Using Assistive Technology to Read Academic and Non-Academic Books

As suggested by the title, this post will consider the number of different ways assistive technology, and general technology which is accessible, can help you to read both academic and non-academic materials. This aided reading can apply in a college or university setting, and it is equally applicable in the case of reading as a hobby and/or leisure pursuit. In terms of reading, assistive technology can benefit those with print, learning, and/or vision related disabilities. My personal experience is restricted to software that benefits those who are visually impaired and/or blind, but some of the available software includes features which are designed with multi-dimensional needs in mind. For example, an iPhone application like Voice Dream Reader (discussed below) has features which are designed with individuals who have a print and/or learning disability in mind. However, the same features are as beneficial to those who are visually impaired and/or blind.

This is an image of an academic book sourced from Microsoft Word's Clip Art.

This is an image of a book related to academia.

AudioBooks:
I first encountered audioBooks when I was a teenager in Secondary/High School, and at that stage they were available on either Cassette Tape or CD. At the time, to have a book narrated by a human voice was very useful, and for the media to be portable was great. The next time I explored audioBooks was a few years ago when I was finishing my Primary Degree. It was at this time I discovered Audible. The Audible service is essentially an online library of audioBooks which can be either purchased with money or credits. This is an example of a technology which is applicable to everybody, but is particularly of benefit to those who use audioBook’s because print material is not accessible to them. Another added bonus is that Audible have an application for your smartphone, tablet, and PC/Mac. In my experience the smartphone application is accessible on the iPhone. Audible is great, and has a wide selection of titles available for download. In my opinion, the majority of the titles available are not commonly found on college and/or university reading lists, but this might not be the case if you are part of a more literary related course. Audible is definitely worth investigating, and even if it doesn’t have books on your reading list, you can always download another audiobook which you are interested in reading.

Kindle Books:
The world of Kindle is made up of Kindle Readers and Kindle Books. Kindle Readers are tablet devices which enable you to read Kindle Books and access other Amazon services, and there is a level of accessibility `built-in, but I am unaware as to how much. Thankfully, a Kindle Reader is not necessary to read a Kindle Book. This is because a Kindle Reading application is available for smartphones, tablets, and PC’s/Mac’s. Please note, to the best of my knowledge, the applications for the PC and Mac are inaccessible. However, I can say with confidence that the iPhone and iPad applications are perfectly accessible. This means that you can browse the Kindle Book store on Amazon, and choose a book which is of interest to you. Make sure that the book has Text To Speech (TTS) enabled in the Book Features in the Product Description, and I think it is a good Idea to download a sample of your chosen book to test before purchasing. Once purchased, a copy of your Kindle Book will be delivered to your smartphone and/or tablet wirelessly, and you can begin reading the downloaded title with your device’s screen reader. I have downloaded many Kindle Books for reading as a hobby, and I have also downloaded several Kindle Books relevant to my MSC programme. In my opinion, there is a much more varied selection of books available on the Kindle Book store in comparison to Audible’s Library. Therefore, if what you want isn’t available on one service, it is worth your while checking another service provider.

CourseSmart:
CourseSmart is a web based service which makes eBooks available for students. It is another example of general technology which is accessible, but CourseSmart offer a reading interface especially for screen readers and a service to make inaccessible books accessible. I was introduced to this service in my final year of my Primary Degree, and I used the service again when I was completing my MSc programme. CourseSmart is like Kindle in that it is a digital online library, but unlike Kindle, you can only rent books on CourseSmart. The rental period for the titles I read was 1 year (365 days), and this was sufficient for me in college and university. Titles which are already accessible on CourseSmart have an interactive Table of Contents, Headings aiding navigation, Alternative Text for images and graphs and accessible Tables which can be navigated with your screen reader. From memory, I believe the site automatically detects your screen reader and you are entered into the accessible reading interface. If a title is not accessible, CourseSmart offers a Tagging Service. This service basically makes the inaccessible title accessible, and takes 2 to 3 weeks to complete. You are given access to the book while the Tagging process is underway, and while it isn’t perfect, it is better than not having access to a particular book. As the name of the service may suggest, CourseSmart has an academic focus, and you are more likely to find items on your reading list on this service. For example, I was able to source 2 to 3 items from my MSc programme’s reading list on CourseSmart.

eBooks (PDF or Doc):
I should point out my definition of an eBook is a book which is either in PDF or Doc format. eBooks are also available in an EPUB format, but I do not have knowledge of the said file format’s accessibility. My thoughts are an EPUB File must be converted before it is readable by a screen reader, but this could be an incorrect statement. So with that said, the eBooks I have used have been sourced by my college and/or university and are initially in a PDF format. As discussed in a previous post, the accessibility and ease of navigation of a PDF File is not always guaranteed, and this is where assistive technology comes in. Personally, I have used the methods described in the previously linked post to make inaccessible PDF files accessible. However, when I began my MSc programme, I was introduced to a member of the Disability Office who can make inaccessible PDF Files accessible, and convert those PDF Files to Doc Files which are sometimes easier to navigate. You should ask if your college and/or university has an individual who can perform similar duties, as it is time consuming for you to complete, and you will have more to focus on at college than converting books so that you can read them. As there is such an amount of manual conversion involved, I am not a fan of eBooks. However, my perception of eBook conversion could be skewed, and it is great to have any material available when it is required.

Voice Dream Reader:
Voice Dream Reader is my favorite iPhone application at the moment. Voice Dream, as it is titled on my iPhone, is an application similar to Kindle, but it gives you the ability to change the voice which reads your book of choice. Essentially, you are creating your very own audiobook. The application comes with a voice installed called Heather, but you are not limited to the default, there are many voices which can be purchased. The voices which are available for purchase sound very natural, and you could almost forget that it is a TTS synthesiser reading your text. By default, Voice Dream can read common Word Processing file formats and accessible PDF Files (among others). If you are willing to put in the effort, it is possible to have Voice Dream read Kindle Books you have purchased. This practice involves removing the Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection present on Kindle Books, and I am not encouraging and/or justifying the mentioned activity. If you would like to discuss Kindle Books and DRM in more detail, please contact me privately. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Voice Dream has visual features which are of benefit to those who are not visually impaired and/or blind, but have difficulty reading. I do not have experience of the afore mentioned features due to their visual nature, but I believe they are very useful to the intended audience. As an aside, the developer of Voice Dream Reader has also created applications called Voice Dream Writer and Voice Dream Male. You can preview the available voices at this site.

I hope you now have an understanding of how assistive technology can help you to read academic and/or non-academic books, and that the above information is of benefit to you or someone you know. As always, if you have any further questions regarding the topic discussed, please do not hesitate to comment and/or contact me.

As Apple are rumoured to be launching a music streaming service today at WWDC, I thought it would be appropriate to have a musical contribution courtesy of Taylor Swift to compliment todays post. Also, who doesn’t like Taylor Swift?

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Converting to the Dark Side, in terms of File Types

As suggested by the title, this post will focus on the topic of conversion in terms of File Types. This can be a very useful process to understand and be able to carryout for a number of reasons. For example, I mentioned in a previous post, it seemed like every file I received was in an inaccessible PDF format. On that occasion, I used another piece of assistive technology to convert the PDF file into another format, but this is not always necessary. It is sometimes possible to use standard, or non-specialized, software, to perform the conversion process. I will state when any of the following Conversion Options use additional assistive technology or other software tools.

This is an image of Darth Vader from Star Wars sourced from Google Images

Image of Darth Vader from Star Wars

Converting Portable Document Format (PDF) Files:
In my experience, there are three ways in which a PDF can be converted to a Text, or other Word Processing, File that is accessible.
1. Converting with Adobe Reader.
2. Converting with Kurzweil 1000.
3. Converting on iOS (iPhone, iPad, and/or iPod Touch).

Converting within Adobe Reader:
I have found this to be useful when it is difficult to navigate an accessible PDF. In such a situation, the text is readable by the screen reader, but there are no Headings or Bookmarks to make navigation easier. To perform this conversion, I have simply navigated to the File Menu, selected Save As and chosen Text File from the available options. This will produce a file which opens in Notepad/Wordpad and can be cut and paste into another Word Processor if desired. This option does lose the formatting of the PDF, but when it makes navigation so much easier, I quickly get over the loss of formatting. It should be noted that this conversion will not work in the case of protected PDF Files.

Converting with Kurzweil 1000:
This is by far my favorite option for converting PDF Files to an accessible format. Unlike the previous option, using Kurzweil for conversion does not require the PDF to be accessible. This option does require you to have an authorized copy of Kurzweil 1000, but once you have that, converting is as easy as printing the PDF virtually. All that is required is that you follow the procedure to print the PDF (e.g. Ctrl + P), and choose the Kurzweil Virtual Printer from the available printers. The process is automated from this point forward. Kurzweil will scan the PDF, as if it was a physical paper document, and present the resulting document in a new window. Similar to the previous option, the text can then be cut and paste into a Word Processor if this is desired. It should be noted that the length of time this process takes to complete will depend on the number of pages in the PDF File being converted.

Converting on iOS (iPhone, iPad, and/or iPod Touch (:
Converting PDF Files on iOS can be divided into two sections, i.e. Converting Accessible PDF Files, and Converting Inaccessible PDF Files. The approach you need to take will be different depending on the accessibility of the PDF File.

Converting Accessible PDF Files:
The tool which I use in the case of accessible PDF Files is an iOS application, and it is simply named File Converter. The interface of this app is quite straight forward, and the conversion process is just as intuitive. If you are using a cloud storage option, as discussed in a previous post, you can import a given file to this app. Once imported, the app will work out the current file format, and it will be up to you to choose the desired format (e.g. html, txt, doc, etc.). When you begin the conversion process, you will not have to wait too long until you have a new file of your choosing. You can then opt to email the file, open it on the device, save it to the cloud, etc. It should be noted that this application is not restricted to PDF Files.

Converting Inaccessible PDF Files:
Inaccessible PDF Files can be scanned documents, images containing text, and/or an untagged PDF. On iOS an inaccessible PDF File can be opened in another application which can recognize the text present, and you can then cut and paste the text into another application. The very popular KNFB Reader will perform such recognition for you. Keep in mind that this is a secondary function of KNFB Reader, and its capabilities are much greater than recognizing PDF Files. Another application which offers similar recognition functionality is Prizmo. I have experience with Prizmo, and it is quite a good application. The primary function of both KnFB Reader and Prizmo is Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is a much broader topic.

Those are the most effective options I have found to deal with PDF Files.

Converting PowerPoint Presentation (PPT) Files:
Another very popular file format, which is mostly accessible, is PPT. The conversion which takes place here is more for convenience instead of making an inaccessible file accessible. Again there are three options to convert a PPT to a Text File.
1. Saving as Outline.
2. Creating Handouts.
3. Saving as PDF, and using Kurzweil 1000.

Saving as Outline:
You can convert a PPT File to a Text File from within Microsoft PowerPoint without additional software. You will need to navigate to the File Menu, choose Save As and select Outline (rtf) from the File Type options. This will create a Text File which contains the text present in the original PPT File. The main titles of the presentation will be formatted as Heading 1 in the Text File, and any sub-titles, or the body of a presentation slide, will be formatted as Heading 2. I generally select all the text in the newly created Text File, and Clear All Formatting using the Styles sub-menu in Microsoft Word. It should be noted, some information on presentation files can be represented by the use of an image, and this option of conversion will not recognize such information.

Creating Handouts:
This is a conversion option that I only found out about recently, and because of this I do not have relevant experience. The procedure is similar to the one carried out in the previous conversion option. However, instead of choosing Save As, you should choose the Create Handouts option within the Save and Send tab. Once you have done this, another dialogue box should open, and you should choose Outline Only here. After selecting Ok, a new Word Document will open containing the text of the original PPT. I am unsure if this method retains tables and diagrams due to my lack of experience. Nevertheless, it is a great option for quickly extracting the text of a PPT File.

Saving to PDF, and using Kurzweil 1000:
This option may seem like a bit of a roundabout way of doing things, but it is effective none the less. Similar to the first option, the same process should be followed regarding Save As, but instead of Outline (rtf), Adobe Reader (PDF) should be chosen. This will create a PDF file which is completely accessible, and retains all information contained within tables, diagrams and/or images. Kurzweil 1000 can then be used to convert this PDF File to a Text File as discussed earlier. The benefit of this option is that all information contained within a presentation file will be recognized. I have been in situations where a slide seemed incomplete when using the first option, but using Kurzweil then allowed me to access the information presented visually.

The above information should be of benefit to anyone who encounters inaccessible PDF or PPT Files. I have used all of the above conversion options (except the Create Handouts Option), and while some are more effective than others, it is important that you are aware of the various options available so that you can improvise if necessary.

I hope the above information is of interest to you, and please get in touch if you have additional conversion options I have left out, or if you would like to ask any further questions.

The musical connection between this post’s subject matter and my personal taste is provided by Kelly Clarkson. The below video is timely considering it was announced recently that American Idol will not be returning after the next season.