Dragon Speech Recognition: How Voice Controls Improve Accessibility

May 2, 2022

Assistive technologies provide people with a wider variety of ways to interact with digital content. In many cases, accessible tools have benefits for everyone — including people who don’t live with disabilities. 

Dragon is a suite of speech-recognition tools published by software developer Nuance Communications. The technology can be a useful resource for people with conditions that prevent them from typing quickly or comfortably. It’s also widely used by people who don’t live with disabilities — as dictation software, Dragon is fast, accurate, and extremely customizable.

Below, we’ll review some of the features of Dragon’s flagship software, NaturallySpeaking, and provide tips for considering voice recognition tools when developing websites, mobile apps, and other content.

Understanding Dragon NaturallySpeaking’s Accessibility Features

Development for Dragon NaturallySpeaking began in 1975, long before personal computers were commonly used in professional settings. As one of the world’s first speech recognition technology providers, Dragon Systems has introduced a number of innovations — many of which directly benefit people with disabilities.

Some of the key features of Dragon software include:

  • Voice-based controls for controlling any desktop application. On Windows computers, Dragon can accept voice commands including “move mouse lower left" or “mouse double-click,” enabling users to handle most types of actions that require mouse-based input. 
  • Full keyboard emulation. Dragon can also perform keystrokes (for example, “press enter"), which allows users to handle complex actions using only voice controls.
  • A “trainable" voice recognition engine. Dragon can be enhanced by training the software to recognize the way that users say individual words. This can be especially useful for people with disabilities that affect pronunciation and speech.
  • Fast, accurate speech recognition. Dragon NaturallySpeaking can handle speech at up to 160 words per minute with a reported accuracy of 99 percent.
  • Customizability. Dragon can be configured with new keystrokes and shortcuts, enabling users to operate virtually any type of application while remaining productive.
  • Compatibility with popular screen readers. In addition to speech recognition software, people may use screen readers, which output text as audio or braille. Dragon operates predictably with popular screen readers like JAWS.

While Dragon is popular with users of all abilities, the software is Section 508 certified for the management of certain disabilities. If an employee has carpal tunnel syndrome, mobility issues, or another condition that makes typing impractical, employers can use Dragon as a reasonable accommodation.

Related: How Much Do "Reasonable Accommodations" Cost? Not Much.

Designing Accessible Content for Dragon Speech Recognition Software

Like all assistive technologies, Dragon has limitations. Assistive software relies on content creators to follow the best practices of accessibility — when developers fail to consider speech-recognition software when creating content, Dragon can operate unpredictably.

This is especially common when Dragon users access websites or complex web applications. Speech recognition tools expect content to follow the best practices in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the consensus standard for digital accessibility. Unfortunately, the vast majority of websites fail to conform with WCAG.

Some common issues that can create barriers for speech recognition software users include: 

  • Labels and names that don’t match. WCAG 2.1 requires developers to use matching names and labels — when names don’t match the labels, users may not understand how to execute certain commands. For more information, read: How Accessible Names Can Help (Or Frustrate) Your Users
  • Unlabeled controls for forms. Speech recognition software can identify on-page interactive elements with semantic HTML. If a website doesn’t include descriptive form control labels and clear instructions, the user might not be able to complete the form.
  • Poor use of visual focus. Some design choices may hide or obscure visual focus indicators. Users may need clear on-screen indicators of the element they’re focusing on — otherwise, navigation becomes difficult. 
  • Requiring complex mouse movements. While Dragon is an excellent mouse emulator, users may struggle with certain types of movements such as drag-and-drop motions. Wherever possible, developers should provide options for people who use alternative input devices.

To provide an equivalent experience for all users, prioritize accessibility when developing your website or app. Following WCAG opens up the benefits of accessible design, which include lower development costs, improved user retention, and enhanced search engine optimization (SEO). 

For more guidance, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility to speak with a digital accessibility expert.

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