Simple to Complex Ways for Access to Text

Text to speech options have been available for as long as I can remember.  When I arrived at one of the schools I worked with in the old Apple IIe days, one of my students was adamant that I looked at his computer immediately.  “It’s saying once you pon a time”!  Can you fix it so it reads the right way?  The speech dictionaries then were not as robust as they are now, and there were many times that editing the pronunciation became a game of trial and error to find the best way to get the pronunciation as close as possible.  Single syllable words like “pig” were really difficult; it said “piguh” instead.

So what exactly does “text to speech” do and how does it differ from “screen reading” software?

Check out the comparison on the Disability Services Web Site: Text to Speech and Screen Reading Software

There are free versions of software that can assist in testing out how a document sounds using text to speech.  Natural Reader, Balabolka, Zabboware, and Central Access Reader are examples of open source software.  The options available will vary, but they are useful tools and can also be shared with students as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) options.

Most of these programs require that the user selects text with a mouse.  There are no keyboard commands to remember, and typically once text is selected, it is either read by hovering the mouse or by clicking on a play button to read the text aloud.

Additionally, faculty can be logged in to Pellissippi State’s license for Kurzweil 3000 as instructors and use the software for presenting text with speech as well as testing documents with different voices.

Kurzweil 3000 offers additional tools that can be used to highlight text, extract notes and create vocabulary lists with definitions.  Students who have access to Kurzweil as a part of their accommodation plan can use those files within Kurzweil.  These files can be saved as text and shared with students who are using Open Source software with text to speech.  Files can also be saved as mp3 formats for use on mobile devices.

A key issue for those who use text to speech is voice quality.  Most programs have a way to change the reading speed as well as the pitch.  Some also have additional higher quality voices either available as options for use, or through additional purchases.

Free versions of screen reading software such as NVDA and Window Eyes can be downloaded and used for testing purposes.  Window Eyes has a free version for Office.   Each program uses specific keystroke commands in order to read accessible documents.  Each also has a keystroke that will turn the speech on and off while using the software. These screen reading programs use keystroke commands and do not require the use of a mouse.  There is a learning curve to remember the keystroke commands.

In either case, these Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approaches to creating text documents will assist all students.

The alternate text for images that is imbedded for use with screen reading software will not be available to students who are using text to speech, unless that text is also placed within the document.  Adding the alternate text within the document will assist all students in making sense of the content presented.  Links that are described and listed as moving to another window will assist all students when reading text aloud.  A screen reader user will be alerted that there is a link by the software, while a student using text to speech will be able to hear the link’s label by selecting the link and using the tools within the software to read it aloud.

Tools for use before downloading to desktop computers are available on each campus in the ERC at designated stations.   There are also videos on YouTube that can offer a preview of how things work. Try them out!

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