Seeing Things Differently: Seeking An Accessible Reading Technology

Seeing Things Differently: Seeking An Accessible Reading Technology

I am sight-impaired. I cannot read standard print without heavy magnification. This has always made reading and studying difficult. I was born with optic nerve damage, and so glasses cannot offer any correction beyond some magnification. Because of the optic nerve damage, even magnified text is blurry. As a result, I cannot read an entire sentence at one time, or even a phrase at one time. My eyes must focus on each word individually, and this is very time consuming and exhausting. This makes reading an entire chapter of a book in one sitting essentially impossible. In college, I began a long quest to find a reading technology that would allow me to read anything effectively.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia studying mathematics, most of my textbooks were recorded on tape either by Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (now Learning Ally) or by the UGA disability resource center. My mom recorded my books that I was not able to get on tape otherwise. This was a tremendous help to me. Because of the volunteers of the two organizations, I was able to listen to all of the chapters that I needed for class. I could listen to a day’s readings for my classes in an hour or two. This made the difference between being able to prepare for class and having to do all of the reading myself (which probably would not have happened). However, this model still presented me with challenges.

An entire undergraduate textbook read aloud would often require one or two large boxes full of tapes. If the book had already been recorded then I would be sent all of the tapes. Otherwise, I would be given tapes in installments as they were recorded. The tapes were indexed by number and each tape was labelled with a range of pages that were recorded on that tape. The tapes often did not correspond to chapter boundaries so finding a particular chapter and section in order to listen to an assignment was cumbersome.

Navigation proved to be the biggest challenge when listening to reading assignments. The tape player had the expected controls (rewind, fast forward, play, and stop). The player also had a speed setting for listening to the speech played at a faster rate. A low electronic tone was recorded on the tape at the start of each page. These page tones could be heard when fast forwarding or rewinding the tape, allowing a listener to count the number of pages being skipped. A different tone was recorded between chapters. If I wanted to find a particular page on a tape, I would have to start at the beginning of the tape and fast forward, listening for the chapter tone for the appropriate chapter, and then count the number of pages that were skipped until I found the appropriate page.

Having dozens of tapes per term and having to work at finding a particular page on a tape were not points of complaint for me because I was just happy to have access to the books. However, when I started graduate school, I no longer needed undergraduate introductory textbooks. I needed more specialized texts like journal articles and conference papers. These were not available on tape and finding people to read them became more difficult. That is when I realized that, as profoundly helpful as the books on tape model was to me, its biggest drawback was that it does not scale for providing real-time audio access to any text.

In graduate school, not being able to read text, or listen to it as needed, put me at an enormous time disadvantage. I began experimenting with reading technology and office suites that could scan printed pages, convert the images to text, and then read the text aloud. This was in the late 1990s and the tools were not user-friendly. My flat-bed scanner took roughly 60 seconds to scan a single page. The optical character recognition (OCR) software would take another 20 seconds to convert the page to text. Once I had scanned all of the pages that I needed to read and converted them all to text, I had to export the text and load it into a text-to-speech program to read it to me. This entire process required my intervention at every step. It is true that this process theoretically gave me audio access to printed text but it was not a time-efficient solution.

Out of frustration, I took the summer off in 1998 to try to write some programs on my own in an attempt to automate and improve parts of the task of producing speech from printed text with hopes of removing some of the time disadvantage that I faced. Over the course of that summer, I understood that it was a hard problem but that it was also an interesting problem with plenty of room for me to make a contribution. At the end of the Spring semester of 1999, I left mathematics to focus on computer science with an interest in developing an accessible reading technology for the sight-impaired.

In the posts that follow, I will describe my journey in this field that has led to Skimcast and some of the problems that I have faced and some of the solutions that I have found.


2 Replies to “Seeing Things Differently: Seeking An Accessible Reading Technology”

    1. Thanks! That is the approach that I grew up with. Waiting for others to find a solution is sometimes a long wait, and it is often the case that the people with the best intuition for how to solve a problem are the people who actually face the problem.

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