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The original voice of Siri is now advocating for a more accessible web

Susan Bennett, who accidentally became the voice of Apple's revolutionary voice assistant, says the experience showed how critical accessible tech is.

Susan Bennett

Susan Bennett's voice was used for Apple's Siri from 2011 to 2013.

UserWay
This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Even if you're not familiar with the name Susan Bennett, you'd likely recognize her voice. As the original Siri, Bennett became a dependable presence in many iPhone users' lives, responding to various inquiries and fulfilling spoken commands. Her voice work has also been helpful to smartphone users with disabilities, she says. 

But make no mistake -- Bennett herself is not a techie.

"I'm terrible with tech," she tells me over a Zoom call from her home in Atlanta. "It's not intuitive for me at all."

Apart from her iPhone and Mac, which she uses for voice recordings, Bennett says her interactions with anything tech-related are minimal. That's why it came as such a shock when she found out in late 2011 that her voice was being used for Apple's new Siri virtual assistant. 

"A fellow voice actor emailed me and said, 'Hey, we're playing around with this new iPhone [feature]. Isn't this you?' and I went on the Apple site and listened and went, 'Oh, wow. Well, what does this mean?'"

It meant her voice would become a central part of people's digital lives, doing everything from providing answers to search inquiries to sharing weather forecasts and giving directions. From Siri's release in October 2011 up until 2013, Bennett's voice was used for the assistant, until Apple replaced her with new voice actors. (For the record, Bennett never used Siri when it was her voice, saying, "It was just too creepy," but she does use the virtual assistant now.)

Siri has been especially helpful to iPhone users with disabilities, Bennett notes. After revealing herself as the voice of the virtual assistant in 2013, she says she got tons of mail from people who were blind or had other disabilities saying they used Siri all the time. 

"That was really their connection to be able to get on board the tech train as we all are now," Bennett says. "That was one of the things that I was kind of proud of about Siri is that she can help people do things that they couldn't normally do on their own."

Now Bennett appears in an ad for web accessibility company UserWay, which works to ensure sites are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Nearly a quarter of US adults have some type of disability, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but tech companies haven't always kept these users in mind when designing products and services. In fact, a whopping 98% of US websites aren't fully accessible, according to a report by web accessibility company AccessiBe. 

Additionally, Americans with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to never go online, according to the Pew Research Center, and are around 20% less likely to subscribe to home broadband and own a computer, smartphone or tablet. That's driving a range of tech companies, from Apple to Google to Microsoft, to expand their accessibility efforts to ensure their products and services can be used by everyone.

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Apple, for instance, rolled out a screen-reading technology called VoiceOver on the iPhone 3GS in 2009, which helps blind users navigate their device. The company also launched a People Detection feature last year, which lets blind and low-vision iPhone and iPad users know how close someone is to them. Microsoft broke ground in 2018 when it launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a $100 device designed to help gamers of all abilities play. Last week, the company unveiled its Surface Adaptive Kit for improving laptop accessibility, which includes a variety of textured decals to identify keys, ports and cables. And Google rolled out a handful of new accessibility features for Android users, including the ability to control your phone and communicate using facial gestures.

Bennett relates the importance of digital accessibility to her own work.

"Many times, I send people to my website; if they're thinking about hiring me, I'll say there are demos on my website," she says. "For many people, the website is a sales tool. And so if all of your potential customers out there can't even access your site, that needs to be addressed."

Becoming the voice of Siri

Bennett, who started off as a musician before getting into voice acting, never planned to become the voice of Siri. In 2005, she went into a studio to record what she was told was generic phone messaging with an interactive voice response company. 

"Of course, it was much more than that," Bennett says in retrospect. Apple never reached out to her about using her voice, she added, and she was never compensated for being used as Siri. Instead, she was only paid for the original recordings. "This is true of all the other original voices," Bennett says of the British and Australian talent whose voices were also used.  

Apple didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for comment. When CNN broke the news in 2013 that Bennett was the woman behind Siri, the publication noted that while Apple wouldn't confirm it, an audio-forensics expert said he was "100%" sure it was her. 

She says the talent that came after her did get paid for being used as Siri, in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement. While Bennett admits she's upset she didn't get the same compensation, she appreciates being legally allowed to talk about voicing the original Siri.  

But Bennett notes she was initially hesitant to reveal herself as the voice of Siri because she was worried she'd be "typecast and stereotyped, and that's something you don't want to be as a voice actor."

She adds, "Because that happened and it wasn't something that I aspired to or that I was working toward -- or that I got paid for -- it took me awhile to decide to reveal myself. I really didn't want to deal with the fame thing. But my husband and my son were both just saying, 'Oh, you're missing this incredible opportunity. You need to do this.' And finally one day the stars aligned or something and I decided to go ahead and do it."

Bennett says she thinks a lot about the future of virtual assistants and fair compensation for voice actors.

"Already they're taking my voice and a lot of other people who have done IVR [interactive voice response], and just taking and using it in different places without paying the talent," she says. "I think there's going to be a lot more of that. And especially with the abilities that they have now even, there are so many ways that they can manipulate the sound of your voice, and so you may be not sure if that's your voice. It's a scary time for freelance talent."

Since the days of Siri, Bennett has been doing more voiceover work and launched a public speaking career. In fact, she says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is the person who inspired her to do speaker events in 2013, after she made an appearance at an event where he was also speaking.

"He called me up on stage to say a few things about Siri, and afterwards he said, 'You seem really comfortable on stage, you should really try to do this,'" she says. 

Even though becoming the voice of Siri was totally unplanned and unexpected, Bennett says she's grateful for the doors it opened. 

"I have been fortunate enough that Siri actually found a brand new career for me, and that is doing speaker events," she says. "It was a nice thing to be able to segue into a whole different career. So I'm very, very grateful to old Siri."