There are so many really wonderful ways to provide literacy support to those with "print disabilities," and they each have a range of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to matching these software products up with specific students. But I'd class this group of solutions into two categories, first, those best used as universal design solutions, and second, those with the most powerful study skill and set-up options for students who need the highest levels of support.
That latter group includes Freedom Scientific's WYNN 4 and Kurzweil 3000, and those will be the topic of the next blog. This one is devoted to what I might call the "UDL class," although the first one here comes very, very close to crossing over between categories.
First though, I need to address a huge issue in this area of Assistive Technology. This is the negative impact of the "solutions" from Premier Assistive Technology. All through the conference I've heard complaints about how this is being "sold" (almost given away) to schools. How it simply doesn't work. How it both gives AT and digital literacy support a bad name while giving school administrators an excuse to not really make their schools accessible. Students report that it does not work. Teachers report incredible frustration. Trainers report that it is often hard to get teachers or students to try anything else after struggling with it. Steve Timmer, who founded Premier, is a nice guy, but he is doing some real damage to this field.
OK, enough of the negative. Here's the positive. Let's start with Text-Help's Read-and-Write-Gold v.8. This is an extraordinary literacy support suite that runs, primarily, as a tool-bar allowing you to read in other applications. Because of this, because it does not change "the look" of the computer screen, it seems easier to teach students to use. It is not quite as "robust" a literacy-in-education tool as WYNN and Kurzweil (a brilliant young man that met here, Izac Milstein Ross, notes that it lacks the true study supports of the others), but it might be the best UDL solution to ever appear. Not only does it work consistently and cleanly (great code writing), but imbedded with it are a "fact mapper" (like Inspiration), a great scientific calculator, voice-to-text capabilities, and much, much more. All in one package that costs less than either WYNN or Dragon alone (much less Kurzweil). There is also a test-maker for teachers and great pdf reading capabilities.
A really nice feature is the ability of the teacher to create "user groups" with specific features (supports) in use or not. There is also - as in WYNN and Kurzweil - the ability to convert the text directly into mp3 files (or other audio formats) and transfer this directly to CD or iPod. And there's a unique thesaurus structure called Word Finder. I could really see this applied to every computer in a school, and open to every student - without diagnosis. It is a set of solutions that perhaps 70% - 80% of students would find useful at one point or another. Read-and-Write Gold is a UK invention (from near Belfast), and has achieved a great deal of acceptance in Europe, from primary through university. In the U.S., Kentucky has chosen it as their primary state literacy support and testing solution.
Another low training solution is Plustek Book Reader. Plustek isn't a "total" solution - it has none of the "bells and whistles" of WYNN, Kurzweil, or Read-and-Write, and won't help you with math or science type books, but it is an inexpensive text-to-speech reader that comes with a great, fast scanner that doesn't make you "press-down" to get properly scanned text. "SEE (Shadow Elimination Element) Technology, for any book can be placed completely flat against the scanning glass and will result in a perfect scan with no book spine shadow or distorted lines of text." - This really is a "throw the book in" and start reading option, that has excellent low-vision applications and that could help in literacy.
Then there is ClaroRead. ClaroRead, ClaroConcepts, and WordRead are all elegant text-to-speech solutions, but they lack the kind of word and sentence highlighting that helps students learn. But they are inexpensive and stunningly easy to use. If price is your only consideration, and your staff won't convert documents into the free Microsoft Reader, then this would surely beat anything from Premier.
None of this is to suggest that Microsoft Reader and Firefox FoxyVoice (or the more complex FireVox) should not also be on every computer in your school. They are 100% free, and not having them really means that your school isn't trying.
As promised, I'll look at WYNN and Kurzweil, and how they are being used in "best practices" as soon as I can.
from Los Angeles where the beach - at Manhattan Beach - was just lovely today... Ira Socol