If you are a person with dyslexia, you may have difficulty reading this article. In fact, the act of online reading is probably not high on your list of favorite activities. The good news is that you are here, on the Internet, where information is accessible to everyone. The subset of assistive technology ("AT") known as text-to-speech converts written text into spoken words. It allows anyone, regardless of reading ability, to enjoy Web content independently. Simply put, you can use AT to read the Internet with your ears. In an age when card catalogs have been replaced by search engines, that is a very good thing.
There are a number of websites that have successfully integrated text-to-speech into their user experiences. Sites that provide information about learning disabilities, like Understood and the University of Michigan’s DyslexiaHelp, have built-in reading tools that can be activated with a click or a tap. This type of AT integration is certainly not the norm, however. People who need help reading Web-based content have several options: They can use desktop applications, browser extensions, or mobile devices such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
The most established form of text-to-speech technology is desktop software. Robust programs like Read&Write Gold and Kurzweil 3000 have been available for several years. In addition to reading Internet content aloud, they provide synchronized highlighting in different colors for increased reading comprehension. They also have a variety of annotation tools, which can be helpful for Web-based research. Those programs are costly, however, and there are less expensive options available. In fact, NaturalReader offers a free version of its text-to-speech tool that can be downloaded from its website. It offers a simple floating toolbar that can read aloud any text that the user selects with a mouse or track pad. Finally, Apple’s desktop operating system, OS X, has built-in text-to-speech as part of its accessibility features, so third-party software is not a necessity for Macs.
A relatively new option for Internet text-to-speech is found in browser extensions, or plugins. The DyslexiaHelp site provides a list of text reading plugins for the major browsers: Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. Among those browsers, Chrome offers the best options. First, Read&Write for Google offers several of the same features as the Read&Write desktop software for a fraction of the cost, including excellent text-to-speech for Web content and Google Drive documents. Chrome Speak and SpeakIt! are two more Chrome plugins that can be used to read Internet text aloud.
The popularity of Apple devices among people with dyslexia is due in large part to the integrated accessibility features of the iPhone and iPad. In terms of text-to-speech, iOS offers three options. Speak Selection allows the user to select specific text to be read out loud, and VoiceOver and Speak Screen offer continuous reading over multiple pages of text. There are also several AT-related apps for iOS devices that have feature-rich text-to-speech for Web reading. One of the best is Voice Dream Reader, which imports Internet text through an integrated browser, separating it from ads and other distracting material. The app’s many tools can then be used to read the content aloud. Another app that has similar functionality is NaturalReader, the iOS counterpart to the desktop software.
Of course, text-to-speech technology can be used for offline material as well, but as we continue to venture more deeply into cloud computing, it is important for people with language difficulties to have reliable tools to help them read on the Internet.