An additional method of accessing text is always going to be useful if you’re visually impaired. So having access to free technology that can read the text in your Word document to you, or allow you to not only listen to a book but also navigate through it with ease and precision and add locatablebookmarks, can only be a positive situation.
Firstly there’s WordTalk: a free, downloadable plug-in, for use with Microsoft Word.
The software locates itself directly within the Word toolbar, and can be easily used to read aloud any text you’ve either typed, or imported, into a Microsoft Office Word document.
Want to listen to your document later, or on a portable device? Just save the converted text to speech as an audio file. Need a dictionary or thesaurus? You’ve access to WordTalk’s talking versions. Find the toolbar a little small? Don’t worry, there are some easily memorable keyboard shortcuts.
The fact that WordTalk’s designed to be used within the Word environment, also means the user can still benefit from working with the document’s familiar assistive features and options eg. setting preferred text sizes and line spacing, using the navigation pane, practiced keyboard shortcuts etc.
What could be better
However, there are some parts of the software that work less well for a visually impaired user.
The content of a text can often be more easily understood by synchronizing the visual/audio experience. Yet, crucially, the WordTalk visual experience can be difficult. Trying to follow the small word narrator highlight box, as it jumps along with the audio location in the text, can be visually stressful, and the highlight often obscures, rather than gives definition, to the word being read.
Unfortunately there’s no option for a more ‘easy on the eye’ sentence by sentence narrator highlight box instead, and whilst you are allowed to choose a visually preferred background highlight colour, it’s not possible to do so with the crucial foreground word highlighting.
Use of the handy speaking dictionary/thesaurus would also be improved, if the text size of the words could be enlarged. It would also be appreciated if WordTalk was available for Windows for Mac.
However, despite these limitations, WordTalk is still a handy assistive learning tool. It’s free, it’s simple to use, and it enables a helpful and convenient audio access strategy.
DTB’s are specifically designed for use by people with a ‘print disability’, so as might be expected with software designed to work with these, there are a number of really useful accessibility features.
Toolbar too small? Then use the screenreader function or keyboard controls. Want to navigate easily through that complex textbook? No problem – you can easily do so phrase by phrase or section by section. AMIS even allows you to search for specific words and place bookmarks for any text you want to easily relocate.
And what about the listening experience? Thenormal narrator speed can be halved or doubled without suffering distortion, and when pairing text and audio access, the narrator highlight box is synchronized to follow sentence by sentence, making for a visually relaxing reading experience.
To further optimise the latter you can enlarge the text; choose both a preferred narration highlight colour and a text colour eg. white text with a black highlight etc; or even opt to subdue the distraction of the surrounding text by ‘greying it out’ with an overlay of grey or pink.
Save as DAISY add-in for Microsoft Word
Additionally, by using the DAISY for Microsoft Word add-in to convert your documents to DAISY format, you can even use AMIS to improve your access to your own work.
What could be better
So what’s not to like? Similarly to WordTalk, it would be useful if AMIS was available for Mac users. Apart from that, well considering all that AMIS offers, it’s a minor quibble really, and may have more to do with the DAISY format than the AMIS software: AMIS is an environment for completed DAISY content ie, you cannot use it to work on one of your own documents that you may wish to edit.
There’s every reason to download the free AMIS software, for when combined with a digital talking book/magazine/document, it allows a VI user to move around a text in a way previously only available to sighted users.
No problem. Simple. Sure to be my favourite study unit of the ITR12 course I thought, when considering the set text to speech targets and activities. After all I love listening. I use audio books all the time. Can’t get enough of them infact. Could listen to them all day without getting tired – and the radio – and my recently discovered favourite podcasts.
Let me just say famous last words…..
The audio tick sheet
Text to speech, such as the above (and below), is very much to my liking, consisting as it does of content in which I’m interested, often spoken by professional narrators, using human voices with all their cadence, depth and variety of intonation and tone, and delivered in a way that gives clear meaning to the subject matter.
(Picture:Nicholas Jones/whale05 Flickr. Audio: Narrator -David Horovitch, Alice -Jo Wyatt)
However even when presented with all these elements, I find I still have more boxes that need ticking to move the audio experience to the Goldilocks zone, where it’s ‘just right’.
With audio books I prefer to listen to American narrators, followed by Scottish, then English. And with both the latter I have a definite leaning towards male rather than female voices. Infact, once or twice, I’ve even been unable to get on with a human reader’s voice and have had to abandon listening to a chosen book.
I also prefer to be physically active/occupied when listening eg. driving a car, decorating etc. Just sitting and listening without any other stimulation usually means I’m either lulled into a cozy state where I fall asleep, or I get fidgety. Neither being conducive to prolonged or engaged listening.
Additionally, I have the advantage of being positively inclined to audio as a learning style, whereas for some people, even given their optimum text to speech conditions, listening is still difficult.
Ripping up the tick sheet
Photo by austin tx on Flickr
So what happened when none of the above criteria were ticked? When I had to listen to text by which I was not particularly engaged, read by a synthetic voice (even a preferred one), with it’s more monotone delivery and pitch. When the interpretation of the content was dictated by whether the original author had correctly placed their punctuation, leading to very real ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ or ‘eats shoots and leaves’ situations, and where I was expected to remain seated and maintain classroom appropriate listening behaviours.
To my shock, I found it extremely difficult to listen.
I fidgeted, twitched, and squirmed. I wanted to leave my chair to relieve my restlessness. I became annoyed that the voices were delivering the information at too slow a pace, mispronouncing words and diluting the meaning. I lost attention. I found it difficult to absorb and retain information. I found it difficult to re-locate information. I developed a headache.
Certain things helped somewhat with the attention issue, such as being able to integrate access to both audio and the text: a luxury that may not be open to a visually impaired person. Using voices that I preferred, such as Welsh English Geraint from Ivona for non-fiction, which, for me, offered a less monotonous listening experience, incorporating as it does the rhythm, stress and intonation of the Welsh language pattern (and may have been more comfortable for me as I’m Welsh).
Narration by Ivona Geraint
Additionally, being prepared to use a robotic sounding voice (such as that used by the JAWs screenreader), which more easily allows for the voice to be accelerated to read the content at speed.
Even then, if tested on what I’d been able to study and remember from longer extracts of material in audio form, I often would have been the deserved recipient of the dunce’s cap.
So what have I learnt?
A lot. The most important of which for me, is that I no longer regard access to audio as the straightforward and simple solution I once thought it. I’ve realised there are potential barriers to overcome and it’s made me rethink how to effectively support visually impaired pupils, so they develop the skills and ability to make the most of audio in all its forms.
So, I’ll now think to offer dual access to text and audio, and to allow for personal choice of a voice reader, and my customary listening skills programme is about to expand. I’m now planning on starting it earlier and continuing it longer; to incorporate the use of synthesised voices to deliver various listening activities; to more consistently target and develop pro-active, listening comprehension strategies and also to work on maximising aural memory skills. (I may even be more understanding of the fidget….)
For whilst audio may not be perfect, it’s remains one of the more important, and sometimes the primary strategy, for alternative access to the curriculum, and if supported properly, has the obvious potential to offer many advantages for learning.