10 January 2011

Assistive Technology: What The New York Times didn't tell you

It is nice that The New York Times occasionally publishes a positive story about technology in education amidst their standard "oh, we're distracted" fare. But it is unfortunate when that information is incomplete and inaccurate in presentation.

Lisa Guernsey works for the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation,
not directly for
The New York Times
High Tech Help, published on January 7, 2011, has some valid suggestions, but it is outdated, and leans toward that ugly realm of "brand advocacy."

So here is what The New York Times and Lisa Guernsey left out:

Speech Recognition - speech-to-text - doesn't only come from Dragon. It is available at no extra cost on every Windows computer running Windows 7 (or Windows Vista). The Windows Speech Recognition system has some significant advantages over Dragon, especially for "immature" voices and in terms of working across the widest range of web and software applications.

There is also VLingo, for just $20 lifetime, which offers Text-To-Speech and Speech Recognition for Android and BlackBerry.

WordTalk might be the best free Text-To-Speech system. Yes, it is limited to Windows and Microsoft Word, but within those common contexts WordTalk provides word-by-word highlighting with excellent settings control and instant conversion of text to mp3 files.

PowerTalk, which provides text-to-speech for Microsoft PowerPoint, is another free essential tool. And though, yes, we all love Prezi, Prezi is not accessible, and really has no place in public education at this time.

WYNN (from the JAWS people), much less expensive and appropriate for a wider range of ages than Kurzweil 3000, should have been included in the Text-To-Speech paragraph. We should be "brand agnostics" here, looking for whatever works for each student.

I love CLiCk-Speak, and I'm proud that my conversations with the brilliant Charles L. Chen at the CSUN Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities in 2005 contributed to its development from the FireVox platform, but, CLiCk-Speak development has halted and it does not work with all systems. So it is vital to link people to newer answers, notably FoxVox (for Windows) and Speaking Fox (for Mac OS).

There needed to be a deeper discussion of EduApps from RSC-Scotland North+East. Or you might look at our Michigan version, the Freedom Stick, whose new version - coming later this month - includes the screen reader Balabolka. These "carry anywhere" tools represent an exciting way around the bad rules of bad school districts which block access.

Going back to Firefox, there are so many add-ons for accessibility, which should have been discussed. In Michigan we've collected these into two collections - one for PCs, one for Mac OS. You may also want to look at the Bookshare Firefox DAISY Book Reader.

Anyway, I appreciate The New York Times discovering "Assistive Technology" but I wish they had done a bit more research, and written a slightly more useful article.

- Ira Socol


jpkitchener said...

Interesting post and ideas. I agree that the article did stick to "branded technologies" and didn't really address the extensive collection of free or inexpensive options available.
One of your points has made me think:
"Prezi is not accessible, and really has no place in public education at this time."
I love Prezi, use it all the time, and my class of students with a variety of disabilities also use it. I like it even though your aren't able to integrate it with assistive technology. To say that it has no place in public education is a little bit of an over reaction to its limitations. I'm sure that this will be addressed in the near future with Prezi. Also, it makes sense to present a variety of tools to students while explaining the strengths and weaknesses and allow them to choose which is best for their success.
Thanks again! You post (and the NYT article were good reads)

irasocol said...


Yes, good point. Let me change this phrase to:

"Prezi should not be used in public education unless an equally available and equally effective alternative accessible format is routinely provided."

I put it this way because you are right, I'm not against books in school despite their inaccessibility, I just want every student to be able to choose an alternative to print without hoop-jumping. Likewise, Prezi is cool, but I'd be upset if I was one of your students and Prezi was suddenly taken away from me because a visually-impaired student or an English-Language Learner entered the classroom.

So Prezi with prepared alternative, yes. Prezi without that, I still say "No."

I've been waiting for Prezi to address accessibility since it was introduced. They have invested in many changes since then, including their new, non-accessible, iPhone app. Accessibility does not seem a priority to the Prezi team.

- Ira Socol

Akesha said...

Hi Ira,
I appreciate this post. I have been able to refer several people to it, and they have been grateful as well.