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The Availability And Use Of Screen Reading Technologies For Computer Users Who Are Sight Impaired

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Summary of Screen Reading Technology

Screen reading technology allows a blind/visually impaired or learning disabled person access to information from the computer screen through auditory means. As explained by Neville Clarence Technologies, Ltd:

Screen reading software gives the user control over which areas on the screen are to be displayed or spoken and makes use of artificial intelligence to decide what information is to be displayed or spoken automatically. It also gives the user control over the rate of speech, pitch, tone, volume, verbosity level, switching of languages and the ability to control how punctuation and uppercase characters are spoken. (Clarence 1)

Therefore, a blind/visually impaired or learning disabled person using this technology can read almost any web page, e-mail message, word processor document, spread sheet, or database.

Screen reading technology consists of two components, screen reading software and a speech synthesizer. Screen reading software is a program that reads the information displayed on the computer screen audibly by passing the information onto a speech synthesizer. The synthesizer can be another software program that uses the computer sound card and speakers or a hardware device connected to or installed in the computer. Software synthesizers are included with most screen reading packages at no additional charge.

Screen Reading Products Overview

There are three dominant publishers of screen reading software for use by people who are visually impaired. The first is UK based Dolphin Computer Access, established in 1986; the second is US based GW Micro established in 1990 and Freedom Scientific established in 2000.

Dolphin Computer Access

As stated above, Dolphin Computer Access has been creating software for people with visual and print impairments since 1986 and exports its products to more than thirty countries throughout the world. Dolphin developed one of the first commercial screen readers, "Hal", named after the talking PC on board the space ship in the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey" (Clarence 2). Developed for Hal was the "Mimic", followed by the Apollo, Jupiter and Juno series of hardware speech synthesizers.

In recent years Dolphin has helped to shape the industry with innovations such as:

* The world's only combined magnification, speech and Braille solution, Supernova.

* The "Dolphin Pen" a mobile screen access solution on a 7 x 2 cm USB flash drive which enables one to use any available PC without the need to first install screen access software.

* Pocket Hal a full screen reader compatible with PDAs running Windows Mobile 2003, Pocket PC 2003, or Windows Mobile 2003 Phone Edition.

GW Micro

GW Micro developed some of the earliest dedicated talking software products for people who are blind such as Word Talk, File Talk, and Calc Talk. GW Micro also produced the Sounding Board ISA internal speech synthesizer and later the SpeakOut external speech synthesizer. In 1990 GW Micro completed development of Vocal Eyes which remains one of the most popular DOS based screen readers in the history of assistive technology. Combined with the power of Sounding Board and SpeakOut, Vocal Eyes made a formidable marketing package. To remain competitive though, in 1995, Windows Eyes was developed. GW Micro strives to listen carefully to screen reader users and incorporate many of their suggestions into Window Eyes and the result is a wide variety of speech features and the flexibility needed for running many of today's most advanced Windows application.

Freedom Scientific

The youngest of the three world leading publishers of screen reading software, the company is the result

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