1999 Conference Proceedings

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Choosing a Reading Tool for Print Access

Renee Clark and Mary Ann Sember

There are a variety of tools available for individuals with reading difficulties to use to access print. These tools are grouped into the general description of "reading machines." A reading machine is a combination of technologies that provides access to print through speech output and modification of visual presentation. The basic components of a reading machine include a scanner, a processor, optical character recognition software, speech synthesis, and an optional visual display. It can be daunting to differentiate between the various products in order to choose the optimal solution for a particular individual or setting. This presentation will provide assessment strategies and guidelines for choosing a reading system. It will also introduce three possible solutions based on the results of the assessment.

In assessing an individual to determine the optimum reading solution, the following must be considered:

When assessing an individual who is blind or visually impaired for a reading solution, consider the following. What is the preferred mode of access to information: large-print, speech, braille or a combination of modalities? Does the individual possess keyboard skills? What is the individual's comfort level with technology? What tasks does the person want to accomplish with their system? Is there a need to edit the information after its been scanned and read? To produce hard-copy braille from the document? In the evaluation process, it is helpful to have the individual bring a sampling of the types of materials s/he wishes to access. This will provide the most realistic and accurate view of how the various options will meet the specific needs of the individual.

For a person who has difficulty reading print for reasons other than visual impairment (i.e. dyslexia, vertigo, or other learning disabilities), it is helpful to understand where the individual's strengths and weaknesses lie in accessing information. Does the individual possess stronger auditory or visual skills? Is a bi-modal approach most effective? Does the individual have difficulty processing too much information at one time, tracking text across a line, or focusing on the material to be accessed? Is comprehension an issue? Does text out of context pose an obstacle to comprehension? Does the individual need to access print documents and electronic files?

Taking into consideration the factors listed above, three different reading solutions developed by Arkenstone will be demonstrated: VERA (Very Easy Reading Appliance), Open Book, and WYNN - What You Need Now. Although each of these can be used to convert printed materials to speech and/or large print output, each system provides a different approach to accessing print information that is tailored to the needs of the individual and the setting in which it will be used. Demonstrations of the basic features of each of these solutions will be provided. Focus of the demonstrations will be on practical applications in the home, educational, rehabilitation, or employment setting. Examples of how to most effectively place and utilize these reading tools in various settings will be provided.

VERA, an acronym for Very Easy Reading Machine, is a complete reading system designed to help a "technology-shy" person with vision loss read print. It consists of a tactile, easy-to-use keypad, a scanner, and a "reader" that stores the information that has been scanned. (The "reader" is actually a computer. However, the VERA user does not interact with it in the traditional sense of a computer.) An optional monitor displays the scanned information in large print, for use by an individual with low vision. VERA requires no computer knowledge or keyboard skills. The spoken messages are in plain English as opposed to "computereze". VERA is typically used by a single user in a home environment or in a group environment such as a library where ease of use is critical and available training is minimal.

Open Book is typically used by individuals who have at least basic keyboard skills and often wish to use a computer for other applications in addition to accessing print. Open Book is a PC-based software solution that reads books, manuals, and other printed materials aloud and can optionally output the text to a monitor or braille display. This text can be read, stored in a library, or formatted for use in one of many popular PC applications, such as WordPerfect or Microsoft Word.

Open Book can be used by people of varying computer experience and skill. It uses a standard computer keyboard interface, with nearly all functions available through the 17-key number pad. Its Beginning Mode is sufficient for most people's needs and requires very little training. In this mode, Open Book uses automatic contrast control to adjust for the best possible scan. Using the Intermediate or Advanced Modes, users can adjust details in the scanning and reading process to optimize their workstation for their own needs. Open Book's multi-SSIL drivers allow users to launch Windows applications and move seamlessly between Open Book and other SSIL-based screen readers. Open Book is typically used by an individual in a home, school or work environment.

WYNN - What You Need Now, is PC-based software to help people with reading challenges read more easily and with greater comprehension. WYNN relies heavily on a point and click interface for quick and easy access to its large, color-coded tool bars. Its bimodal approach presents information in both auditory and visual format. WYNN incorporates a variety of recognized study aids such as highlighting, bookmarks, and text and voice annotations, as well as an online dictionary and thesaurus, to increase effective reading and comprehension. WYNN also allows the user to increase the line and word spacing to compensate for visual bleed and other perceptual difficulties. WYNN is most often used by people from middle school age to adult.

Most of the field research has been done with high school and college-aged students. WYNN is available in two versions, WYNN - with optical character recognition for print access, and WYNN Reader - for accessing electronic files only. WYNN is designed to be used by a single individual, or by multiple users in an educational setting. It's flexible configurability enables users to easily customize it to their needs and preferences.

Print provides a barrier to information access to many individuals with blindness, visual impairment, or learning disability. Thoroughly assessing the individual's needs can assist in choosing the right solution for access to information. This solution can increase the level of independence, privacy, and enhancement to the home, school, rehabilitation, or employment setting afforded a person with a reading disability.

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