Seeing Through Windows: Programs and Settings for the Visually Disabled

Computer technology can greatly assist those with disabilities. As one would expect, the hearing-impaired can still enjoy the computer's benefits since electronic information remains primarily visual. But the sight-impaired have a harder time dealing with computer information, since monitors remain the primary source of digital information. Fortunately, an increasingly growing set of resources is being developed for them. Microsoft Windows offers several solutions, and there are still others by third-party providers. This article will examine a handful, with an eye toward maximizing cost efficiency for cash-strapped teachers and districts.

Built-in Solutions in Windows

Windows offers several options for the visually impaired to improve their computing experience. For Web browsing, Internet Explorer allows fonts to be increased in size, assuming the Web sites are coded to allow it. To try it out, after opening a Web page click View | Text Size | Largest.

In addition, several accessibility programs are built into Windows. Among these, one of the more popular is Windows Magnifier. Although Microsoft warns us that Magnifier provides only a minimum level of support, it is nevertheless a commendable measure. The program, along with other standard Windows support software, can be found under Programs | Accessories | Accessibility. Once activated, Magnifier performs as its name suggests: it magnifies designated areas of the screen according to levels assigned by the user. The default setting is to double the size of the area.

In addition to Magnifier, Windows offers Microsoft Narrator, also under the Accessibility section. Again, this is base-level support for the visually impaired, and Microsoft suggests additional software may be needed for those with more severe disabilities. Narrator "speaks" the text in a window when it opens. Primarily, it is designed to assist in navigating Windows, indicating in its robotic voice which windows are open and active on the screen. Narrator can also be set to read typed characters out loud. This provides audio feedback to ensure proper keyboard buttons are pushed, and it can "read" simple edited text such as that from Notepad documents. Note that Narrator is not designed for more robust text-to-speech synthesis.

While these two utilities may be far from adequate for anyone with more severe disabilities, they are better than nothing. Most important, educators will be able to offer help to their disabled students at no additional cost. Narrator and Magnifier can be set to automatically run when Windows starts by placing a shortcut in the Start menu (found under Programs | Startup). If certain computers are routinely assigned to the sight-impaired they will have the benefit of these two utilities each time they log on. If multiple students use the machine, visually disabled students can be assigned a separate login under Windows XP with the assistance programs pre-loaded. Additional information freely available from Microsoft can be found on their accessibility Web site at Realize Your Potential.

Text-to-Speech Reading Programs

There are a wide variety of programs, ranging in price from free to several thousand dollars. Most of the effort at this point appears to have gone into text-to-speech and speech recognition endeavors. A variety of companies, including Microsoft, IBM, and AT&T, have experimented with artificial voice engines. Their early efforts (pre-2000) resulted in voice technologies that are adequate: text can be read in an understandable manner in a variety of artificial male and female voices which can be controlled as to rate, pitch, and pronunciation. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adopted this technology in their national weather radio system in 1997.

Unfortunately, these earlier text-to-speech efforts resulted in artificial voice engines that sounded…well, painfully artificial. The failure to alternate tone and inflection led to a monotonous litany of phonemes from what was obviously an unfeeling machine, requiring more attention on the part of the listener than would be necessary with a human speaker. This was especially true with long narrations. NOAA upgraded its weather radio system in 2002 to an advanced commercial program called Speechify, from SpeechWorks International. Because it uses technology that blends recorded phonemes spoken by a person into the required words; an endless combination of sentences can be produced from computer-generated text, and it sounds more like a "real" person. Now, NOAA's weather reports are much easier to understand.

Other efforts are underway to replace the old robotic-sounding speech with more natural sounding language in text-to-speech programs, with good results. One of the efforts inexpensively available to consumers is from AT&T's laboratories. This synthetic speech alters inflection so it sounds closer to authentic language patterns. The software is trademarked as AT&T Natural Voices, and it has been licensed to various companies. Many reasonably-priced (under $100) products in the field will come with Natural Voices technology.

One of the initial leaders in the reasonably-priced category is the Don Johnston Corporation, which offers Write: OutLoud, one of the best text-to-speech applications for the K-12 market. This word processing program incorporates speech-to-text technology at an affordable price, currently about $100 for a single license with bulk license discounts available.

The program will "read" text entered by a student either by word, when the student ends a sentence, or begins a new paragraph. Imagine the benefits of immediate feedback when a disabled child can hear what he or she has typed immediately. This aspect of the program makes it especially useful for children with reading disabilities as well as the visually impaired.

Write: OutLoud works as a traditional text-to-speech program as well, allowing the teacher to type in any text desired, or cut and paste from other applications. For instance, if a teacher desires a student to hear text from the Web or a textbook, cutting and pasting or typing the words into Write: OutLoud will allow the student to hear the text as the program translates it into speech. Details on Write: Outloud can be found on the Don Johnston web site. Don't forget the "t" when typing the URL.

For less powerful programs offering similar features without the full word processing power of Write: OutLoud, teachers have several options that can be downloaded for free. One is TextAloud MP3, from and the other is ReadPlease, from Both of these products allow purchasers to add the A.T.&T Natural Voices option, as mentioned above.

Listening to spoken text at one's own convenience is the primary selling point for TextAloud MP3. The shareware program, available for trial download, will automatically translate text files into artificial speech, then offer the option to save the audio output into the ubiquitous MP3 format. This compressed audio format has the advantage of being space-efficient, and it allows long passages of text to be "read," then saved and listened to at a later date. Teachers can create albums or CDs with long passages of recorded spoken text which can be played back at the student's leisure. TextAloud MP3 is free to try for 20 days, then $24.95 if you decide to keep it. AT&T Natural Voices can be purchased separately and added to the product, making the artificial speech easier to comprehend.

ReadPlease has the best price out there free. The downloadable freeware version is limited to the older voice technology and text files cannot be larger than 16 megs. This version is quite adequate for adding the older text-to-speech technology to computers, and teachers can keep it on any or all computers in their classrooms and labs without worrying about paying for a license. For $49.95 users can purchase ReadPlease Plus, which will enable a host of options, including unlimited file sizes and the superior AT&T Natural Voices engine.

Coming Soon

Future artificial speech promises to be even more realistic. Technologies currently under development are intended to replace live humans in phone support without it being obvious that customers are listening and speaking to a machine. Efforts by large corporations such as IBM continue in this vein, with robust (and expensive) offerings soon to come that will both understand the spoken word and produce completely realistic speech. Programmers realize that human language is incredibly complex, and requires an extraordinarily large amount of time and effort to effectively replicate in digital environments. Research derived from efforts at the old Bell Labs continues (although parent company Lucent shuttered artificial speech research and other non-core projects in cost cutting efforts last year) and other next generation software promises even more realism. These newer efforts, sounding increasingly like genuine speech, promise even better results than current renderings, but will be expensive and will require the latest in computing power. However, adequate coverage for disabled students using current technology remains a viable option for schools and other entities.

Technology has enhanced the standard of living for the visually impaired. Pedestrian crossings offer audible signals, Braille markings are offered on ATMs and elevators, and recorded books have created easier access to literature. Teachers can easily incorporate elements of artificial speech technology and accessibility settings in Windows for free or at a negligible cost. Those who teach the visually impaired can open new worlds for them with the click of a mouse.

Email: John Rice