Lucas burst into my office and excitedly proclaimed “I read the junk mail! All of it!” Now you would think a 24-year-old young man would have better things to be excited about, but it was the first time he had ever done so.
When Lucas first started at St. Clair College, his Individual Education Plan (IEP) from highschool called for a reader and a scribe because of his learning disability. At the college level, we were striving for greater independence and had introduced him to speech-to-text and text-to-speech software. Text-to-speech software such as Kurzweil and Texthelp allow one to scan in printed material and the software will capture the text and read it out loud while highlighting the text on the original image. Textbooks can be converted to PDF files so that the student can see the page as it exists in the book and hear the text spoken in close to real life voices. For student with disabilities that interfere with reading skills, this makes text material more accessible and in a more timely fashion.
Listen to this post in a mp3 file produced with Text 2 Speech, a free online service that converts text using a basic quality computerized voice. This will give a flavour of what text sounds like for a student with disabilities although most commercial software has better voices.
While these tools have an impact on academics, it also has on impact on a student’s everyday life and provides opportunities for self advocacy and self actualization. For Lucas, it meant that for the first time, he was able to decide what was junk mail and not worth reading and what was of interest to him. Until the day he set up the scanner at home and was able to scan all the mail he received to read with Kurweil, he had relied on family members to sort through his mail and decide what was worth reading. Often, and understandably, the family members would read his mail and summarize what was in it because reading the whole document took a lot of time. All Lucas’ correspondence was filtered through what someone else determined as important. With Kurzweil, Lucas could decide for himself.
This filtering or bias happened for Lucas with a reader during tests as well. When Lucas would ask for a question to be read again (and again), there was a chance that the inflection, emphasis and body language of the reader would change and sometimes even show frustration, boredom or disbelief. Sometimes, Lucas got the impression that the reader though he was really stupid and would read the question slower and louder. With Kurzweil, Lucas could hear the question as many times as he chose and it would sound the same each time.
Kurzweil has other active learning tools that encourage students to use highlighters for important (to them) information, definitions, key terms and more. The software can extract the highlights to a separate document for study notes or to an mp3 portable audio document to listen to away from the computer. Here too, Lucas could listen to his text as often as he needed to without having to worry about someone becoming bored or frustrated and he could make decisions about which of the information presented was necessary for his study notes.
I have heard some faculty express frustration because testing centres at their institution require tests to be provided in advance, sometimes 48 hour before the test is to be written. Often, these tests need to be converted into a text-to-speech format and that does take staff time to prepare. It does mean that faculty have to prepare their tests in advance to meet those deadline but to me, use of text-to-speech software for students with disabilities who need it represents a better way of ensuring academic integrity where students can independently demonstrate their knowledge with no outside filters or bias.