REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 13, 2007 — Most of us have probably given little thought to the mental gymnastics involved when we read text in a book or on a computer screen. But every time we look at text there’s a whole lot more going on than the literal meaning of the words.
In order to navigate text, parse information, speed-read, skim over sections and locate the data that interests us, we perform a complex calculus of considerations for which we rely on visual cues like the table of contents, formatting, indentations, the index and the glossary to guide us as our eyes dance across the pages.
Now imagine instead that you were suddenly deprived of all that rich visual data and that the information was presented in one crude mass of undifferentiated text that you had to slog through sequentially in linear fashion from cover to cover.
For the 180 million blind or visually impaired people worldwide and the millions more who are otherwise print disabled, unable to process text because of cognitive, learning, developmental, perceptual or physical disabilities, that is often what it feels like when using analog audio recordings to access the same information the rest of us take for granted in books or on screen.
“When you don’t see print, you lose more than the ability to read words,” explains Jim Marks, director of services for students with disabilities at the University of Montana, who went blind as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. “You lose the ability to see the page, jump around in the text and be drawn to bolded or italicized information.”
“When I switched from the ability to read print to audio, it was like a stream of consciousness. Trying to find the page number on an audio cassette was a miserable experience.”
In an increasingly information-driven society, it’s an issue of equity, Marks says, particularly for blind or visually impaired students. “It’s not just access to information that gives students equal footing, but the ability to manipulate that information.”
Efforts to level the playing field for print-disabled readers received a major boost this week with news that Microsoft is developing a tool for Microsoft Word, to be released as a downloadable plug-in at no charge early next year, that will enable the translation of millions of Open XML documents into DAISY XML, the lingua franca of the globally accepted Digital Access Information SYstem, or DAISY, standard for digital talking books.
The DAISY Consortium, a coalition of talking-book libraries and nonprofit organizations, was formed in 1996 to harness the rich capabilities opened up by the transition from analog to digital technology to ensure that all published information is available to people with print disabilities at the same time and at no greater cost in accessible, feature-rich, navigable format.
DAISY-formatted files enable users to scroll through auditory content using simple keystrokes to hone in on specific sections, and configure its playback to skip over items like footnotes.
DAISY material can be played on dedicated devices or on PCs by installing special software.
“DAISY enhances the reading experience to most closely approximate how sighted people read print,” Marks says.
“It gives you the power to be a sophisticated reader,” says George Kerscher, secretary general of the DAISY Consortium. DAISY’s specifications have been shaped by feedback from talking book users and the spectrum of needs they identified, he says.
Those with low vision lamented, for instance, that with auditory cassettes they could hear the words but not see how they were spelled, Kerscher recounts. Accordingly, DAISY gives these users the option of visually following the text in large print as it is heard. People who are blind can track auditory output using a refreshable Braille display composed of tiny electronically-activated pins that pop up to denote words on screen as they pass their fingertips along the display.
DAISY works by creating a digital audio file narrating the document’s content that maps to a text file with the XML structure of the text marked up.
“It transforms visual information into semantic information,” explains Kerscher. “If there’s something on the screen that’s very large, centered, bold and in a special font, when that’s exported [to DAISY] it’s marked semantically as a heading based on its structure.
“There’s synergy between the content and the reading system. Information like page numbers and terms marked as footnotes allow navigation.”
Myriad documents can be made more accessible with DAISY, says Rajiv Shah, a federal government contractor who is blind and an avid DAISY user. “If you rely on documents for reference, you can jump to information…under different headings – all these things are indexed. It increases users’ efficiency.”
DAISY has been widely hailed as a quantum leap for readers with print disabilities, and some 300,000 DAISY reading systems have been sold, Kerscher says.
Still, despite such demand, people who are blind or visually impaired remain acutely underserved by the amount of material available in DAISY and other alternative formats.
Just 5 percent of the material available to sighted readers has been converted into accessible formats, Kerscher says.
He has high hopes that Microsoft’s support will place DAISY on the radar of mainstream publishing and be a catalyst for wider dissemination of material in alternative formats.
“Microsoft’s announcement is monumental in greatly facilitating the availability of text in DAISY books,” Kerscher says. “It provides a clear, production path for organizations and universities who will be able to use the Microsoft plug-in to move into DAISY XML. Putting tools in the hands of people who create content is a giant step toward creating equal access to information.
“It’s going to move DAISY…from the niche of the libraries for the blind community into the mainstream,” adds Kerscher, who hopes Microsoft’s move will galvanize publishers to “repurpose material for sale to people with print disabilities.”
Meanwhile DAISY’s utility extends to a wide variety of people and situations.
The capability to synchronize auditory and visual delivery of text offers “dual reinforcement” that helps language learners as well as dyslexic readers, Kerscher says. And the capacity to switch between auditory delivery of text and reading it visually could be handy for sighted users transitioning between eye-busy scenarios like driving and other situations.
DAISY is also a boon for elderly people with deteriorating vision who may not have experience utilizing computer-based solutions. “Elderly people can use a DAISY player without the complexity of a computer,” says Kerscher. The number of blind seniors in the United States alone is projected to increase by 50 percent between 2015 and 2030 to 2.4 million.
Consideration of special needs is an integral part of Microsoft’s product design process. The Open XML-DAISY XML Translator builds on Microsoft’s long-standing commitment to promoting information access for users with disabilities.
For Marks, the ability to “Save as DAISY” in Microsoft Office Word represents an important validation of disabled users’ needs and sends a powerful message to society at large.
“I’m incredibly impressed with Microsoft’s leadership on this. I feel, as a person with a disability who uses this technology, acknowledged and recognized – that’s a good thing.”