WordTalk and AMIS for VI users

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 locatable bookmarks, can only be a positive situation.


Wordtalk as it looks in the Word environmentFirstly there’s WordTalk: a free, downloadable plug-in, for use with Microsoft Word.

What’s good

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.

wordtalk narrator highlighting

Text size Wordtalk dictionary

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.


Then there’s AMIS – again a free software that allows you to open full text, full audio DAISY digital talking books (DTB), on your computer.

Features of AMIS

What’s good

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? The normal 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

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.

More info about using WordTalk and AMIS?

Try these Youtube videos:

WordTalk-A Quick Overview 

Using AMIS to read DAISY files – Load2Learn Tutorials

How to Create and Save an Audio File on a Mac (An Audio Post)

Audio Instructions:

Visual Instructions: SUPPORTING PICTURE INSTRUCTIONS PDF (as part of the audio ITR12 unit, try following the audio post instructions before having a look …no cheating…)

Learning Through Audio (a cautionary tale)

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

man with hands over his ears standing next to audio speakers

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.

Supporting Structure

picture of this post as a structured document including navigation pane and table of contents

this post as a structured document including document pane and table of contents

What does it mean to have structure in a document?

When a document is properly structured, various tags are embedded that a computer or similar device can recognize and use to generate useful accessibility tools such as a table of contents, a navigation panel/document map, and supplementary descriptions for pictures and graphics.

So how much difference can these tools make?

I buy a lot of ebooks to read on my kindle. As a reader, I do a lot of jumping back and forth within a book. What drives me crazy is that a lot of the new ebooks aren’t properly structured. So, instead of being able to use a contents page to give me an overview of what the book is about or to find a target page, or being able to access navigation shortcuts and activate a link to take me to a specific chapter or section, I’m often limited to just searching backwards and forwards on a line by line, page-by-page basis. Very irritating and time consuming.

Imagine then the potential for frustration of a similarly unstructured document, for users who already find print difficult to access, such as those with a visual impairment or dyslexia. Their use and understanding of a document be dependent on the way it’s been formatted and it’s potential for accessibility.

But it sounds like it’s hard to do.

Actually, it’s really simple – so simple you wonder why we all aren’t all doing it already. Just apply:

  • heading styles to headings (it also cuts out the usual hassle involved in highlighting, setting the font size, activating bold, activating underline etc);
  • lists styles to lists;
  • some simple alternative text (alt text) to your images and graphics so that a screen-reader provides a description for a reader who cannot see it
  • care with the labeling of your hyperlinks for the same reason.
  • and if using tables, structure them for easy navigation

In case you’d like some quick and easy tips about how to use the above the following link is a useful ‘how to’: create accessible word documents

Word 10 even has a useful accessibility checker that can help test your document for you. You can check out how it works with find-and-fix-accessibility-issues-in-word-2010

A couple of other tips

Taking a bit of extra care with your document’s layout and text can also improve its accessibility. Just follow a few easy rules such as left align your text, use a font size of 12pt or bigger, line spacing of 1.15 -1.5, and lighten up on the use of underline and italics, and your document will not only be easier to read but it will also benefit from a clearer and cleaner design. http://rnib.org.uk/tips for accessible print

So give it a go

There’s no disadvantage to structuring your documents. It’s straightforward, takes minimal effort and you can even save your formatted document as an accessible PDF (for PDF conversion advice for Windows, see Katrina’s blog post Windows and accessible pdfs and for PDF conversion advice for Mac, see Carol’s blog post  Mac and accessible pdfs).

You’ll be creating documents that can be more easily used by everyone, an important attribute in this day of digital documents.

Cue card evolution

The task:
To adapt a keyboard shortcut cue card for a student with a visual impairment

The history
Providing cue sheets is standard for my work with VI students and I’ve followed on with the established historical pattern of providing them in tabular text form with word descriptions eg. Select All :  Control + A. As the students are able to use them, I’d never really considered that perhaps a redesign could make a difference to their accessibility, so this exercise has proved really interesting and I definitely moved from a ‘here to there’ position by the end of it. 

Original type of cue sheet:

Original tabular text form cue card

Initial decisions
To simplify the visual access by making it a ‘cleaner design’ with more high contrast white space. This meant removing the lines of the table  and the + symbols (which aren’t really needed as a combination of keys is always an ‘and’ process).

Rather than everything looking as the same, I also decided to trial the use of different high contrast colour cues as an aid to differentiation, and to also include a memory tip.

First evolutions 

Keyboard short cut cue card in new format including additions of the colours black and yellow Revised cue card with the the colour additions black, red and yellow

Next decisions

Initially I was quite happy with the redesign. However, I found once I’d starting re-evaluating, I kept having more thoughts about trying to make them more accessible.

For the VI students the complication with the cue cards is having to access the words. Was there a way to make this a simpler task?

I decided to trial cards with an initial key and so remove the need for writing on the instruction keys. I also used a light edging around the instruction key that contained text, so it didn’t distract from the text contained within.

For two of the cards I included blocks of high contrast colour cues, but for the third I use just black, but with the addition of a shape cue ( would have tried white rectangles divided by a line horizontally or diagonally but my tech skills weren’t that advanced – all advice gratefully received).

I’d noticed on the original cue cards that the instruction keys were presented on the left and the explanation on the right, so I also decided to reverse my usual presentation to this format and see which the students preferred.

I also removed my memory tip, as on further consideration I felt the students’ memory tip should be their own. I’d mention my thoughts, but the students could use the back of the card to write whatever was meaningful to them.

Second evolutions

Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours black and yellow.Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours red and yellow

Black and white shape cue card

The outcome
I trialed all the cue cards with four of my students:  2 from Key Stage 2, 1 from Key Stage 3, and 1 from Key Stage 4. (None had any diagnosed colour difficulty).

  • All preferred the cards with the initial key and no writing on the subsequent keys, and said they found them easier to work with than those with writing on every key. (One student remarked that having to think rather than try to read helped reinforce his memory.)

Having decided on the format of the cards they preferred we then moved on to the colour/shape options.

  • All liked the differentiation offered by the blocks of coloured keys and felt they helped with quicker access and discrimination.  2 preferred the black and yellow combination and 2 the yellow and red.
  • All of them thought the shape card could be useful, but felt that for them the colour cards offered them preferred cues.

The final decision was in regards to the placement of the explanation and key cues.

  • All preferred the explanation to be placed first, with the key instructions following.
  • All stated it was easier to access with this layout, and one of the students who explained more fully, said that it was difficult for him to visually track back from an explanation on the right, to the instructions on the left. (This would tally with practiced reading habits, in which we track along text from left to right – presumably it would be different for pupils in China).

Final thoughts
What looked like a simple task has ultimately reminded me that even when things seem to be going well, it’s always useful to review accepted practice.

Although the original cue cards were usable, the redesign process has shown they could be better. The new sets will follow the reduced text format and will incorporate colour cues/shapes (or perhaps other ideas) as identified by the pupils themselves, and will hopefully prove a more accessible, user friendly resource.

So what’s so good about a PLN?

My Symbaloo PLN webmix

Who would have thought you’d be able to learn anything from a message of 140 characters including spaces and sometimes an address. Certainly not me. So finding that joining Twitter has proved useful, has been a lovely surprise.

Just yesterday I did I search for a hashtag stream related to a hearing impairment and discovered information about new experimental software that has the potential to boost the output of a hearing aid. I’ve passed that onto my mum so that she can ask her audiologist about it, and also updated the Hearing Impaired Team with the news.

A few days ago I followed a Tweet link to the RNIB site and came upon a blog from a teenager with a visual impairment. I’ve recommended that link to a VI student and his family so that they can read about the positive experiences the blog writer had on a residential Action for the Blind adventure holiday. Hopefully it will encourage him to have the confidence to try the same. At the very least he’s thinking about responding to the blog writer – and who knows – maybe a new friendship will be formed.

Being able to create a list of Twitter users who are tweeting about issues to do with visual impairment (RE Vision) means I can now easily and instantly tap into current news and views about this issue.

Then there’s the discovery of the vast range of powerful online tools that are available. Because of this, I’ve been able to create a Symbaloo visual bookmarking webmix filled with 50 sites to investigate.  It was only a few weeks ago, that I was aware of and just using 5 of the sites. Now I find I know of another 45 more and have already used 11 of these.

It’s also been integral to supporting my enthusiasm for the Load2Learn course – to have your learning horizons extended through the links to information and personal work tweeted by other course members (recent eg. Jane’s Talking Tins recommendation), to be able ask for advice and to receive positive feedback in real time – it’s really motivating.

And these are just a few of the myriad of examples I’ve found helpful, and which have become available to me seemingly overnight.

Not that Twitter is the only social media format you can choose to use to shape and broaden your Personal Learning Network (PLN). There’s Facebook, Ning and LinkedIn to name a few, and who couldn’t be but intrigued by the opportunities to mooc; drive; hangout; link; flip, bookmark, podcast. screencast, video, blog or be delicious.

It’s been fascinating how easily and quickly you can leapfrog the stepping-stones from one person, or thought, or idea, or recommendation to another and end up somewhere new, unexpected and often illuminating. And it’s especially powerful, because with this form of learning you can direct where you want to go, and for me (and I think for most people), that’s where and when you learn best – where your interest lies.

I enjoyed Michael Fawcetts clip below, who talks about how he developed his PLN and encourages others (in his own inimitable style) to follow suit.