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Screen reading

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Voice Output or Screen Reading systems convert text in the computer (on the computer screen) into speech that a user can listen to. This is a useful access method for people who cannot read the computer monitor either because of a visual impairment or because of a learning disability.

  • Systems for people with visual impairments provide auditory cues for all icons and menu commands.
  • Systems for people with learning disabilities may highlight the words as the text is read.

Screen reader software interprets the information presented to the screen and generates a signal that will cause the speech synthesizer (usually the computer’s sound card) to speak the information in a voice. Many of these synthesizers may sound mechanical, but unlike communication systems, the voice only needs to be understood by the user. Speed and clarity are more important than how 'human' it sounds. Users with learning disabilities and auditory processing deficits, however, may be more sensitive to the quality of the voice. These programs run in the background and do not interfere with the normal use of the computer except when the user wants to adjust the accessibility feature (e.g. reading speed).



What software features should I look for?

  • The ability to echo text input as well as read all the necessary information (i.e. pull-down menus, dialogue boxes, error messages, etc.)
  • Macro capabilities so that you can use specific keystrokes to jump directly to a frequently used area of the screen.
  • A separate cursor for the reader. This allows you to review the document while editing without having to move the text cursor. (This makes for a more efficient use of time.)
  • Compatibility with data transmitted via Internet, e-mail, etc.

How hard is it to learn to use this technology?

Systems for people with learning disabilities are designed to be easy to use and require little training. Systems for users who are blind, however, require a significant amount of training. Typically, tapes or CDs are sent with the documentation so a user can learn on his or her own. However, these software programs have many features, and in many cases, additional training on more advanced features (e.g., macros) will be needed to most efficiently perform the desired computer tasks. External training may be provided through a peer, a tutor, or a structured training facility. Lack of training may be one reason why a recent survey of employees with visual impairments found that older individuals are less likely to use screen reading technology — it was used by 14% of the respondents who were under 55, but by no respondents over the age of 65 (2006 (in press), Williams et al., Work).

How much does it cost?

The cost of screen reading software is in the range of $600-$800. Speech synthesizers range from $200 (software version) to about $1000.


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Author: CATEA, Georgia Tech.