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Speech Facilities for the Reading Disabled
Using simple text-to-speech
output and alternative mechanisms to tackle mountains of text.
Brain cancer and associated brain surgery
can result in a variety of physical, psychological, and functional disabilities.
To some extent, these disabilities are manageable using soft ware or hardware
support systems. In my case, I have been using aids to help increase my
reading speed. Like a sight-impaired reader, I need help reading text. However,
unlike a sight-impaired reader, I can easily see objects, images and text
components and I can easily operate my keyboard and mouse. However, the
length of time it takes me to verbally name an object or silently read text
is haltingly long.
My specific functionality loss includes a general reduction in reading rate
with a severely reduced rate for reading "out loud." I easily
comprehend email and research articles. However, in order to read information
in a text-only format that is not obtainable where it can easily be produced
in machine-related, sound-producible form, I find myself faced with information
much more difficult to access. As a result, I am constantly looking for
ways to better utilize the computers I use that produce spoken versions
of text. I do not claim to have examined all the available machine-readable
systems. But I can tell you about what I use, what has worked, and what
enables me to function well.
Fortunately, a significant amount of my day-to day activity and the related
information I need on a regular basis is directly available in machine-read
able form. This information includes email messages, presentation materials,
various program reports, PowerPoint image files, and spreadsheets. Multimedia
presentation of objects as both text and sound provides rapid recognition
of text-based objects that would otherwise be difficult to parse or read.
I am also fortunate that a significant amount of my training was with John
Eulenberg and Mort Rahimi of the Artificial Language Laboratory in East
Lansing, Michigan. Much of our research work was directed toward the development
of speech producing prosthetic devices to aid individuals with neurological,
sensory or motor restrictions. My connection with that work was discontinued
approximately 12 years ago, when I started working on other computer-related
problems, including parallel processing and operating systems. I find myself
dredging up the work that I performed long ago.
My current day-to-day activities primarily require me to work at a computer
system. I produce reports, utilize spreadsheets to determine the status
of various programs, occasionally write functional code to evaluate the
feasibility of an idea, and often develop slides for use as a presentation.
I am working on the development of papers and system description or documentation.
In addition, I constantly read material provided in either text or document
form. I read new research papers, new program activity descriptions, and
project descriptions. My recent brain surgery has encouraged me to develop
alternative mechanisms for dealing with the mountains of text that come
In order to perform more effectively, I decided I needed to utilize one
of several ways to get my documents read to me. Fortunately, a number of
individuals have been working on the problem of making computer systems
more accessible to the blind. One of the most familiar voice-producing systems
is the Kurzweil Reader. Though originally produced several years ago, the
system is still available. The text-to-speech research work that was part
of the original speaking machines lives on. Existing systems are available
as a collection of speech-producing software programs. Developers who have
attacked this problem have done so by building text-to-speech-producing
agents for execution as part of computer systems.
M y first plan of attack was the integration
of existing text-to-speech processors as part of the existing systems. The
Macintosh I use provides simple text-to-speech output. A large number of
text-to-speech systems exist, including WRITE:OUTLOUD. by Don John ston,
and OutSPOKEN, by Berkeley Systems, and produce reasonable quality text-to-speech
output. These systems are usable for reading the output of online documents.
Virtually any document can be passed through one of the simple Macintosh
applications. The existence of this text-to-speech facility on the Macintosh
allows me to read much of the data available.
The Macintosh SimpleText program is a software product provided as a part
of all Apple Macintosh operating systems and applications. It provides text-to-speech
output for any text elements displayed within its input boundaries. Transferring
text to SimpleText requires users to copy the text they wish converted,
then paste that text into the text space of the currently available SimpleText
area. The "speak" command translates the pasted text to a spoken
version of the text. I have found this facility extremely useful for reading
my email. Even better would be a version of my email facility that directly
provided text-to speech capability. I have not yet managed to completely
solve that problem. However, there are programs (such as outSPOKEN) that
come close to providing that facility. Systems developed and intended to
support visually impaired users provide effective text-to-speech translation.
I currently use a number of these facilities in order to improve my performance
and the utility of my system .
O ne of the biggest problems remains that
of reading long paper documents or articles. However self-sufficient I would
like to be, sometimes it is necessary to have others read to me. However,
I am trying to be self sufficient. Although it is true that journals are
increasingly distributed or advertised by Web page, they are not fully distributed
in machine-readable form. For example, I recently received a monthly copy
of a journal. Though I could read portions of the magazine by pulling up
copies of the text where it was part of a Web page, there were large portions
of the magazine that could only be read by having some one else read them
to me. Ideally, I would like to be able to receive a machine-readable version
of the magazine in addition to the paper version. Then, I could select portions
of the magazine to be read to me as needed.
Prior to becoming a more capable user of the text generating facilities
of the Macintosh and the many other speech-producing facilities of the Macintosh,
I was dependent upon others for aid in obtaining more rapid reading and
information gathering. Using speech-producing facilities has enabled me
to collect information and utilize it in a more rapid manner. I now look
forward to accessing more of the contents of materials. I look forward to
enjoying reading as I have in the past. Critical to that goal is the development
of a mechanism for reading scanned text. <c>
The author wishes to give special thanks to his wife for her help in both
preparing this article and in providing improved access to a number of documents.
Additional thanks go to John Eulenberg who provided pointers toward the
Mac applications that have become critical facilities of my daily use.
CARL FRIEDLANDER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and chief scientist
at the ISX Corporation, Westlake Village, CA.
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM March 1997/Vol. 40, No 3