For people with print disabilities, such as impaired vision or dyslexia, words can be the monsters in recurring nightmares.
From the 15th-century development of the printing press to today’s carry-everywhere mobile devices, our world has increasingly required the ability to read, write, and understand the words that surround us. When those words are inaccessible, they can cause stress and anxiety. Fortunately, assistive technology (AT) has given people with disabilities the tools they need to cope with — and master — all those words.
While some technology is created to replace humans, assistive technology does just the opposite. It is designed to give humanity back to the people who need help with certain tasks. The developers of AT seem to have a knack for using advanced computer science to support basic emotional well-being. One such developer is Winston Chen, creator of the Voice Dream apps.
Chen will tell you that he became a successful app developer by accident. Voice Dream Reader, the first app that he created, started as a project to fill his time while he was spending an extended sabbatical on a remote Arctic island in 2011. “I felt like I was living a dream,” he said of the experience. In fact, he was keeping a blog called Arctic Dream, which got him to thinking about a name for the app that he was working on. "The domain name 'voicedream.com' was available," he said. "That was before I thought of the app as an assistive product." More than anything else, version 1.0 was just a productivity tool to help people get through daily reading. Chen had no idea that so many people with print disabilities would embrace it. “Of course, now I think ‘dream’ in the name is even more fitting,” he said.
Today, Voice Dream Reader holds the distinction as one of the best and fullest-featured reading apps for both iOS and Android devices. It allows users to customize how they read, providing multiple text-to-speech options as well as a range of choices for how words are displayed on the screen. Students and adults can experience multisensory reading for content that is imported from a variety of sources, including Bookshare, Project Gutenberg, Evernote, Pocket, and a built-in Web browser.
Eventually, Chen expanded the number of apps in the Voice Dream family, which now includes Voice Dream Writer and Voice Dream Mail. Like the Reader, those two apps also provide much-needed assistance to those who struggle with the language demands of the modern world.
The People’s Apps
When Chen first created Voice Dream Reader, he admittedly was not fully aware of the significance and impact of accessible print materials. Once he found out, he said, “I had to start listening to users more because I had no expertise. From that point on, the product developed in directions that were largely user-driven.” As a result, Chen’s apps became all about the people who use them — with a focus on how their specific individual needs can be met.
It is unlikely that Chen will ever consider his apps completely finished. He relies heavily on customer feedback to add new features and improve existing ones. He spends time each day reading and responding to user emails. “And I will continue to do that,” he said. “Without directly interacting with users, I would not know how to make my apps better.”
Unlike much larger businesses, Chen’s small company (which has now expanded to two people) puts a premium on customer satisfaction. But more than that, Chen takes his users’ feedback to heart, especially when they express anger about something that is not working correctly. “These apps are my babies,” he said, “and it’s hard to hear that my babies are ugly. But I have to think [that] if a customer takes the trouble to write me an email, then my app is important to that person.”
At the same time, Chen receives many emails that praise his apps and thank him for making such a big difference in the lives of people who struggle with written language. He can recall one particular email, from someone who had previously sent a note of complaint. “This guy wrote back,” recalled Chen, “and he told me that he’s 60 years old. Before starting to use my app, he could count the number of books he had read with one hand. Now, he’s reading a book a week, and he wanted me to know that my app had changed his life entirely. That was very moving.”
Of course, Chen also receives a great deal of personal satisfaction from working on his products and getting them into the hands of his customers. He can often be found at assistive technology conferences, answering questions and talking to anyone who stops by his modest booth in the exhibit hall. “Conferences get me energized,” he said. “At ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) , many people come up to me and say, ‘My school uses your app, and I just want to tell you that we love it.’ I bottle those up and drink them when I need encouragement to get through rough patches.”
Perhaps the thing that makes Chen the most successful is that he has a great deal of humanity himself. When asked what satisfies him the most about working on his apps, his reply is simple: “I’m my own boss, and I don’t have to answer to anyone except myself. And I have the flexibility to spend time with my family when they need me. Best of all, I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”
In his quest to make assistive technology that helps people feel good about themselves, Winston Chen is in the business of turning nightmares into sweet dreams.