Platform: the type of computing device the technology runs on, for example Windows, Mac, Linux, smartphone, etc.
Screen Reader: A piece of software designed mainly for the visually disabled, which reads either the entire content or parts of the screen in a synthesized voice.
Screen Magnifier: A piece of software which can enlarge parts of the screen, for those with low vision.
OCR System: Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, is the process by which an image is converted into searchable, editable, and most useful of all, readable by any synthesizer, text.
Text to Speech: The process by which printed text on a computer screen is spoken in a computerized, some natural sounding, some not, voice.
Speech Recognition, Speech to text, or dictation: The process by which the computer listens to your voice and converts your speech into text or actions. Not to be confused with text to speech, dictation is where you talk and the computer converts your speech into text, with or without help from an external server. Speech Recognition is where a program listens for a set of commands and performs actions, for example “open my web browser”. Speech recognition usually uses a lot less computing power than dictation, since the app only knows and listens for a few commands.
Jaws for Windows: Originally JAWS for DOS, developed by Ted Henter in the early 1980's, this is one of the most widely used screen readers in the US. This software is mainly given to students by the Commission for the Blind or other advocacy organizations as part of a package used in higher education or the workforce.
NVDA: Non-visual Desktop Access, or NVDA, provides yet another screen reader for those on the Windows Platform. It provides no-cost and portable access to any computer running Microsoft Windows. It's speed, portability, no cost and extensibility makes it a worthy competitor to the $800+ JAWS screen reader for anyone who needs fast access to any windows PC, not just their own.
Window Eyes: GW Micro’s screen reader, originally Vocal Eyes for DOS, ported to run on Windows for Workgroups 3.11. It provides similar features to JAWS, with less compliance to web standards such as ARIA.
Hal: Dolphin Oceanic’s screen reader for Windows and Windows Mobile with a modified version called Pocket Hal. It is used mainly in the UK.
Super Nova: A combination of screen reader and magnifier, developed by Dolphin, mainly used in the UK for those with low vision.
Zhengu Screen Reader (ZDSR): This free screen reader, from zdsr.net, provides a free, as well as a business version with more features such as mouse and braille support, along with a magnifier mode. It has very good app support, working flawlessly with the Microsoft Office suite and basic Windows apps. Although its web support works only with Internet Explorer, it is extremely responsive, even with lower-power systems.
Thunder: A free screen reader from screenreader.net. It provides limited support for Windows’ built-in apps, relying on modifications to Internet Explorer for basic web support.
Voice Over: Apple entered rather late in the game for accessibility. Introduced in 2006 as a built-in option in Mac OS X Tiger 10.4, for its time it provided limited access to Apple's own apps, iTunes being the most glaring example, but it was a decent start. Since then, it has been usable, but since Mac OS X 10.7 lion and iOS 7, it has, in my experience lost its grip on innovation, lacking many features that many windows screen readers had for several years, such as OCR on images displayed on the screen, without external programs. This being said, if you are already in the apple ballpark technology-wise, you will be happy to know that the same commands can be used on your mac, and an apple iPhone 3gs or newer, providing a consistent experience.
Orca: On Linux, accessibility has been at the very least, horrible for the first several years of the existence of graphical desktops such as gnome. This changed with gnome 2.32 and later versions, providing the Orca screen reader as a built-in accessibility feature. Developed by the accessibility office of son for its first few years, it provided both screen reading and magnifying capabilities to the gnome desktop, but there was just one small problem, it didn't come shipped as part of the main gnome distribution. Since the release of gnome 2.19, it did come preinstalled, but its performance was absolutely horrendous and it still required difficult and time consuming manual setup to provide access to normal apps. After son's purchase by oracle in around 2004, the rains of orca's development were handed off to the community. Since then, while some features are still not present from some windows screen readers, it still does a more than good enough job that I can use it as a daily solution for programming, email, web browsing, documents, and so-on.
Talkback: Talkback is the main screen reader on the android platform. Introduced along with the accessibility infrastructure in android 1.6 donut, at first, from android 1.6 up until android 2.3 for phones and 3.2 for tablets, it could've been a lot better, only providing usable feedback if a physical keyboard was connected or a specialized virtual keyboard, called the eyes-free keyboard, was selected as the system input method. Also, until android 3.2, it could not work with web content. Until android 4.0, you could not use your finger to read or explore parts of the screen. From version 4.0 through 4.2, the accessibility of android devices was on an upward trend. For instance, version 4.1 added both braille and gesture support, like on Apple's iOS, enabling users to flick their finger to linearly explore the content of the screen. Also, if you owned a refreshable braille display, you could use it to interact with your device, for example type into edit boxes using the display or simulate touches on items if you didn't want or could not use the touch screen. Version 4.2 added a magnifier mode to allow the contents of the screen to be enlarged, which, unlike on Apple's iOS, can be used together with the speech from talkback. Android users, with the introduction of android 4.3, Jelly Bean, had full access to their devices, being able to select, copy and paste text, type documents, work with spreadsheets and presentations, take a picture of a printed page and have the contents read with text-to-speech, call, text, email, work with files on the device, whether in memory or on drives or in the cloud, and much more, all for free.
Spiel: Spiel was an attempt to build an open source screen reader for android. For a time, especially during the days of android 2.3 gingerbread, if you had spiel, you were in business. It provided features that talkback did not have, such as scriptable application support, meaning that anyone who knew the application in question and a bit of the mainstream java script language, could customize spiel to work better with a specific app, even one that didn’t play nice with the accessibility APIs in place at the time. Work on spiel seems to have stopped or has stagnated to the point where in order to test it, you have to download and build the source code yourself.
Shine Plus: Shine plus is a newcomer to the android accessibility landscape. Developed by Chinese AT firm AT Lab, it is, at least as of now, a worthy competitor to talkback. It provides most of talkback’s capabilities such as reading at different granularities, dimming the screen on request, as well as, for only two public releases excellent app support, able to work with even heavily scripted apps like Google docs, sheets, slides and hangouts. It also has a zoom mode, as well as a basic highlighted text reader, called the “candy Bar”, in sight protection mode, which might be of help to the learning disabled, as well as those with low vision. The candy bar feature can be used along with the zoom mode.
Chromevox: Chromevox is the built-in screen reader on chromebooks. It can be installed as an extension to Google Chrome as well. It is the king when it comes to web apps. If you use apps such as Google docs, sheets and slides, Gmail, the copy cloud storage service and other web apps such as blackboard, angel, ProQuest databases or other complex web sites, Chromevox is the way to go. Although the commands will take a bit of getting used to and it will lag horribly on slower machines, it does, as stated before, handle pretty much every web app in existence, even badly written ones.
MAGic: Freedom Scientific's magnification solution with both magnification and primitive speech support added in for a few hundred more dollars. It supports up to 16 times magnification. It also has both high contrast and large cursor options.
Zoom Text: Zoom text is another hybrid magnifier/reader combo, the reader version being more expensive, developed by AI Squared. It supports up to 16 times magnification of on-screen elements, but has a lot more customization options than its Freedom Scientific cousin. Also, unlike MAGic, the speech support only works with a few apps, mainly the Microsoft Office suite, Internet explorer and other Windows apps that use standard controls and views.
Virtual magnifying Glass: This app does just what it claims, magnifies the screen. Instead of using the pointer like a sniper rifle, zooming in to the content, this app puts a magnifying glass icon on the screen which can be controlled with either the keyboard or mouse pointer. If you need the content-based zoom feature, you can enable it in the settings. This app is developed by the community and is free to download and use, for any purpose. It does not, however, come with any speech support.
Kurzweil 1000 and 3000: This software, combined with an off-the-shelf scanner, is another part of a package that is given to students who are going into a workforce/higher education environment. This product comes in two flavors, 1000, with enhanced speech support to read the contents of its own dialog boxes, and 3000, with a focus on magnification. They both function as document readers that can read specialized formats like DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) and brf (Braille-ready Format) files, as well as perform OCR on a printed page placed on a windows-compatible scanner. While they both provide speech support, the 3000 series provides mainly magnification of its user interface along with primitive speech support, allowing you to read a file as if you were listening to a book on tape (remember those things?), with play/pause, rewind and fast-forward controls. The 3000 version also supports highlighting passages of text as they are being read which can be used as an aid for the learning disabled.
Open Book: The Freedom Scientific empire strikes again with their open book OCR/reading system. This only comes in one version at the time of this writing. It supports scanning and reading documents from either a windows-compatible scanner or their own Perl camera, which you can buy as an add on to the software and reading documents, including the same specialized formats that Kurzweil supports with the
rather robotic sounding IBM Viavoice tts (Text-to-speech) system.
OCR Feeder: OCR feeder, is, unlike the solutions mentioned above, not specifically designed for the disabled. It is a free program, written initially for Linux, but it also can run on Windows. It uses a variety of OCR systems, including the free tesseract system to extract text from an image that can be imported from a folder of images, a scanner, a pdf with images instead of text, as well as a variety of other locations. It also can process multiple pages from a document feeder, in addition to its other supported locations. While it does not speak the text that it extracts, nor supports reading specialized, proprietary formats, it does its job as an OCR and document analysis system extremely well and is, in my experience, definitely worth the time it takes to set it up if all you want to do is make printed text available to the disabled.
Google Goggles: Another less conventional method, this free app, available for both android and iOS, allows anyone with a modern smartphone to do the job of a laptop and a huge tank of a scanner, with comparable performance. This app, in conjunction with your chosen platform accessibility services, talkback, spiel, or shine plus on android, VoiceOver on apple, allows anyone with a smartphone to have the same level of access to printed materials as a sighted person with their eyeballs. It works by taking a picture of a page with the device's camera, then sending the image to Google's mother ship, which sends back the text in the image. I have used it in class to read the handouts that the professor was supposed to put on-line but handed out in class, as well as to read the labels on my favorite food products in the store. It also, other than OCR, can be used as a bar code scanner, money identifier, and a PDF creator, allowing me to, from the screen with the text, tap on more options, then save to Google drive, and have my scan waiting for me on my tablet after class, and when I get home, on my computer. The only issue with using a phone camera is that light is extremely important to obtain a good scan. It works best when the light is similar to a typical room setting. Also, the best position for doing a scan of a page is placing the page on a table or desk, putting the phone in landscape mode (sideways), and placing your arms about 6 to 8 inches from the page, using the desk for leverage.
KNFB Reader: A specialized app, available only for the iPhone, does the same as Google goggles, only the OCR part, at a whopping $100. It can read you the text on printed pages, using its own voice support. The only part of this app that it does have to its advantage is that it can help you to obtain the optimal scanning position, which you should be able to get like the back of your hand after a few sessions of trial and error anyway, by telling you things like move device 2 inches upward then double tap to rescan, for instance, requiring you to do another scan. It does, however, allow you to save your scans to the computer, but you have to connect to iTunes in order to get the files off the device.
Dragon: Dragon, or Dragon Naturally speaking, developed by Nuance Communications, is one of the more well-known dictation apps. It supports dictating into most text fields, including emails, documents, etc. The downsides are its expensive cost, as well as the time it takes to learn your voice patterns. It only runs on Windows, is not portable, and can only be installed a maximum of 5 times, after which you have to buy a new license key.
Free Speech: Free Speech is a continuous dictation engine using the pocket sphinx speech recognizer. It runs on Linux, but can be installed on other platforms as well. Its pros are that it is portable, you can run it from your home directory, just direct it to the pocket sphinx data, you don't have to train it, and if you say or click on send keys, and you can instantly direct your dictation to any app. Its main con is that it needs to have a very precise microphone setup. Make sure that your microphone is properly set up with the OS, the volumes are at around a medium level, and you are sitting around 2 to 3 inches from the microphone, otherwise you might end up having to dictate several times. It seems to learn over time, for example after I found out the optimal position for dictation with the internal microphone on my laptop, it kept mishearing what I said, but after a few repetitions, it was able to learn the word on its own, correcting itself for all future times I said that particular word. Although it does take a while to determine the proper setup for both the app and your microphone, it is definitely worth the free price and cross platform dictation ability.
Smartphones and web browsers: Every smartphone and the Google Chrome web browser, as well as Apple's Mac OS X have dictation built-in. To dictate on a smartphone, use the dictation feature which is part of your input method, for example, the Google keyboard on android devices has a voice input key, as does the apple default keyboard. To dictate text in Google Chrome, press ctrl shift period. Also, on the apple Mac, by default, press the FN key twice.
Standalone Reading Devices: Humanware provides the Victor Reader Stream, a specialized reading device that can read lesser-known formats like DAISY and BRF, as well as text files, play audio and record audio files. It has a simplified interface that is meant for ease of use. Unfortunately, all it does is read files using one of two voices, record with a built-in microphone, and read its menus. The American Printing House for the Blind produces a similar device called the Book Port Plus, which is slightly more advanced. Not only can you read files, play audio, and record, but you can also type and create new files using a phone style keyboard and download podcasts over the air.
Reading Software: If you want something that both reads aloud and has more of a visual design, you might be able to use software like read and write gold or Dolphin Easy Reader. These programs, while they do cost quite a bit more than chump change, come with their own voices, as well as the ability to read text and specialized files using the voice, while being able to highlight text as it is being read, making them workable solutions for those with learning disabilities.
Alternative ways to access the same Interface, EVIACAM for Linux and Just Speak for Android: These apps are, in my opinion, the works of geniuses. EVIACAM allows you to move your head, tracking your movements with a webcam, even a cheap one, to move the pointer on the screen, and performing other gestures, like nodding, to click and interact with on-screen elements. Adding to this bundle, it is free, developed by the community, and anyone can modify it for any reason. Just Speak is yet another innovation. With Just speak; you can control your android with your voice. You can say something like open phone, then click on dial pad, and then enter 911, and the phone will just do what you say. This is different than a virtual assistant like Apple's Siri or Google Now because while they can open apps, they cannot click things on the screen once the app is open. Just speak is always running once it's enabled, just tap the screen or touch your phone to a NFC Tag that you created earlier, wait for the beep, tell your phone what to click, and you're good to go. Just Speak is free to download from the Google Play Store.
Mainstream Note taking Apps: One request that I keep getting is note taking apps. Apps like Google Keep or Evernote, on any platform, can be used to record, dictate and transcribe class notes, as well as other content of importance. Most importantly, they are accessible with screen readers and other accessibility services, especially on smartphones. For example, using both talkback on android and the Google Keep app on my android phone, I can make a recording and have it automatically transcribed by the same google mothership that does my scanning. Evernote is another alternative, offering a free plan that will allow you to both record and manually type notes with a monthly quota. Also, on android, if you don't want transcription or to send your recordings to a server, you can use the free app called Audio Bug. This is a free voice recorder that records mp4 files, a compressed audio format with high quality. iOS devices include a built-in recording app called voice memos, allowing you to record, without transcription, saving your recordings to the music app. From my research, the iOS landscape has an app called notability, an $10 app which connects to multiple note taking services such as Evernote, catch and google keep, all from one app.
Apps For Mainstream Devices:
For those that have mobile devices phones, tablets, and accessible out-of-the-box computers such as chromebooks and Apple macs, A variety of apps exist might be of use to you if you have any type of disability, including learning/reading disabilities.
Blio: The cross-platform (android/apple) Blio app, from blio.com, provides another reader/highlighter combination. They also provide a library of books that you can either lend for a limited time, or buy directly.
Voice Dream Reader: Another apple-only app that provides an interactive reader, along with text highlighting options. This $10 app provides its own voice support, along with the ability to read and highlight files placed on to the device using iTunes, along with the capability to read text shared to it from other applications, such as the Safari web browser.
Read to go (Apple) or GoRead (android): The Bookshare app, which reads DAISY (digital accessible information system) files. It lets you download books from bookshare directly in the app, as well as to side load other types of files such as plain text files, through iTunes. Bookshare $20 app for apple also includes its own voice support, along with a method to change the fonts and other display options. The free android version, GoRead, shares it’s codebase with the open source FBReader mainstream eBook reader. It supports reading daisy and epub format books using whatever you set your system voice to read the text.
Dragon Dictation: Dragon dictation for apple is the exact opposite of the above apps. Instead of reading off the device memory and speaking to you, this app translates spoken word into text.
Sound note: sound note is an apple-only app that allows you to record notes with your voice, as well as to handwrite and type notes that can be associated with a voice recording.
Ideal Group Reader: This free app, on the android side of the fence, allows reading of real-world formats, the main one being epub 3.0. This app has multiple interface options, from a simplified interface that can just show the book content, highlighted and spoken with either text to speech or embedded audio, or a more feature-rich interface that supports annotations, in-text highlighting and note taking, as well as search and table of contents controls.
Google Play Books: This free app from google, available for both iOS and android, as well as in any web browser such as Safari on the Mac, supports reading up to 1000 pdf and epub files that you can upload, without the need to buy your books from google. On the iOS platform, it works together with the built-in accessibility features like the VoiceOver screen reader and zoom magnifier. On android, it has a read aloud option that both displays the text of the book and speaks it, without needing any accessibility services to be enabled. However, it does not highlight the text as it is being read, although it does display the text of the page that the tts is reading. With the web app, using your platform’s accessibility services such as NVDA on Windows or chromevox, you can read your books the same way you would read an ordinary web page. Both versions of the mobile app support changing the contrast and font size of displayed text.
Adobe Acrobat Reader: The Adobe Reader app on the PC has a read aloud option, allowing you to hear the content of PDF files, again, with no highlighting.
@Voice Aloud Reader: a free app for android, developed by a mainstream app company called Hyperionics, which can read, highlight, and make audio files out of long emails, text books, web pages and other content shared from a browser or other apps, text and pdf files placed on to the device memory, and files in your cloud accounts like dropbox. This app doesn’t have its own speech support. It uses whatever speech engine you have set for the android system, although you can adjust settings in the app like rate, volume and pitch. It features media control support which allows you to, for example, read by sentence, paragraph and so on using bluetooth media controls like fast forward and rewind.
FBReader: This app, along with the text to speech plugin developed by hyperionics, allows you to read epub, rtf, and other formats that FBReader supports, along with the same features that @Voice Aloud Reader supports, like speed, volume, and pitch controls, language detection for the documents assuming you have a voice installed on your device that speaks the language, text highlighting synchronized with the voice, and bluetooth headset controls. It cannot, however, convert the text from the book into an audio file.
Cool Reader: This free, open source eBook reader supports reading epub and other real-world formats. It has a read aloud option, similar to the Google Play Books app. It doesn’t highlight the text that is being read, but it synchronizes pages with the speech, meaning that when the voice reads text on the next page, the visual position changes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any voice options like adjusting the rate, volume or pitch, nor does it have text controls like fast forward and rewind, just play/pause.
The vOICe for android: This free app provides synthetic vision through sensory substitution, using a phone camera to generate soundscapes, lower-pitch sounds representing darker areas of the image and the opposite being true for higher-pitched sounds. It also includes a talking compass and locator, as well as a color identifier.
Built-in features for other types of disabilities:
Most computer and mobile operating systems have built-in, if in some cases, limited accessibility support, besides the above types of technologies, such as screen readers. For example, Apple’s mac OS, Google’s Chrome OS, and Linux, have some of the following features:
Sticky Keys: Sticky keys is a keyboard feature which allows you to press keys one at a time if you have a physical disability that prevents you from reaching all areas of the keyboard.
Slow Keys: On Linux, you can press keys one at a time within a certain time period which will be sent to the app as if you pressed them all at once.
Bounce Keys, sometimes called keyboard delay: This Linux feature will prevent held keys from repeating, for example if you pressed the e key and held, it would send e instead of eeeee, etc.
On-screen or virtual keyboards: These programs place a picture of a keyboard on the screen which can be clicked on to type keys. Most provide predictive text entry and other features to attempt to save time. On devices with a vibrational motor, depending on the on-screen keyboard being used and it’s capabilities, the device can vibrate to indicate key presses.
Visual Alerts: This feature will allow the screen to flash when an important message or system alert is displayed. This is a supplement to the sound that the machine would usually make to warn the user about an important event.
Vibrate on touch: On android, the device can be set up to vibrate on each touch event, rather than making a soft clicking sound to indicate a screen selection.
Freedom Scientific, home to JAWS and MAGic: www.freedomscientific.com
GW Micro, home to Window Eyes: www.gwmicro.com
Dolphin Computer Access, home to Hal and Supernova screen access products: www.yourdolphin.com/
Talkback Support Page for Android: https://support.google.com/talkback/
Chrome Vox: www.chromevox.com
Thunder Screen Reader: link to homepage: www.screenreader.net/
ZDSR homepage (note: site is in Chinese, you need to use google translate to find the download link): http://www.zdsr.net/
Android app links:
Shine Plus: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=atlab.shineplus
Google Goggles: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.unveil&hl=en
Google Drive: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.docs
Google Docs: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.docs.editors.docs
google Sheets: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.docs.editors.sheets
Google Slides: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.docs.editors.slides
Google Keep: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.keep
Audio Bug: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=eu.thedarken.audiobug
@Voice Aloud Reader: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.hyperionics.avar
Blio: https://play.google.com/s tore/apps/details?id=com.blio.androidreader
FB Reader: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.geometerplus.zlibrary.ui.android
FB Reader TTS Plus Plugin: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.hyperionics.fbreader.plugin.tts_plus
Cool Reader: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.coolreader
Google Play Books: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.books
Go Read Bookshare App: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.benetech.android
Ideal Group Reader: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.easyaccess.epubreader
The VOICe for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=vOICe.vOICeBack to Home