc. Echo device on display during the company's product reveal launch event in downtown Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Amazon unveiled a smaller, cheaper version of its popular Alexa-powered Echo speaker that the e-commerce giant said has better sound. Photographer: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg

Carter got the idea after attending the TD Ameritrade LINC conference in February. The custodian announced a new Alexa skill for advisors and their clients, enabling them to listen to updates such as account balances, positions and market briefings.

After the meeting, Carter’s Michigan-based Financial Strategies Group decided to purchase firm-branded Alexas for any clients that were interested — particularly those who are blind.

The advisors intend to hand deliver the products, set them up and provide clients with a guide on how to use the tool. “For people that are vision impaired, this could be a game-changer,” Carter says.

Voice assistants have become popular among the blind or vision impaired, according to Chris Danielsen, director of public relations at the National Federation of the Blind.

Chris Danielsen, director of public relations at the National Federation of the Blind March 11, 2019

“They’re natural for us,” he says. “Even more for us than other people.”

Those with vision disabilities have long become accustomed to a robotic voice. Tools like screen readers turn website text into spoken words. Smartphone apps scan barcodes at the grocery store — a helpful replacement for cans or foods that don’t have braille. Most ATMs now offer a speaking capability after plugging in headphones to an audio jack, replacing a lengthy (and complicated) step-by-step guidebook, according to Danielsen.

But before voice assistants gain wider support, the voice devices need to overcome the same issues all clients have when it comes to talking about their finances with automation. (A recent survey found that among the companies developing voice assistants, 88% reported that the speech has an error rate above 6%, while 35% of firms reported an error rate above 20%.)

Danielsen has mixed feelings about using the tool to listen to his account balances for privacy reasons. “I’m a little leery of my financial information being spoken out loud,” he says.

Roberta McCall, a blind client who works with Brice Carter’s brother, Brandon Carter, at Financial Strategies Group, is not as concerned about the speaking feature as she is about giving out personal information to another technology tool.

Apps for the blind march 11 Journal of Visual Impairement & Blindness

“My techy friends will tell you that from the time computers came out I was a foot-dragger,” she says, adding that she has always been particularly concerned about security when it comes to her finances. She doesn’t do banking on her computer, and prefers to make a phone call when it comes to anything money-related.

While voice devices are intriguing for the convenience they can offer, most companies could do a better job of making their existing websites more accessible, Danielsen says.

Even though the internet is accessible with screen readers, many websites still pose some sort of issue. In order for the technology to work, websites must be coded to work with screen readers, according to Danielsen. Alternative text should be paired with graphics, pictures and buttons.

“Every couple of days or so I run across [a website] I can hardly use at all,” Danielsen says.

Roberta McCall with Caliber, blind clients Alexa 3/14/19

McCall says sometimes she resorts to asking a friend or family member who can see to help with websites she can't use. Occasionally she will go to a company’s contact page and ask for help. “You’ve just got to laugh about it. I mean what else are you going to do?” she says.

Ryan Gilbert, general partner of fintech venture capital firm Propel Venture Partners, says fintech companies can do a better job at designing their services for impaired clients.

“I don't see many companies applying technology to improve accessibility to financial services for users with disabilities,” he said in an email.

There are wealth management firms trying to address the gap. Clients at Merrill Lynch can get monthly statements in braille, large print or on a CD. TD Ameritrade is undergoing an effort to re-code its web platforms to make them more accessible and is setting up dedicated customer support channels for clients and training for call centers on accessibility issues.

While TD Ameritrade did not build the Alexa skill with the intent of aiding blind clients, Dani Fava, director of institutional product strategy and development at TD Ameritrade Institutional, hopes advisors will start using it this way: “Going into a home and setting up a device for a disabled client — that is something special and a place where advisors can add value,” she says.

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