Posts Tagged ‘audio reading’

Vision What do Vision Losers want to know about technology?

April 5, 2010


Hey, I’ve been off on a tangent from writing about adjusting to vision loss rather on a rant about and praise for website accessibility. Also absorbing my blogging efforts was a 2nd run of Sharing and Learning on the Social Web, a lifelong learning course. My main personal tutors remain the wise people of #a11y on Twitter and their endless supply of illuminating blog posts and opinions. You can track my fluctuating interests and activities on Twitter @slger123.

To get back in action on this blog, I thought the WordPress stat search terms might translate into a sort of FAQ or update on what I’ve learned recently. Below are subtopics suggested by my interpretations of the terms people used to reach this blog. Often inaccurately, some people searching for tidbits on movies or books called ‘twilight’ might be surprised to read a review of the memories of an elder gent battling macular degeneration in the 1980s. Too bad, but there are also people searching for personal experience losing vision and on technology for overcoming limitations of vision loss. These folks are my target audience who might benefit from my ramblings and research. By the way, comments or guest posts would be very welcome..


This post focuses on technology while the next post addresses more personal and social issues.

Technology Theme: synthetic speech, screen readers software, eBooks, talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • stuff for blind people
  • writing for screen readers
  • artificial digital voice mp3
  • non-visual reading strategies
  • book readers for people with legal blind
  • technology for people with a print-disability
  • apps for reading text
  • what are the best synthetic voices
  • maryanne wolf brain’s plasticity
  • reading on smart phones
  • disabled people using technology
  • synthetic voice of booksense
  • technology for legally blind students
  • audio reading devices
  • reading text application
  • synthetic speech in mobile device
  • the use of technology and loss of eyesight
  • installer of message turn into narrator

NVDA screen reader and its voices

    Specific terms on NVDA reaching this blog:

  • NVDA accessibility review
  • voices for nvda
  • nvda windows screen reader+festival tts 1
  • videos of non visual desktop access
  • lag in screen reader speaking keys
  • nvda education accessibility

Terminology: screen reader software provides audio feedback by synthetic voice to users operating primarily on a keyboard, announcing events, listing menus, and reading globs of text.


How is NVDA progressing as a tool for Vision Losers?
Very well with increased acceptance. NVDA (non Visual Desktop Access) is a free screen reader developing under an international project of innovative and energetic participants with support from Mozilla and Yahoo!. I use NVDA for all my web browsing and Windows work, although I probably spend more hours with nonPC devices like the Levelstar Icon for Twitter, email, news, RSS as well as bookSense and Bookport for reading and podcast listening. NVDA continues to be easy to install, responsive, gradually gaining capabilities like Flash and PDF, but occasionally choking from memory hog applications and heavy duty file transfers. Rarely do I think I’m failing from NVDA limitations but I must continually upgrade my skills and complaint about website accessibility (oops, there I go again). Go to:

The voice issue for NVDA is its default startup with a free open source synthesizer called eSpeak. The very flexible youngsters living with TTS (text-to-speech) their whole lives are fine with this responsive voice which can be carried anywhere on a memory stick and adapted for many languages. However, oldsters often suffer from Synthetic voice shock” and run away from the offensive voices. Now devices like Amazon Kindle and the iPod/iTouch gadgets use a Nuance-branded voice quality between eSpeak and even more natural voices from Neo Speech, ATT, and other vendors. Frankly, this senior citizen prefers older robotic style voices for book reading especially when managed by excellent firmware like Bookport Classic from APH. Here’s the deal: (1) give eSpeak a chance then (2) investigate better voices available at Voice and TextAloud Store at Nextup.com. Look carefully at licensing as some voices work only with specific applications. The main thing to remember is that your brain can adapt to listening via TTS with some practice and then you’ll have a world of books, web pages, newspapers, etc. plus this marvelous screen reader.

Apple Mania effects on Vision Losers

Translation:What are the pro and con arguments for switching to Apple computers and handheld devices for their built in TTS?
Good question. Screenless Switcher is a movement of visually impaired people off PCs to Macs because the latest Mac OS offers VoiceOver text-to-speech built in. Moreover, the same capabilities are available on the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad, with different specific voices. Frankly, I don’t have experience to feel comfortable with VoiceOver nor knowledge of how many apps actually use the built-in capabilities. I’m just starting to use an iTouch (iPod Touch) solely for experimentation and evaluation. So far, I haven’t got the hang of it, drawing my training from podcasts demonstrating iPhone and iTouch. Although I consider myself skilled at using TTS and synthetic speech, I have trouble accurately understanding the voice on the iTouch, necessary to comfortably blend with gesturing around a tiny screen and, gulp, onscreen keyboard. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here as I need enough apps and content to make the iTouch compelling to gain usage fluency but need more fluency and comfort to get the apps that might hook me. In other words, I’m suffering from mild synthetic voice shock compounded by gesture shyness and iTunes overload.


My biggest reservation is the iTunes strong hold on content and apps because iTunes is a royal mess and not entirely accessible on Windows, not to mention wanting to sell things I can get for free. Instead of iTunes, I get my podcasts in the Levelstar Icon RSS client and move them freely to other devices like the Booksense. Like many others with long Internet experrience, such as RSS creator and web tech critic Dave Winer, I am uncomfortable at Apple’s controlling content and applications and our very own materials, limiting users to consumers and not fostering their own creativity. Could I produce this blog on an iPad? I don’t know. Also, Apple’s very innovative approach to design doesn’t result in much help to the web as a whole where everybody is considered competitors rather than collaborators for Apple’s market share. Great company and products, but not compelling to me. The Google OS Android marketplace is more open and will rescue many apps also developed for Apple products but doesn’t seem to be yet accessible at a basic level or in available apps. Maybe 2010 is the year to just listen and learn while these devices and software and markets develop while I continue to live comfortably on my Windows PC, Icon Mobile Manager and docking station, and book readers. Oh, yeah, I’m also interested in Gnome accessibility, but that’s a future story.

The glorious talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • talking ATM instructions
  • security features for blind in ATM


What could be more liberating than to walk up to a bank ATM and transact your business even if you cannot see the screen? Well, this is happening many locations and is an example for the next stage of independence: store checkout systems. Here’s my experience. Someone from the bank or experienced user needs to show you where and how to insert your card and ear buds plug. After that the ATM should provide instructions on voice adjustment and menu operations. You won’t be popular if you practice first time at a busy location or time of day, but after that you should be as fast as anybody fumbling around from inside a car or just walking by. Two pieces of advice: (1) pay particular attention to CANCEL so you can get away gracefully at any moment and (2) always remove ear buds before striding off with your cash. I’ve had a few problems: an out of paper or mis-feed doesn’t deliver a requested receipt, the insert card protocol changed from inline and hold to insert and remove, an unwanted offer of a credit card delayed transaction completion, and it’s hard to tell when a station is completely offline. I’ve also dropped the card, sent my cane rolling under a car, and been recorded in profanity and gestures by the surveillance camera. My biggest security concern, given the usual afternoon traffic in the ATM parking lot, is the failure to eject or catch a receipt, which I no longer request. But overall, conquering the ATM is a great step for any Vision Loser. It would also work for MP3 addicts who cannot see the screen on a sunny day.

Using WordPress</h4

Terms:

    >

  • Wordpress blogging platform accessibility >

  • wordpress widget for visual impaired

Translation: (1) Does WordPress have a widget for blog readers with vision impairments, e.g. to increase contrast or text size? (2) Does WordPress editing have adjustments for bloggers with vision impairment?


(2) Yes, ‘screen settings’ provides alternative modes of interaction, e.g. drag and drop uses a combo to indicate position in a selected navigation bar. In general, although each blog post has many panels of editing, e.g. for tags, title, text, visibility, etc. these are arranged in groups often collapsed until clicked for editing, if needed. Parts of the page are labeled with headings (yay, H2, H3,…) that enable a blog writer with a screen reader to navigate rapidly around the page. Overall, good job, WordPress!


However, (1) blog reader accessibility is a bit more problematic. My twitter community often asks for the most accessible theme but doesn’t seem to converge on an answer. Using myself as tester, I find WordPress blogs easy to navigate by headings and links using the NVDA screen reader. But I’m not reading by eyesight so cannot tell how well my own blog looks to either sighted people or ones adjusting fonts and contrasts. Any feedback would be appreciated, but so far no complaints. Frankly, I think blogs as posts separated by headings are ideal for screen reading and better than scrolling if articles are long, like mine. Sighted people don’t grok the semantics of H2 for posts, h3, etc. for subsections, etc. My pet peeve is themes that place long navigation sidebars *before* the contnent rather than to the right. When using a screen reader I need to bypass these and the situation is even worse when the page downloads as a post to my RSS clinet. So, recommendation on WordPress theme: 2 column with content preceding navigation, except for header title and About.

Books. iBooks, eBooks, Kindle, Google Book Search, DAISY, etc.

Terms

  • kindle+accessibility
  • how to snapshot page in google book
  • is kindle suitable for the visually impaired?
  • how to unlock books “from kindle” 1
  • is a kindle good for partially blind peo 1
  • access ability of the kindle

I’ll return to this broad term of readers and reading in a later post. Meantime, here’s an Nytimes Op article on life cycle and ecosystem costs of print and electronic books. My concern is that getting a book into one’s sensory system, whether by vision or audio, is only the first step in reading any material. I’m working on a checklist for choices and evaluation of qualities of reading. More later.

Searching deeper into Google using the Controversy Discovery Engine

You know how the first several results from a Google search are often institutions promoting products or summaries from top ranked websites? These are often helpful but even more useful, substantive, and controversial aspects may be pushed far down in the search list pages. There’s a way to bring these more analytic pages to the surface by easily extending the search terms with words that rarely appear in promotional articles, terms that revolve around controversy and evidence. Controversy Discovery engine assists this expanded searching. Just type in the term as you would to Google and choose from one or both lists of synonym clusters to add to the term. The magic here is nothing more than asking for more detailed and analytic language in the search results. You are free to download this page to your own desktop to avoid any additional tracking of search results through its host site and to have it available any time or if you want to modify its lexicon of synonyms.
Some examples:

  1. “print disability” + dispute
  2. “legally blind” + evidence Search
  3. “NVDA screen reader” + research Search
  4. “white cane” + opinion Search
  5. “Amazon Kindle” accessibility + controversy Search

    Feedback would be much appreciated if you find this deeper search useful.

    Adjustment themes: canes, orientation and mobility, accessibility advocacy, social media, voting, resilience, memories, …

    Coming in next post!

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Amazon Kindle, Arizona State, Accessibility — What a mess!

July 6, 2009

The ACB and NFB lawsuit against ASU-Amazon textbook test program is a big deal for discrimination activism and an educational opportunity on accessibility. The detailed complaint explains difficulties of blind student textbook use at ASU and how adoption of the Amazon Kindle trial program will set a bad example.


The textbook program has caught Television public interest reports on journalism student Darrell Shandrow. Comments in Chronicle.com Wired Campus report on the lawsuit have invoked understanding and support mixed with political outrage at ADA accommodations. Related issues on Reading Rights activism on publisher/author control over text-to-speech cloud the issues of accessibility of the Kindle device itself.


The purpose of this post is to inject my own opinion as well as link to some useful resources.
I speak as a former educator who struggled with textbook bulk and price; software engineer with spoken interface development experience;
and research manager with technology transfer background.
Although not a member of either ACB or NFB, I am a
visually impaired avid reader living hours a day with text-to-speech and affectionate owner of many assistive tools described in this blog.
Oh, yeah, also an Arizona resident with some insight into ASU programs and ambitions.


I try to untangle the arguments my own way. Based on my own ignorance of a few years ago, I suspect many sighted people and those in process of losing vision lack understanding of how audio reading works. I provide a recorded demo of myself working the menus of a device for book and news reading to show the comparable capabilities lacking in the Amazon Kindle.
By the way, I’ve never seen, fondled, or considered buying a Kindled.

Untangling the Kindle-ASU-textbook Arguments

  1. Text-to-speech (TTS) is the work horse, the engine, for assistive technology (AT) for visually impaired (VI) people. TTS reads content as well as providing a spoken interface for menus, forms, selections, and other user operations. Nothing novel, implemented in dozens of devices on the market, standard expected functionality to support accessibility.
  2. Amazon product designers included TTS presumably to provide a talking interface for mobile, hands-full users. TTS could read unlocked books, news, or documents downloaded to the Kindle, but only on Kindle software and rights management platforms. This established TTS as a mainstream commodity functionality, much like a spell checker as expected in any text processor.
  3. Book authors reacted that TTS represented a different presentation for which they could not control pricing or distribution. Amazon said, “ok, we’ll flip the default to give publishers control over enabling TTS”. Accessibility activists complained “hey, you just took away an essential attractive feature of the Kindle” and “You authors, don’t you want us to buy your books in a form we can read as immediately as on-screen readers”.
  4. More experience with the Kindle revealed that the TTS capability was not implemented to support the spoken interface familiar for VI people in commodity AT devices. See our downloadable demo and referenced tutorials to understand the critical role of spoken interfaces.
  5. Bummer. The Kindle that promised to become a main stream accessible reading device was a brick, a paperweight, a boat anchor or door jamb if it weighed enough, just an inert object to someone who could not read the buttons or see menus and other interactions. Useless, cutting off 250,000 books and every other kind of content Amazon could funnel into the Kindle. Well there’s always Victor Reader, Bookport, Icon, and a host of other devices we already own plus services like Bookshare, NFB Newsline, NLS reading services, Audible commercial audios, etc. Disappointed, a step forward missed.
  6. Now universities enter the picture with a partnership opportunity to test out the Kindle on textbooks for selected courses, an educational experiment for the next academic year. Rising complaints from students about textbook costs, often $500 per semester, plus chronic dissatisfaction with the packaged all-in-one book has lead to alternative formats, even abandonment, of textbooks in many subjects. Great opportunity here to re-examine educational benefits of a product and distribution system already familiar to tech-greedy students. But would the learning outcomes hold up? Amazon doesn’t say how rigorous this test program would be, but at least there’s be more Kindle-driven classroom feedback.
  7. Uh, oh. Those darned blind students can’t use the Kindle. Can universities block them from Kindle trial courses? or let them in, relying on the established accessible material support practices forced by A.D.A.? This messes up the trial because the total population of students unfortunately includes visually impaired and a range of other disabilities. Of course, there could be an economic winner here to reduce accessible material preparation costs, easily as much as the $500 Kindle when all staff and scanning prep time are included. Or even insights might be gained into how Kindle mitigates learning difficulties for some disabilities. Ouch, though conversely, it could be that reading on-screen amplifies learning difficulties students have overcome with print practices. Well, it’s a trial, an experiment, right? But, actually, this taxpayer and researcher asks, what are the parameters and the point of the trial program with several universities? Huh, just asking, can’t find any detail.
  8. So the well-lawyered NFB and ACB get together and back a long-time accessibility activist and now ASU student in a lawsuit injunction. Why get so huffy and legal? Outsiders don’t know in detail what mediation or requests have already been suggested and rebuffed but, just guessing, these organizations are probably long on experience and short on patience on accessibility issues and promises. There’s a history of Apple pushing onto universities IPods and ITunes when these devices and services weren’t accessible. Settling with the Massachusetts blind services, Apple finally got out an accessible ITunes. Amazon has a legal record on accessibility as does the LSAT.com registration website. I can well understand the reasoning that a big gorilla like Amazon won’t take time for accessibility if it can avoid doing so, for both profit and ego motives. The lawsuit simply says “Time out! Amazon, you can make the Kindle accessible just like standard practice with AT we already use.” And “ASU and other universities, don’t even think of harming VI students or taking on a tainted experiment that excludes VI students”. What’s the hurry, everybody? The textbook problem won’t be solved next year, the market will always be there, so it’s possible to have a trial that’s fair, responsible, and more informative if accessibility is counted in.
  9. Now, even local Phoenix television stations got interested in the story and, wow, what an educational moment! ASU public relations, still not recovered from their Obama honorary degree fiasco, responded with a flat “we have disability services in place. That’s enough!”. But this taxpayer thinks differently. Part of the experiment is rapid delivery of texts and other materials, perhaps challenging or disrupting disability services. And if the Kindle device itself is part of a trial, then what happens with students using alternative, perhaps even superior, technology? Trivia like different pagination in Kindle texts compared with converted texts distributed to VI students might introduce problems. Isn’t this setting up the trial for either (1) obvious bias by exclusion of VI students or (2) additional burden on VI students? Why not just wait until the device is comparable enough that harm is minimized and more is knowable in the long run about learning outcomes and economic models?
  10. But, wait, there might be a real technology barrier here. Software engineers know that the cost of repair for a missing requirement goes way up long after design, becoming deadly after deployment. Accessibility was not a requirement for the reader device although it’s a legal requirement in the university marketplace. Oops, this was a blunder. If the design of the Kindle software permits sliding in functionality like calls to the TTS engine, retrofit might not be too bad. But there’s a browser, keyboard, and lots of interactions that could get tricky. Usability is notably difficult to do well without experimentation and iteration. So, this is just one more case study relevant to the many software engineering texts in the Amazon market.
  11. Finally, as others have commented, regarding the Chronicle.com forum, railing against A.D.A. as an intrusion on public rights, a sign of backwardness for disabled individuals, and general disregard of human rights is, well, sickening. I wish those detractors a broken leg during a health insurance lapse with a long flight of stairs to the rest room. That’s life, bozos, and we’ll all be disabled in the long run.

What is the listening experience? Hear me show you!

I use the Levelstar Icon to download books from Bookshare.org. My library is currently about 1000 books, complemented by daily doses of news feeds and newspapers. I’ve turned this situation into a demo:

download the 15 minute AYWC-reading-demo.mp3 from http://apodder.org/stumbles/
You’ll hear me narrating book downloads and reading. The demo illustrates both (1) TTS reading books and news and (2) working around menus and lists of books do perform operations commonly shown ona screen. This latter capability is the crux of the Kindle accessibility disagreement.


For more information on this device and interface, the Levelstar.com audio tutorials illustrate the standard practice of supplanting screens with voice-enabled menus. For the record, the operating environment is Linux and the designers of the Icon and its partner product APH BraillePlus are blind. Personally, I think the mainstream product capabilities have a lot to learn and gain from the AT industry it has so far excluded. Perhaps, following the Curb Cuts principle even better, universal designs will emerge from this mess.

Resilience: Bouncing Back from Vision Loss

June 28, 2009

Definition: Resilience: : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change
Miriam Webster


This post assembles some thoughts on resilience in adjusting to vision loss. Sighted readers of this blog will learn more about how to help Vision Losers with their various challenges. Visually impaired readers may glean both encouragement and practical tips to facilitate a reliant approach to vision loss. Three books are referenced: Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards; A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts; and What Blind People Want Sighted People to Know about
Blindness’ by Harry Martin. This post builds on emotional themes from the past 2 years.

Book: Resilience as Articulated by Elizabeth Edwards


Listening to the May 21 Diane Rehm interview with Elizabeth Edwards on her new book got me thinking about the factors that affect my personal resilience regarding vision loss. Let’s forget the modifier “easily” in the above definition but consider success measured in timeframe’s of months and probably other units relative to individuals, such as employment, relationships, or education. The main point is that some people seem more resilient; now, why is that?


Edwards is out there talking about her adversities because she has a limited life span in which she believes her testimonies will positively affect others. That worked for me. Her loss of parents is, of course, common to all of us, in my case, a mother’s 20 year battle with lupus and crippling arthritis while raising three children and helping her own parents. Edwards lost a 16 year old son in an automobile accident, trusting his ability to drive in slightly challenging situations, the feelings I still face with 20 somethings and remember from my own youth. Her unusually unpleasant and public problems with a philandering politician husband while fighting cancer even under the best possible financial basis are not what anyone wants to contemplate. Contrasted with early death, vision loss seems less of an adversity and more like a life alteration.


So, how did Edwards survive?
Well for one thing she finds it helpful to use her public position to talk and inspire others. Another approach is to make a major life change, like having an additional pair of children after the death of one. For her, now, the source of happiness is her start up furniture business where she has a total different framework of expertise, decisions, and colleagues.


I’ve written about energy management in the context of my Vision Loser tenets. Assuming one isn’t the type to just sit around in an adversity like vision loss, it’s interesting to examine what generates or consumes or wastes personal energy. Edwards so clearly expresses her energy rising from her furniture business in both the Diane Rehm interview and her book. I suggest that we introspect for what makes our energy levels ebb and flow, often evident in our -voices. Co-incidentally, our heroine interviewer Diane Rehm exhibits her own resilience for voice loss.

Book: The World’s Greatest Traveler, circa 1840

Jason Roberts’ book ‘A Sense of the World’ was recommended to me by a book club member. In a nutshell, British youth James Holman follows his mysterious vision loss in his early twenties with a lifetime of adventures becoming dubbed ‘The Blind Traveler’. Travel in that time period of the early 1800s is horses, coaches, boats, and feet with no way to make reservations at a motel chain or stop at fast foods at the next intersection. For sure, the travel stories are interesting, especially in Russia and France. And this is against a backdrop at home of inhospitable social treatment of blind individuals.


So, how did this blind man achieve his adventures of traveling 250,000 miles on his own. Actually, the book doesn’t describe much of what must certainly been some trying times, but here are a few factors. First, Holman had already accomplished one career in the British Navy, starting at age 12 and rising to a captain around age 16. His character was formed and he had just plain toiled very hard during his teens while France, Britain, and the U.S. battled politically and commercially. This gave him a status of officer and gentleman throughout his life, making him ever more welcome as he seemed to have accepted his vision loss and developed cheery manners for gaining help from others. Second, he found a really great gig in a philanthropic support for unfortunate naval officers, including rooms near Windsor and a bit of stipend and community. Third, he always stood out with his cane and blindness attracting attention and help. And fourth, he had a mental knack for geography and so the rigors of travel were endurable in the short run because he never seemed totally lost.
. Finally, he had a cute way of tethering himself to the moving carrier for exercise and escape from passivity.


Holman had established status as a paraprofessional who had studied chemistry and medicines at Edinburgh and his father’s pharmacy. In one travel saga, he carefully packed and memorized locations of a variety of medicines, anticipating that nobody could read the label, him from lack of eyesight and others not speaking the label language. This return to his hard won education and training to remain practically valuable to himself and others must have exhibited and facilitated resilience.


This is definitely an enjoyable book with a few additional lessons when reading and thinking about resiliency. Today with all our technology, we might not be able to get ourselves anywhere near the adventures of Holman. Logistically, we might feel obligated to gear up our GPS, WIFI for weather, and download GB of reading materials. Just packing all our adapter cords is a challenge. Moreover, safety is frequently a barrier as we face … And help along the way is often problematic. I am often asked if I need help when I pace around an airport. Sometimes I am trying to sort out the restrooms but often I just want a little exercise, but people sure think I’m lost. Even worse, occasionally people grab my arm and force me to lose balance if it looks like I’m coming too close to a chair or potted plan. Training strangers to be helpful and not hurtful just to carry on with simple travel necessities is a lot harder and more stressful than it might seem. .


What were the technologies for reading and writing in that time period?
Holman made part of his living from writing travel books, indeed invited into the Royal Society as well as battling another jealous and less talented writer. As described, he used a writing device of wires and carbon paper that could be transcribed later and free him from dictating. Now, continuing handwriting when you cannot see what you write is a skill I really admire, as I can barely sign my name!

Book: What Blind People Want Sighted People to Understand about Blindness

I find this self-published book by Floridian Harry Martin interesting in many ways but mainly as a mission I wish I could accomplish in my own life with my confusing states of eyesight and changing skill sets. Martin lost vision in his 30s and took full advantage of services provided for veterans. He doesn’t talk much about technology, but rather emphasizes relationships.


One illustrative discussion is how to tell somebody what you do, and do not, see, especially if they haven’t asked. Sure, this is a painful topic, probably more so for the sighted than the well-adjusted Vision Loser. It’s often difficult to understand how a person cannot see the food on a plate, suffering perhaps an unfortunate confusion among horseradish, mashed potato’s, and roast beef. Yet that person can walk along a contrasting sidewalk with speed and assurance. This consistent ambiguity is a routine stressor for the visually impaired.

Martin describes many aspects of mobility training, including living with a guide dog.
It’s not clear if Martin has any employment history as disabled but bases much of his social experience on community interactions. This author has used his time, energy, and organizational skills to assemble insight from many other blind people to complement his own experience.


I was especially grateful to feel included as a person with considerable residual eyesight but requiring the stamina and adjustments of print disability and mobility limitations. I also find it useful to know the extent and types of training that are available in regimented rehabilitation settings, way out of my league of experience with meager social services.

My Resilience experiences

It wasn’t until listening to Elizabeth Edwards talk about her life and book with the “national treasure” interviewer Diane Rehm that I could put a name on some of my own thinking. Indeed, a therapist tells me, “psychological resilience” is an important and well documented subject, especially related to childhood traumatic experiences. There, a “cookie person”, some one, just one person, taking an interest in a troubled child is often the most significant factor in how well children survive.

My bounces from interviews and books

Looking back 3 years to my “disability declaration day”, I can identify two major factors that moved me ahead. First was fortuitous listening to podcasts by author Susan Krieger on Dr. Moira gunn’s Tech Nation and on KQED Forum. I felt an instant recognition “yeah, vision loss in late career years, but look how she’s turned it into a positive personal and professional experience”. Although Krieger’s vision loss was unexpected and mine was anticipated for more than a dozen years, I got a sense of where I was heading. Krieger’s generous demonstration of her reading and writing equipment also provided me information I had not found available in my own community, and with the authority of her own written words.

The second factor for me was Bookshare.org. As soon as I could legally check the box for print disability, I took the simple authorization form to my optometrist, who faxed it in and within a matter of days I was registered at Bookshare and downloading. As soon as I realized I had loads of books I’d never have to pick up or return to a library outlet, no longer an easy trip for a non-driver, I really felt comforted. Then came a tangle of experiences with technology for reading, first a PC software book reader where I realized it was tough to read in bed with a Toshiba laptop. Then I investigated CD DAISY readers and ran across the APH Bookport on which I have since read hundreds of books. Bookshare’s newspaper outlet via NFB News Line enticed me to buy the Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager which provides hours of email, RSS, podcast, news, bookshare, and, recently, Twitter pleasure. Ironically, I’ve never managed to get paperwork into the NLS government provided service and remain uninspired by DRM and special equipment hassles.

But, oh, those social services


So, my passage into vision loss was relatively easy, illustrating resiliency from my technology fluency which lead to outreach beyond my current network. It’s true that to this day I have received very little help from social services which are directed to people in worse shape than I am, either financially or emotionally, often from aging. The one service that made an enormous difference was long cane training that followed my Identity Cane adoption and reflection on changed realization as a disabled person. This training and $35 device is absolutely essential for safety and mobility and only a supremely ungenerous society could deny its citizens access to safety. However, that’s how smaller, richer communities operate, as I compared with Southern Arizona Visually Impaired services.


For me, the greatest lesson in resilience in all of the above is that the individual must find a way to move ahead, action to couner the sense of loss, and immersion into the process of change. One goal of this blog is to display how well technology can provide that momentum and a range of partial solutions. This should motivate all of us to reach out to baby boomers who are technologically adept but not yet exposed to assistive technology. Note that the traditional low vision services and medical professions do a poor job, continuing to push optical solutions when audio is more appropriate.

I often read on MDSupport.orgabout the extensive and ongoing treatments for wet macular degeneration that delay and mitigate the effects of MD. I wish more people were aware of, and starting to practice use of, assistive technologies before what must be exhausting bouts of treatment. I’m convinced that medical insurance battles and the ups and downs of continued series of injections would have sapped my resiliency.

Now, there are also the daily bouts that require bouncing back. The hardest slaps for me are where I feel “professional betrayal”, like computing websites that really suck at accessibility. I also feel a twinge of demoralization when I am driven through a major intersection that I fear to cross walking because it lacks warning signals and is frequented by drivers saving a few seconds on there way to nowhere. Lack of public transportation and a richly designed community center reachable only by driving sadden me at poor public planning. But that’s another purpose of this blog, to do whatever I can to explain, illustrate with my own experience, and persistently nudge and complain. I never realized how much effort and precious energy went into activism, especially if it’s not a natural part of one’s personality.


I realize I’ve complained about lack of social service that are unevenly distributed across the U.S. Were I residing near a larger city I’d be attending more daily living classes and would have received far earlier mobility training. For me, this isn’t asking for government handouts but rather bemoaning the lack of trained personnel available to hundreds of thousands of people off the rehab grid, still active but needing different training. I simply cannot imagine what it’s like to be resilient without technology. Even ten years ago, I would have been unable to escape community limitations via technology.

Yet, I keep returning to my deepest appreciation for a $35 white stick and a few lessons from a part-time mobility trainer. Amazingly to me, the cane provides an altered sense of body location and control that in fact is a different sense of sight. Moreover, unfolding the cane causes my mind to click into independent but disabled mode, thinking every moment about what I cannot see. Also, reluctantly, I feel that I am now a symbol of both need and resilience.

Book Links

All books are available to members on Bookshare.org.
Note: I link to Amazon as an easy way to buy these books. But please do not buy the Kindle reader until
Amazon and universities stop discriminating against blind students. The issue here is that the Kindle has not been fully equipped with text to speech in its menus and operations so that all students have equal access to text books. Even then students who cannot physically hold and manipulate buttons will be left out.

  1. Elizabeth Edwards ‘Resilience: Reflections on Dealing with Life’s Adversities ‘
  2. Jason Roberts ‘A sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became the World’s greatest Traveler’ and
    NPR ‘Tales of a Blind Traveler’ review

  3. Harry Martin ‘What Blind People Want Sighted People to Know About Blindness

Related Posts from ‘As Your World Changes’


  1. 5 Tenets for Adjusting to Vision loss


  2. Memory, Identity, and Comedy: Conversations with author Susan Krieger


  3. What’s a print-disabled reader to do? Bookshare!


  4. Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability


  5. The Pleasures of Audio Reading


  6. Aren’t we Vision Losers lucky?


  7. Resources, support, and reality check for macular degenerates


  8. Consolidating links in Prescott Arizona about vision loss

The Pleasures of Audio Reading

May 22, 2009

This post expands my response to an interesting
Reading in the Dark Survey
Sighted readers will learn from the survey how established services provide reading materials to be used with assistive technology. Vision Losers may find new tools and encouragement to maintain and expand their reading lives.

Survey Requesting feedback: thoughts on audio formats and personal reading styles?

Kestrell says:

… hoping to write an article on audio books and multiple literacies but, as far as I can find, there are no available sources discussing the topic of audio formats and literacy, let alone how such literacy may reflect a wide spectrum of reading preferences and personal styles.

Thus, I am hoping some of my friends who read audio format books will be willing to leave some comments here about their own reading of audio format books/podcasts. Feel free to post this in other places.

Some general questions:
Do you read audio format books?
Do you prefer special libraries or do you read more free or commercially-available audiobooks and podcasts?
What is your favorite device or devices for reading?
Do elements such as DRM and other security measures which dictate what device you can read on influence your choices?
Do you agree with David Rose–one of the few people who has written academic writings about audio formats and reading–that reading through listening is slower than reading visually?
How many audiobooks do you read in a week (this can include podcasts, etc.)?
Do you ever get the feeling form others that audiobooks and audio formats are still considered to be not quote real unquote books, or that reading audiobooks requires less literacy skills (in other words, do you feel there is a cultural prejudice toward reading audiobooks)?
anything else you want to say about reading through listening?

This Vision Loser’s Response

Audio formats and services


I read almost exclusively using TTS on mobile readers from DAISY format books and newspapers. I find synthetic speech more flexible and faster than narrated content. For me, human narrators are more distracting than listening “through” the voice into the author’s words. I also liberally bookmark points I can re-read by sentence, paragraph, or page.


Bookshare is my primary source of books and newspapers downloaded onto the Levelstar Icon PDA. I usually transfer books to the APH BookPort and PlexTalk Pocket for reading in bed and on the go, respectively. My news streams are expanded with dozens of RSS feeds of blogs, articles, and podcasts from news, magazines, organizations, and individuals. Recently, twitter supplies a steady stream of links to worthy and interesting articles, followed on either the Icon or browser in Accessible Twitter.

I never seem to follow through with NLS or Audible or other services with DRM and setups. I find the Bookshare DRM just right and respect it fully but could not imagine paying for an electronic book I could not pass on to others. I’m about to try Overdrive at my local library. I’ve been lax about signing up for NLS now that Icon provides download. No excuses, I should diversify my services.


I try to repay authors of shared scanned books with referrals to book clubs and friends, e.g. I’ve several now hooked on Winspear’s “Macy Dobbs” series.

Reading quality and quantity

I belong to two book clubs that meet monthly as well as taking lifelong learning classes at the community college. Book club members know that my ready book supply is limited and take this into consideration when selecting books. My compact with myself is that I buy selected books not on Bookshare and scan and submit them. I hope to catch up submitted already scanned books soon. Conversely, I can often preview a book before selection and make recommendations on topics that interest book club members, e.g. Jill B. Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”. I often annoy an avid reader friend by finishing a book while she is #40 on the local library waiting list. This happens with NYTimes best sellers and Diane Rehm show reader reviews. No, I don’t feel askance looks from other readers but rather the normal responses to an aging female geek.


At any one time, I usually have a dozen books “open” on the Bookport and PlexTalk as I switch among club and course selections, fiction favorites, and heavy nonfiction. However, I usually finish 2 or 3 books a week, reading at night, with another 120 RSS feeds incoming dozens of articles daily. I believe my reading productivity is higher than before vision loss due to expedient technology delivery of content and my natural habits of skimming and reading nonlinearly. Indeed, reading by listening forces focus and concentration in a good sense and, even better, performed in just about any physical setting, posture, or other ambient conditions.
Overall, I am exquisitely satisfied with my reading by listening mode. I have more content, better affordable devices, and breadth of stimulating interests to forge a suitable reading life.

Reading wishes and wants


I do have several frustrations. (1) Books with tables of data lose me as a jumble of numbers unless the text describes the data profile. (2) While I have great access through Bookshare and NFB NewsLine to national newspapers and magazines, my state and local papers use content management systems difficult to read either online or by RSS feed. (3) Google Book Search refuses to equalize my research with others by displaying only images of pages.


For demographics, I’m 66 years old, lost last sliver of reading vision three years ago from myopic degeneration, and was only struggling a few months before settling into Bookshare. As a technologist first exposed to DECTalk in the 1980s, I appreciate TTS as a fantastically under-rated technology. However, others of my generation often respond with what I’ve dubbed “Synthetic voice shock” that scares them away from my reading devices and sources. I’d like to see more gentle introductions from AT vendors and the few rehab services available to retired vision losers. Finally, it would be great to totally obliterate the line between assistive and mainstream technology to expand the market and also enable sighted people to read as well as some of us.

References and Notes on Audio Reading

  1. Relevant previous posts from ‘As Your World Changes’

  2. Audio reading technology
    • LevelStar Icon Mobile Manager and Docking Station is my day-long companion for mail, RSS, twitter, and news. The link to Bookshare Newsstand and book collection sold me on the device. Bookshare can be searched by title, author, or recent additions, and I even hit my 100 limit last month. Newspapers download rapidly and are easy to read — get them before the industry collapses. The book shelf manager and reader are adequate but I prefer to upload in batches to the PC then download to Bookport. The Icon is my main RSS client for over 100 feeds of news, blogs, and podcasts.
    • Sadly, the American Printing House for the Blind is no longer able to maintain or distribute the Bookport due to manufacturing problems. However, some units are still around at blindness used equipment sites. The voice is snappy and it’s easy to browse through pages and leave simple bookmarks. Here is where I have probably dozens of DAISY files started, like a huge pile of books opened and waiting for my return. My biggest problem with this little black box is that my pet dog snags the ear buds as his toy. No other reader comes close to the comfort and joy of the Bookport, which awaits a successor at APH.
    • Demo of PlexTalk Pocket provides a TTS reader in a very small and comfortable package. However, this new product breaks on some books and is awkward managing files. The recording capabilities are awesome, providing great recording directly from a computer and voice memos. With a large SD card, this is also a good accessible MP3 player for podcasts.
  3. Article supporting Writers’ Guild in Kindle dispute illustrates the issues of copyright and author compensation. I personally would favor a micro payment system rather than my personal referral activism. However, in a society where a visually impaired person can be denied health insurance, where 70% unemployment is common, where web site accessibility is routinely ignored, it’s wonderful that readers have opportunities for both pleasure and keeping up with fellow book worshipers.
  4. Setting up podcast, blog, and news feeds is tricky sometimes and tedious. Here is my my OPML feeds for importing into other RSS readers or editing in a NotePad.

  5. Here’s another technology question. Could DAISY standard format, well supported in our assistive reading devices become a format suitable for distributing the promised data from recovery.gov?
    Here is a interview with DAISY founder George Kerscher on XML progress.

  6. Another physiological question is what’s going on in my brain as I switch primarily to audio mode? Are there exercises that can make that switch over more comfortable and accelerated than just picking up devices and training oneself? I’m delving into Blogs on ‘brain plasticity’
  7. (WARNING PDF) Listening to the Literacy Events of a Blind Reader – an essay by Mark Willis asks whether audio reading can cope with the critical thinking required in a complex and sometimes self-contradictory doctrine like Thomas Kuhn’s “Scientific Revolutions”. This would be a great experiment for psychology or self. Let’s also not forget the resources of Book Club Reading Lists to help determine what we missed in a reading or may have gained through audio mental processing.

Audio reading of this blog post

Lessons from 2008 ‘As your world changes’

December 31, 2008

This list compiles postings from 2008 as my Lessons Learned.

Progress in adjusting to vision loss

  1. Analytic approach for personal safety risksThinking about risks
  2. Gearing up and voting independently in 2008 elections Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing
  3. Understanding values of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability
  4. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Understanding of software applications limits and alternatives Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Appreciating the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  7. Identify accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  8. Compile and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
    Hyperlinks considered harmful

  9. Use better information for medical opinions Controversy Discovery Engine

Community Interactions

    Safety issues walking partially sighted in a neighborhood. Thinking about risks

  1. Spreading information and interest in accessible audio voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  3. Illustrating value of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability

Information for Computing Professionals

  1. Success and glitches in accessible electronic voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Explain and demonstrate how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found Hyperlinks considered harmful
  3. Demonstrate and explain the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  4. Future thinking for assistive technology and accessibility Is there a killer app for accessibility?, Curb Cuts principle for rebooting computing,
  5. Demonstrate accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  6. Illustration of quality assurance failure in major software product Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  7. Dissemination of alternative deep search method controversy Discovery Engine

Actions and Follow up

  1. Start ‘accessibility arrow’ monthly series on WCAG standards, and good and bad examples Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  2. Develop “adopt an intersection” accessible street crossing plan Thinking about risks
  3. Learn about emergency preparedness and alert systems for disabled Thinking about risks
  4. Maintain web page of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Investigate SSA, tax, HIPAA, and other official information representations and accessibility Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Revisit and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, <a href=”#Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
  7. recast accessibility, reading, writing, information processing in Computational thinking terms
  8. Promote needs for and opportunities of assistive technology and accessibility at Rebooting Computing summit, January 2009
  9. Recognize and explain high quality software and hardware products, e.g. Jarte editor in screen reader mode
  10. Promote for medical information gathering controversy Discovery Engine

Best Stuff found in 2008

  1. ‘Reading in the dark’ blog for opinions and pointers on books, media studies, and accessibility opportunities. And many other blogs, too.
  2. WordPress.com content platform for supporting edit ability, accessible templates, and tag surfing
  3. Jarte editor for easy editing based on reliable Windows Wordpad engine with added multi-documents, contextual spell checker, and screen reader mode
  4. (PD) Becky Gibson, web accessibility architect
    demo of DOJO keyboard, high contrast, and screen reader demos of ARIA applications

Links to blog postings


  1. Thinking about Risks blog Permalink
    December 2008


  2. Accessible voting worked blog Permalink
    November 2008


  3. Using the Curb Cuts Principle blog Permalink
    October 2008


  4. Literacy blog Permalink
    September 2008


  5. Voting Without Viewing blog Permalink
    August 2008


  6. Synthetic Voice Shock blog Permalink
    July 2008


  7. Hyperlinks Considered Harmful blog PermalinkJuly 2008


  8. Controversy Discovery Engine for Medical Opinions
    June 2008


  9. Technology for nonVisual Reading blog Permalink
    June 2008


  10. Writing by Listening blog Permalink
    May 2008


  11. Identity Cane and Disability Culture blog Permalink May 2008
    May 2008


  12. Intuit against High Contrast blog Permalink
    March 2008


  13. ‘Hear me stumble’ blog Permalink March 2008



  14. Killer App for Accessibility blog Permalink
    January 2008


  15. Prescott Visually Impaired Services blog Permalink
    January 2008

All posts for 2008 — HTML and audio

Synthetic Voice Shock Reverberates Across the Divides!

July 30, 2008

Synthetic Voice Shock — oh, those awful voices!


As I communicate with other persons with progressive vision loss, I often sense a quite negative reaction to synthetic, or so-called ‘robotic’, voices that enable reading digital materials and interfacing with computers. Indeed, that’s how I felt a few years ago. Let’s call this reaction "synthetic voice shock" as in:

  • I cannot understand that voice!!!
  • The voice is so inhuman, inexpressive, robotic, unpleasant!
  • How could I possibly benefit from using anything that hard to listen to?
  • If that’s how the blind read, I am definitely not ready to take that step.

Conversely, those long experienced with screen readers and reading appliances may be surprised at these adverse reactions to the text-to-speech technology they listen to many hours a day. They know the clear benefits of such voices, rarely experience difficult understandability, exploit voice regularity and adjustability, and innovate better ways of "living big" in the sighted world, to quote the LevelStar motto.

The ‘Synthetic Speech’ divide


Synthetic voice reactions appear to criss-cross many so-called divides: digital, generational, disability, and developer. The free WebAnywhere is the latest example with a robotic voice that must be overcome in order to gain the possible benefits of its wide dissemination. Other examples are talking ATM centers and accessible audio for voting machines. The NVDA installation and default voice can repel even sighted individuals who could benefit from a free screen reader as a web page accessibility checker or a way to learn about the audio assistive mode. Bookshare illustrates book reading potential by a robotic, rather than natural, voice. Developers of these tools seen the synthetic voice as a means to gain the benefits of their tools while users not accustomed to speech-enabled hardware and software run the other way at the unfriendliness and additional stress of learning an auditory rather than visual sensory practice.


This is especially unfortunate when people losing vision may turn to magnifiers that can only improve spot reading, when extra hours and energy are spent twiddling fonts then working line by line through displayed text, when mobile devices are not explored, when pleasures of book reading and quality of information from news are reduced.

Addressing Synthetic Voice Shock


I would like to turn this posting into messages directed at developers, Vision Losers, caretakers, and rehab personnel.

To Vision Losers who could benefit sooner or later

Please be patient and separate voice quality from reading opportunities when you evaluate potential assistive technology.


The robotic voice you encounter with screen readers is used because it is fast and flexible and widely accepted by the blind community. But there do exist better natural voices that can be used for reading books, news, and much more. While these voices seem initially offensive, synthetic voices are actually one of the great wonders of technology by opening the audio world to the blind and gradually becoming common in telephony and help desks.


As one with Myopic Macular Degeneration forced to break away from visual dependency and embrace audio information, I testify it takes a little patience and self-training and then you hear past these voices and your brain naturally absorbs the underlying content. Of course, desperation from print disability is a great motivator! Once overcoming the resistance to synthetic voices, a whole new world of spoken content becomes available using innovative devices sold primarily to younger generations of educated blind persons. Freed of the struggle to read and write using defective eyesight, there is enormous power to absorb an unbelievable amount of high quality materials. As a technologist myself, I made this passage quickly and really enjoyed the learning challenge, which has made me into an evangelist for the audio world of assistive technology.


If you have low vision training available, ask about learning to listen through synthetic speech. For the rest of our networked lives, synthetic voices may be as important as eccentric viewing and using contrast to manage objects.


So, when you encounter one of these voices, maybe think of them as another rite of passage to remain fully engaged with the world. Also, please consider how we can help others with partial sight. With innovations from web anywhere and free screen readers, like NVDA, there could be many more low cost speaking devices available world wide.

To Those developing reading tools with Text-to-Speech

>


Do not expect that all users of your technology will be converts from within the visually impaired communities familiar with TTS. Provide a voice tuned in pitch and speed and simplicity for starters to achieve the necessary intelligibility and sufficient pleasantness. Suggest that better voices are also available and show how to achieve their use.


It’s tough to spent development effort on such a mundane matter as the voice, but technology adoption lessons show that it only takes a small bit of discouragement to ruin a user’s experience and send a tool they could really use straight into their recycle bin. Demos and warnings could be added to specifically address Synthetic Voice Shock and show off the awesome benefits to be gained. The choice of a freely available voice is a perfectly rational design decision but may indicate a lack of sensitivity to the needs of those newly losing vision forced to learn not only the mechanics of a tool but also how to lis en to this foreign speech.

To Sighted persons helping Vision Losers

>
You should be tech savvy enough to separate out the voice interface from the core of the tool you might be evaluating for a family member or demonstration. Remember the recipient of the installed software will be facing both synthetic voice shock and possibly dependency on the tool as well as long learning curve. Somehow, you need to make the argument that the voice is a help not a hindrance. Of course, you need to be able to understand the voice yourself, perhaps translate its idiosyncrasies, and tune its pitch and speed. A synthetic voice is a killer software parameter.


You may need to seek out better speech options, even outlay a few bucks to upgrade to premium voices or a low cost tool. Amortizing $100 for voice interface over the lifetime hours of listening to valuable materials, maintaining an independent life style, and expanding communication makes voices such a great bargain.


And, who knows, many of the voice-enabled apps may help your own time shifting, multi-tasking, mobile life styles.

To Rehab Trainers

From the meager amount of rehab available to me, the issue of Synthetic Voice Shock is not addressed at all. Eccentric viewing, the principles of contrast for managing objects, a host of useful independent living gadgets, font choices, etc. are traditional modules in standard rehab programs. Perhaps it would be good to have a simple lesson listening to pleasant natural voices combined with more rough menu readers just to show it can be done. Listening to synthetic voices should not be treated like torture but rather like a rite of passage to gain the benefits brought by assistive technology vendors and already widely accepted in the visually impaired communities. Indeed, inability to conquer Synthetic Voice Shock might be considered a disability in itself.


As I have personally experienced, it must be especially difficult to handle Vision Losers with constantly changing eyesight and a mixed bag of residual abilities. It could be very difficult to tell Vision Losers they might fare better reading like a totally blind person. But when it comes to computer technology, that step into the audio world can both reduce stress of struggling to see poorly in a world geared toward hyperactive visually oriented youngsters, especially when print disability opens the flow of quality reading materials, often ahead of the technology curve for sighted people.


The most useful training I can imagine is a session reading an article from AARP or sports Illustrated or New York times editorial copied into a version of TextAloud, or similar application, with premium voices. Close those eyes and just relax and listen and imagine doing that anywhere, in any bodily position, with a daily routine of desirable reading materials. To demonstrate the screen reader aspect, the much maligned Microsoft sam in Narrator can quickly show how menus, windows, and file lists can be traversed by reading and key strokes. The takeaway of such a session should be that there are other, perhaps eventually better, ways of reading print materials and interacting with computers than struggling with deteriorating vision, assuming hearing is sufficient.

So, let us pay attention to Voice Shock


In summary, more attention should be paid to the pattern of adverse reactions of Vision Losers unfamiliar with the benefits of the synthetic speech interaction that enables so many assistive tools and interfaces.

References on Synthetic Voice Shock

  1. Wikipedia on Synthetic Speech. Technical and historical, back to 1939 Worlds Fair.
  2. Wired for Speech, research and book by Clifford Nass. Experiments with effects of gender, ethnicity, personality in perception of synthetic speech.
  3. Audio demonstrations using synthetic speech
  4. NosillaCast podcaster Allison Sheridan interviewing her macular degenerate mother on her new reading device. Everyzing is a general search engine for audio, as in podcasts.
  5. Example of a blog with natural synthetic speech reading. Warning: Political!
  6. Google for ‘systhetic voice online demo’ for examples across the synthetic voice marketplace. Most will download as WAY files.
  7. The following products illustrate Synthetic Voice Shock.
  8. Podcast Interview with ‘As Your World Changes’ blog author covering many issues of audio assistive technology
  9. Audio reading of this posting in male and female voices

Hyperlinks considered Harmful! On to structured Reading.

July 6, 2008

Our changing modes of reading

This post visits topics heavy on web technology, with troubles well beyond vision loss. The previous blog post describes my current reading regime with print disability and technology adaptations. I find common ground with an article in the summer 2008 Atlantic Monthly and assorted blog commentaries bemoaning information overload and discomfort induced by chronic web use. I draw on some related resources from my audio channels of interviews and reviews. The central question is how our plastic brains are reprogrammed by our reading technologies, emphasizing the stresses and joys we find operating in a tug-of-war over what controls our reading lives.

Why is it hard to read a whole article?

The July-august Atlantic Monthly features an article that asks "Does Google Make Us stupid?" . This title suggests an excursion into declining abilities of critical analysis. Rather, the discussion is the gnawing sense that the structure of interactive media combined with pressures to assimilate lots of online information is actually changing not only reading habits but also brain structure. I found this thesis fascinating from my own experience of deliberately rebuilding my reading life and knowing my brain was re-wiring itself for auditory rather than visual input of words and written thoughts. This is pretty profound stuff.


Ugh, the article’s title itself is kind of stupid, a touch by an editor rather than the article’s author. Indeed, Google is described as a monument to measurement technology in attempting to achieve the best all-around responsiveness to user queries, up to trying to read minds as represented by query histories. That’s a worthy game and has changed the world but is not the crux of the article. The key idea is that a hyperlink from a web page you are reading is not only a reference but a propellant toward action, as Carr describes its effect. In the context of technology that encourages multitasking, impulsiveness, and need to be interlocked with others on myriad networks, hyperlinks could be considered harmful. Note: my hyperlink references are at the bottom of this post.

The analytic tradition of ‘XX considered harmful!’


The phrase ‘XX considered harmful’ is a tradition in computer science, canonized by the late E. W. Dijkstra in a 1968 article where XX was ‘goto’, a programming construct. He argued that the goto statement in languages like the then dominant FORTRAN caused unnecessary errors and difficulties in reasoning about programs. Somebody tracing through the flow of code would encounter a goto then need to branch their thinking into the continuation of line-by-line code flow as well as taking up where the goto said to go. The problem was also at the other end, when reading code, you had little way of knowing what other code might jump there under unknown conditions. This generated a decade of articles and result that showed both theoretically and practically, very few occasions required a literal goto, that more attention to the algorithm led to code better organized using loops, cases, and exceptions. For example, a well designed loop could be replaced by a logic description of the changes made, no matter how the iteration was accomplished. After the ruckus died down, there were improvements in languages, practices, and pedagogy called the age of Structured Programming.

<h3?Wherre is the harm in using hyperlinks?


My question here is whether the complaints against the goto and the hyperlink are a useful analogy. Suppose I put a link here to the Atlantic Monthly online website. You might be tempted to stop reading my article right here in order to get to the original context. That’s perfectly legitimate, but will you return to my thought stream or continue branching from the magazine article? or start a whole new thread of interest? Can you hold all the branching structure of your day’s reading in your brain and browser history? This is a cognitive dilemma for both reader and writer, stemming from a simple html element. Our scholastic training to cite sources and to help the reader use hypertext technology to reach the source in an instant causes some grief for all of us.


Carr and others are saying that hyperlink-driven reading is making it more difficult for them to read longer articles in printed or online form and even reducing their ability to read books. Is this a genuine loss of some cognitive ability? or is it just a change in reading habits? In either case, is the effect reversible? As some blog comments suggest, maybe there are other reasons for the expressed discomfort, like burn-out, aging, or natural shifts of interest.

Where did hypertext fall apart?


This discussion hit home for me for several reasons. I was a student of hypertext theory in previous career incarnations in the 1980s. Questions then were about types of links, e.g. clarifying, refining, challenging,… To cite one major example, Robert E. Horn elaborated numerous models of hyperlink for different kinds of documentation and uses. Design theorist Horst Rittel evolved the concept of issue-based information systems to address ‘wicked problems’, characterizing difficult social problems requiring intense collaborative analysis. This truly was the golden age of structured Hypertext before the WWW came along and offered goto style hyperlinks to everybody.


For my new reading style using a screen reader, hyperlinks are more often annoyances, as advertising, navigation’s, privacy notices, and 100s of links I never plan to click but must traverse or avoid in order to get to the content of a web page. This means hyperlinks consume personal energy, which may be a partial cause of current reading discomfort. Every inline hyperlink is a decision point – go there? do that now? or later? abandon this article? If we made all these decisions consciously, we would feel even more the personal energy drain. I have learned how loss of visual acuity forces more attention toward energy management to accomplish most reading tasks and to overcome inevitable errors.


Since I went through a period of several months of painful reading, I have a tremendous appreciation for the reading technology I can now use effectively, as discussed in my article on ‘tools, Materials, and strategies for Non-visual reading’. I really did almost lose it, not from attention but from sensory change. I still marvel that my brain can interpret the sounds coming from a synthetic voice and absorb the content as fully as I used to visually, or at least I think so. Wow, a synthetic voice is just a data file and algorithm, but what a difference these make to the print-disabled world!

Does audio reading make hyperlinks less harmful?


As I rebuilt my reading skills, I have come to visualize my reading content as mostly a tree of subjects and articles, retrieved primarily by RSS, and represented in text and mp3 files. If I count in a half dozen daily newspapers retrieved by a pipeline of blind services, every day yields easily over 1000 articles, cached or retrieved by wireless. Reading this way, maybe 50 articles a day, is a very well controlled process because the temptation to take a hyperlink is very rare. In other words, my RSS client and News stand control me while I control my web browser. Although my ICON PDA supports hyperlink activation, my decisions are simpler without a browser. Do I read this article or not, based on title and context in the tree? do I read politics blogs now, later, or skip for a while? Which topics are sufficiently intriguing to switch into browsing mode for searching and exploration? When the tree gets disorganized or its retrieval profile changes, how do I reorganize the branches? all this helps reduce context switching and clicking through regions of inactivity. My non-visual reading regime seems to be much more structured than formerly, more focused on textual content than on links and relationships.


Yet, when my Icon Mobile Manager required a 2 week trip for repairs, I rather welcomed the respite from those 1000s of articles. I had to get my news the old-fashioned way, by airwaves on TV or radio, or by visiting websites. I was amazed at how much work I had to put in to set up the feeds and patterns I had evolved over a year with my Icon assistive technology. Upon return home of the Icon, I trimmed out a few feeds that seemed redundant or left over from previous interests, but mainly I place more time limits on my article reading. It also helps to have the Democratic party race out of the way.


Rregarding books, I do tend to skip around much more than in the past. Because I have a rich library of book files to choose from, I am evolving new interests and Reading patterns. I don’t need to feel bad about not finishing a book as it can still reside on my memory card in an out of the way folder. As to concentration, most of my reading is insomniac style or on the road or for book clubs. Hey, maybe that’s what carr and others need is a social book club with a list of questions for reading and discussion — Do guys do that?

Is there ‘structured reading’?


Ok, I am starting to ramble here. I have suggested the analogy between ‘goto considered harmful’ and ‘hyperlink considered harmful’. My reading program with controlled separation of RSS delivered material from freestyle web browsing could be dubbed ‘Partially Structured Reading’.I share, indeed I just know, that my brain has adapted to the forced changes of print-disabled reading styles by evolving its own techniques for decision-making, context-switching, and stack management. In my view hyperlinks cause two forms of harm. First, they encourage divergence without the convergence and summarizing techniques that enabled overcoming the analogous ill effects of the goto statement. Second, the current hyperlink HTML element that simultaneously expands and binds the web is a primitive instrument that cannot be used for serious thought without imposing some of the rigor of early hypertext theories, e.g. the purpose of the link.

Some more observations on reading as a cognitive activity


I’d like to bring up a few more references on this topic from my audio channels and personal experience:.

  • Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone has laid out our syndrome of ‘continuous, partial attention’ in a fascinating podcast. She asks the fundamental question: do you really want to live that way?

  • A book on ‘distraction’, as interviewed by the wise Diane Rehm on WAMU, details a reform program for teaching attention skills in k-12 to enable a transition from pure information greed to appreciation of facts and policies, e.g. those faced in health care and basic civics.

  • Another book on my wish list, mentioned in the Atlantic Monthly article, is ‘Proust and the squid’ by Maryanne wolf. As interviewed on Brain science, points out that reading is not natural but rather highly contextual in culture and the current technology, whether stone tablets or networks. Scientifically, a lot is going on to show how the brain is truly plastic, evolved to rewire for different styles of processing information.

  • The ultimate brain deconstruction exercise is that of neuroscientist Jill B. Taylor who witnessed the dissolution of her cognitive and physical abilities during a left brain stroke. She then used her right brain sensitivity to guide her rehabilitation, taking this further to remolding her personality. A wild-ass theory I conceived from her description of the limbic system, the so-called reptilian brain, is that perhaps hyperlinks trigger a fight or flight response that might underlie the discomfort of web surfing – every hyperlink suggests a danger or defensive curiosity, lurking at the end of link. The good news she suggests is that these autonomic responses only lack 90 seconds, after which the more rational or familiar emotional thinking is in control. She reminds us that humans might consider themselves as thinking beins with feelings but rather we are primarily feeling processors which think some times.

  • My monthly book club chose ‘The Uncommon Reader’ by British playwright Alan Bennett. This novella traces the Queen’s life style changes from a chance encounter with a mobile reading van, through selections and borrowings of an increased number and variety of reading materials under the tutelage of a Human resource (servant) Norman and the interventions of MBA style queen handler sir Kevin. As the Queen becomes more intrigued with common lives, her relationships with her Duties and supporters changes, discomfiting many whom she interrogates about their reading preferences. Eventually her reading turns into extended reflection expressed in writing and, upsetting everything, a full blown urge to compose a book. While humorous, the novella asks many more serious questions. How does anybody gain or lose in total life experiences from their reading patterns? what does it mean to one’s colleagues to have an active reading program, and also be open about it? To oneself, what are my selection criteria for books, characters, plots? Is reading books an optional life activity or an ingrained part of one’s personality and character? would this royal opsimath enjoy wikipedia and Google?

what these studies lack, I suggest, is investigation into the non-visual ways of working, based in visual memories, alternative styles of work, and so-called assistive tools.

References with Hyperlinks

Here come the hyperlinks!

  1. ‘Does Google Make Us stupid?’ by Nicholas carr in July-August 2008 Atlantic Monthly online
  2. Nicholas carr’s blog ‘rough type’
  3. As Your world changes blog posting on ‘tools, Materials, and strategies for non-visual reading’, posted June 15 2008>
  4. Robert E. Horn’s work on Hypertext theory
  5. Wicked Problems and Issue-based Information Systems from Wikipedia
  6. ‘considered harmful’ background in Wikipedia
  7. Interview on ‘distraction and democracy’ by Diane Rehm on June 8 2008 for book ‘Distracted: The Erosion of Attention’ by Maggie Jackson.
  8. ‘Proust and the Squid’ book by Maryanne Wolf as reviewed by Ginger Campbell on Brain science Podcast #24 and #29
  9. Podcast speech by Linda stone on ‘continuous partial attention’
  10. ‘My Stroke of Insight’ by neuroscientist Jill B. Taylor
  11. Novella ‘The ncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett, available on bookshare.org
  12. Shrink Rap Radio Live #10 psychologists’ reflection
  13. opsimath definition – one who learns late in life

    Synthetic speech reading of this post

Listen up! Technology, Materials, and strategy for non-Visual Reading

June 22, 2008

My adoption of the audio reading mode

This post describes how this vision Loser reads on a daily basis. sighted readers of this blog should gain some insight into alternative ways technology delivers what you read visually on printed pages or screens. Those now in transition with vision loss can get a snapshot of a specific combination of reading technology, web delivery systems, and kinds of reading materials.


I consider myself an effective reader at this point in my vision loss. Three years ago I would have had no way of describing how I would be reading now. Partially, this was from the inability to know how my sensory apparatus would be working. For the record, I see pages where the text is mostly smudges. Computer screens have reasonably clear outlines with text that can be enlarged on a monitor or text size setting but remains often more like those irritating CAPTCHA boxes, all wobbly and sliced up. Partial sight can be minimally used by magnification, contrast, and eccentric viewing but for any reasonable way of consuming information, one must step over into the audio world. That means a screen reader or self-voiced reading devices, all using synthetic speech. After 2 years of hard work, a lot of technology evaluation, and countless hours of practice, the audio world now seems natural. I have no problem reconciling myself with this way of reading for the rest of my life, trusting that my hearing and hands will not give out on me.

My portfolio of reading devices

Another reason I would not have been able to predict how I read now, in 2008, is that several products I use constantly had yet to be invented in 2005. Processing power, miniaturization, wireless, and blind-driven inventiveness have produced a stable of devices that complement the PC (or MAC, whatever).

  • The Levels tar Icon is a screen-less Linux hand-held that reads all its menus and text as I cycle through email, news, and web content. The Mobile Manager hand-held fits into a docking station with keyboard and augmented speakers, power, and ports. I use the Icon for email by pop3 from gmail, occasional recordings,RSS feeds of news and podcasts, web browser, and special access to books and newspapers.
  • The American Printing House for the blind book port is another hand-held box with its only user interface a keypad, requiring ear buds or external speakers. Its memory card is loaded from a PC with books, mp3 files, and text. The book port is designed for easy navigation through books and its file systems. Like the Icon, it can also record memos. The APH book port is currently available only used, as the upgrade is having manufacturing problems. I use the book port primarily for books and lengthy synthetic spoken versions of files. A competitor Humanware victor reader stream offers similar reading capabilities, but I have never become comfortable with its navigation techniques, primarily just not my way of working.
  • The latest marvel of reading technology is the > Kurzweil NFB reader that has shrunk the scanner-OCR-reader architecture onto the Nokia N82 platform. well, it could be used also to make phone calls if attached to a phone service. This little guy is great for on-the-fly reading like room service menus, TSA notices stuffed in your luggage, mail, and printed pages lying around. one of the greatest frustrations of print disability is the difficulty of performing normal inter-human transactions where a sighted person hands you a business card or information sheet or agenda and you need that information to take the next step toward your goal. Another frustration is the profusion of junk materials surrounding the little piece of critical action, like amount to pay on a bill, but that’s where family members can be called upon. The KNFB Reader illustrates Kurzweil’s mantra that exponentiation dominates linearity , urging us to think about potentially using far more computing power to overcome our neural deficiencies.
  • The NVDA screen reader , discussed in earlier posting on selection of NVDA , is my PC work horse. It shows amazingly high quality and functionality for a young product, deriving from its free, open source origins driven by a generation of blind tech savvy developers and users seeking an alternative to the proprietary screen readers forged into the rehab-industrial complex. Note: I donate to NVAccess. Unless you need specialized scripts for complex or barely accessible products, such as many enterprise data management systems, NVDA will do well, especially in conjunction with Mozilla products.
  • Another supporting tool necessary for full reading is the Kurzweil 1000 for simplifying and managing scanners, which may have inaccessible and photo-oriented interface managers. Scanned material for submission to a service like Bookshare.org requires considerable editing that is well supported in K1000. I used the K1000 for general editing and spell checking as well as scanner management. Note that the K1000 has its own nice self-voicing practice to assist its operations and editing.


So, that’s all new technology I’ve learned in the past 2 years, ranging from my Identity cane to a suite of talking devices.

Sources of reading materials

What about the representation of the reading materials and where to they come from?

Human narrated audio books

Of course, we are all familiar with humanly recorded audio books, basically a long stream of bits, possibly with some embedded strings that reader technology can identify as section or information markers. The blind-serving organizations like NLS (National Library service) has long provided human narrators, recording media, reading tools, and a library coordinated distribution system. I personally have not tapped into this because the NLS format has only recently become available on the Icon, and, besides, I have a little problem with its paperwork to get myself certified. audible.com is the commercial system integrated with book port and soon the Icon, but I have yet to find the book that compels me to subscribe.

Note added December 08: Other sources of narrated materials are available in podcast format. Librabox podcast delivered book chapters is prolific and well done. Assistive Media Magazine readings extracts popular New Yorker style articles. State services like Arizona Sun Sounds offers books, newspapers, government information.

DAISY, Digital Talking Books and Bookshare.org library

The core technology for representing reading materials is XML, for extended markup Language, in the family of HTML for web pages. Text files have human or automatically added tags, like <title>,which the reader tool interprets for the user, which could be another computer or a human. A special version, DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is the interchange format for books. I get most of my books from bookshare.org which uses a copyright exemption to allows volunteers and publishers to contribute texts for distribution to members certified with a print disability who agree not to distribute further, but with free choice of reading tools and locations of materials. For me, this meant I could rebuild my personal library faster than I could donate or throw away my printed books.


The beauty of the bookshare distribution system was immeasurably enhanced by the Icon’s integration of a book search and download capability. If I hear about a New York Times best seller , a classic or a Reader’s choice, I can pull up the Icon book search by title or author, automatically log on to bookshare, download the book, if available, and start reading — in about a minute! Of course, if the book is not available, I can look for an audio at the public library or a commercial service or get a printed copy to scan. Indeed, I am now contributing books selected by my monthly AAUW book club, which takes several hours of work as I learn to expedite scanning and editing with the Kurzweil 1000 system. But it’s gratifying to know this process offers good readings to thousands more people like me. I carry my entire library on my easy reading Book Port categorized as Fiction, Biography, etc. and can also search these books in full text format. This pipeline of easily retrieved and stored books has truly broadened my reading choices with more than enough entertainment, enlightenment, and information.

Not yet available digital book collections

What about all those mass scanned book collections by Google, amazon, Microsoft, etc.? And those PDF e-books? too bad, most of these are not available to me, or very hard to use. The popular Gutenberg and Google book search do provide out-of-copyright materials, but I personally rarely need these. And, as I commented in post on “seeing through Google book search” , I am limited in my research by the image-only presentation of pages from a book search. While PDF is a nearly universal viewable distribution format, the adobe Acrobat reader is always changing its read out loud capabilities, insists on updating itself every use, and generally makes me feel out of sorts, like “when good technologies go bad”, with apologies to the adobe co-founder who was my grad school office mate. PDF accessibility is such a mixed bag, I just convert all PDF files to TXT and live with what I can get out of the results using the Icon, book port, or screen reader. My pet peeve is the need to convert PDF newsletters into TXT when the content could just as well been delivered as the more easily readable HTML. Like many other people, I thought I could buy an ebook and apply a synthetic voice reader but this mode of distribution is verboten by DRM (Digital Rights Management).


Whew, this is getting long, as I inventory my reading experience, but here some the happier parts.

More news than ever from NFB via Bookshare and Icon News Stand

As my vision faded so I could no longer read newsprint comfortably, I kept my NY Times subscription to retain access to the web site. I learned to find the sections of interest, like Editorials and business, and navigate a link path while reading the articles I wanted by the Text Aloud browser toolbar. Ouch, was this cumbersome! Now, I use the NFB Newswire newspaper delivery service offered in the bookshare membership and facilitated by the Icon News Stand application. With one “get new issues” click, I have not only the NY times, but also wall street Journal, Washington Post, San Francisco chronicle, economist, New Yorker, and more. All are structured for reading by publication, issue, section, title, and text. this means I can scan and selectively reads 100s of pages of newsprint in a half hour, an unpredictable benefit of print disability.

Local news, the gaping hole in the infrastructure

Of course, there’s a down side to news reading in that my local newspaper uses a convoluted content management system that seems to split every article into paragraphs that intertwine with advertisements and obituaries. Luckily, there is an RSS that delivers titles and a city feed that offers more official news, but I have yet to find a way to keep up on local events, even using the radio. This is one of the gaping holes in the information infrastructure for print disabled readers. I avidly track Jon Udell’s blog on strategies for Internet citizens for improving community networked information.

RSS feeds as supplementary and primary news sources

Along the lines of the DAISY representation for books is the RSS (real simple syndication) format for feeds that deliver articles and podcasts. This is the key technology for the rest of most of my reading, with over 80 feeds in my Icon RSS client. These bring CNN, Inside Higher Ed, science daily, slate, and many more magazine and news headline style materials. These are complemented by my evolved collection of news, recreational, and technical podcasts. While I really do not know what I am missing, I am thoroughly comfortable that I am keeping up with technology trends through itconversations.com with its interviews with innovators, technation, IEEE spectrum, etc. Rarely is a podcasts a time-waster and I feel myself obligated to listen to keep up. Similarly, a judicious selection of blogs help me track what’s going on in my areas of interest, including accessibility, podcasting media, and, especially this year,politics.


Two cool things about RSS are the ability to hierarchically structure feeds and to exchange feeds among readers. If you want mine, here’s susan’s reading sources , a file that can be imported into your choice of RSS reader or cribbed from in a text editor. Since all navigation in the Icon RSS reader is within a tree, I have a hierarchy of News into general, technology, Politics, and science categories, then further in places into trees of blog or other special content. Since feed updating is time consuming, maybe half an hour, the tree structure allows updating only a single feed or group of feeds, e.g. if I need a politics fix late on a Tuesday primary day. Of course, I also have several mailing lists with associated folders in the Icon email client, keeping up on mdsupport.org,book port, bookshare, NVDA, and icon user discussion lists.

Progressive reading productivity and quality

How progressive are these reading tools? I have been an Internet user since around 1970s. Indeed I found myself on the mailing list of the very first spam message 30 years ago. I subscribed to and made some embarrassing posts in Usenet groups and mailing lists in the 1980s and 1990s and had my first web page around 1993. To me, this surfeit of information is a natural progression. However, when my beloved Icon had to go to the shop for repair, I realized how important were the advances of the past year. I found the web-based RSS readers clumsy and never did get any setup comparable to my Icon trees, menus, and quick read articles.


To be provocative, I estimate my reading productivity now, compared to a few years ago, as about 10:1 in retrieving content available via Internet, wireless, RSS and other clients. Once retrieved, I feel about a 10:1 gain in ability to scan, filter, selectively read or listen to the content. Of course, I cannot get everything I need and occasionally rev up the Icon or PC Firefox web browser for searching and surfing. I’ll discuss my feelings about information overload and reading habits and brain plasticity in the companion post on “Hyperlinks considered Harmful”.


One of the greatest benefits of exploiting vision loss and using these reading tools is that advertising fades into the noise. Given the current economic model for most information services, this makes me a lousy consumer. Well, too bad, I really would like to kick in for a low-cost subscription, say $10, but do not have that opportunity. I’d like to pay $3 for each book I read with funds to the author and publisher, like is occurring for music. But my guilt is assuaged by taking every opportunity to tell in person and virtually about resources I like in hopes that enough people will click the ad links and buy the resources directly. And, much as I love my reading tools, losing vision is costly, nearly $10k for the above tools.

Advice for both sighted and impaired readers

so, you still fully sighted readers should now have a sense of how one vision Loser has replenished her reading vessels with forms of content, like DAISY, and tools that you never heard of and would consider primitive compared to iPhones and quicktime. But, if my claim of 10:1 increased retrieval and 10:1 improved reading hold true, this step over into the audio world is hardly a loss of reading capability. Limited access to certain kinds of material are offset by opportunities to access special content not available to the sighted world, like the bookshare library and the NFB News Line.


For those losing vision, as I have for three years, I urge you to begin tapping into this audio world sooner than your denial and hopes might lead you. Try using a free screen reader and audio conversion tools and get used to gaining more information by audio whenever you feel discomfort with your eyeballs glued to your screens. I hope this article assures you there are many ways to adapt your reading styles to meet your needs, and even to find gains you never dreamed of. You might visit a disability services department at a local university or an assistive technology demo exhibit hall. But beware, that the rehab and disability services personnel are themselves grappling with technology learning curves and are locked into vendor distribution practices that lag behind some of the tools I advocate in this blog. A good starting point, whatever your level of sightedness, are the user stories in nextup.com text to speech blog

For More Information on Assistive Technology

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