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Promoting Achievement through Technology and INstruction for all Students
Jan
12

TTS: Then and Now

In the last 25 years, during which I have worked for the PATINS Project, assistive technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Today I am specifically considering one technology and how it has advanced greatly.

It is interesting and somewhat exciting to see where it was, and where it is going. My early involvement with text to speech (TTS) was with the software program Kurzweil 1000.

The software, when fitted to an appropriate computer configuration, would take scanned text and through the programs optical character recognition (OCR) would convert the text output to speech.

Kurzweil 1000 was primarily used by individuals who were blind or had low vision. Although others began using it for students who had a reading disability. From that enlightening came the Kurzweil 3000 program which addressed the other needs of not just reading but writing and study skills.

There have been many other text to speech programs developed. Some being Natural Reader, W.Y.N.N., Word Q, TextHelp Read and Write, Microsoft Narrator, Snap and Read to name a few.

These programs have had a major impact on struggling readers and those individuals who can’t access text in the traditional way.

For many users of TTS, one complaint that crossed programs were the robotic voices which were synthesized and lacked inflection and other natural nuances of human speech.

Not only was TTS used in software programs, but it was and still is a vital component in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, software and applications.

Although TTS was/is an integral part of assistive technology for individuals to communicate and interact, it was just a matter of time before it became mainstream.

Very few people would know the background of TTS or its evolution of augmentative speech when using SIRI or Alexa. They have become a fixture in everyday life from young to old. Their voice sounds realistic, and the Artificial Intelligence (AI) used makes them almost lifelike.

What got me thinking about what my early years’ experience with TTS is a program my wife, Rita, came across a few weeks ago. The program is Speechify and it is TTS program and much more. Speechify is a text to speech program for desktop or mobile devices that uses computer generated voices.

This is one of many that have incorporated OCR to translate its output to speech. What is interesting about Speechify is that it doesn’t use voice files that are part of the devices operating system but generates speech using its own file sources.

You can choose voices from fourteen different countries, including Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Hindi, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, German, Hebrew, and others. It offers male and female voices for the specific language, but it also has the voices of Gwyneth Paltrow and Snoop Dogg.

This is not an endorsement for Speechify (for which there is a cost to use). This is one view for me of where TTS started, and what is possible now. The advancement is phenomenal and Speechify is just one of many TTS programs out there.

The main reason Speechify caught my attention was Snoop Dogg’s voice, you should demo him. What a hoot!

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Jan
05

Book It! For Grown-Ups

Book It! For Grown-Ups Were you part of the generation that grew up learning the value of reading as it related to a personal pan pizza? Me too!

Were you part of the generation that grew up learning the value of reading as it related to a personal pan pizza?

Me too!

Pizza Hut’s Book It! program was a cornerstone of my childhood: read so many books a month, and get a little coupon for a free pizza. In elementary school, I devoured books almost as fast as pizza. Throughout my childhood and teens, I always had a stack of novels nearby.

It didn't change until sometime in my 20s. I couldn’t find any enjoyment in reading books and at the time I couldn't pinpoint why. My free time, interests, and access to books had certainly changed. I had a job, responsibilities, and no weekly trip to the library built into my schedule. I just didn't read books anymore, so I described myself as "not much of a reader."

In actuality I was still a reader, a voracious one even. I was just reading different things for different purposes: cooking and travel blogs, news reports, professional journals, comic strips, and the Wikipedia pages on Basque whaling in the 1700s. I spent hours reading every day but if it wasn’t a book with chapters I believed it didn’t count. That frame of mind was harmful: no one way of reading or type of reading is superior to another. When we put books and novels as superior to other types of reading, we set ourselves up to an unequal and inaccessible standard. And when I took the pressure off of being “a good reader = books = pizza” and could find enjoyment in more types of reading.

So I propose a new Book It, A Grown Up Reading Program. There are a few rules:

All reading counts

Books of any length or genre? Good. Children's books? Good. Not-a-books like blogs, comic strips, technical reports, the news, and recipes? All good. Audio, digital text, print? Good, good, good!

Get the tools to help you read

Today I almost exclusively read digital materials. Audiobooks let me multitask, conserve energy, and prevent repetitive motion injuries while the digital text gives me the learning and organization tools I need. Both of these formats are necessary for me to access reading. I also use two types of headphones for audiobooks: bone conduction and noise canceling. You can borrow these types of headphones from our lending library. If I was a student with an IEP, I would insist all this information be written in that document under assistive technology and accessible educational materials.

Did you notice up at the top right corner of the screen we have a ReachDeck accessibility toolbar? If you haven’t yet, try it out. Listen to this blog or another page with the tool. Do some stretches or pace around a bit and read. Did you like it? Would you or your students use something like that again?

Share the joy

Does every student have access to reading materials in your district at the exact same moment as everyone else? 

Do they all get to have interesting reading experiences about a variety of topics? 

Do they need some tools to be successful readers, as most adults do?

If you need support with the above questions, reach out to us, we have tools and ideas to try!

Finally, buy yourself a pizza

Also, splurge on some breadsticks, because you are a grown-up with grown-up money.

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Dec
23

Accessibility is a District-Wide Initiative

Accessibility is a District-Wide Initiative Accessibility is a District-wide Initiative with student in wheelchair reaching for book.

“I wish I still had to use my wheelchair.” This was a quiet statement made by one of my students.

While this particular student had made immense progress physically following a stroke, he was continuing to struggle academically and a bit socially to keep up with the ever changing landscape of middle school.

When asked why he wanted to have his wheelchair back, he said “So people would remember I had a stroke.” He felt without an external symbol of his disability, his teachers and friends treated him like he had recovered 100%. They had assumed he was “being lazy” or “being a teenager” when he did not complete his school work. 

I know some days he enjoyed being able to “blend” back into the classroom environment, especially when he was up to some pre-teen trickery. Although he worked hard to cover up his struggles, he needed support. For instance, I noticed he had a particularly hard time editing his writing on the computer. He said looking at the screen would give him a headache and he had trouble reading back what he typed.

Only after the fact did I find out our district had the AEMing for Achievement grant at the time I worked with this student. I had heard rumblings about Snap&Read and Co:Writer from my speech-language pathologist counterparts at other levels. So I asked about the tools but was told “Oh we are trying it out in elementary and high school right now. This will come to the middle school soon.” 

So I waited.

And that was my mistake.

The tools that could have supported my student (and subsequently benefitted his classmates) were literally sitting right in front of him on his Chromebook everyday. District administration never brought us more information about the AEMing for Achievement grant processes and tools that year.

Here is where I wish I had a happy ending to wrap in a big shiny bow to share with you. The truth is we never found a great strategy to help him in middle school and I am not sure what happened once he moved on to high school.

My hope is that you can take away a couple of lessons from my experience.

First of all, my student is an example of many students in our schools who are passed over year in and year out because they do not “look” disabled. Having mobility aids or other assistive devices is not a prerequisite to receiving academic support. We must create a learning environment without barriers. By designing lessons with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind, we can remove barriers to full participation and progress for all students in the classroom.

Second, if you hear of a tool that you feel will help a student, go after it tenaciously. There is always someone willing to help train you, lend it out, or in some cases pay for it. PATINS Assistive Technology Lending Library has many devices, software, and educational items to trial with your students for six weeks for free - shipping included!

Third, access to the curriculum is a district wide initiative. In other words - access for all students! This especially applies to students with disabilities who must receive their accessible materials in a “timely manner” (IDEA, 2004). 

It can feel overwhelming to make systemic changes and to get everyone on board. The PATINS Project is here to help you in your efforts to create and sustain an accessible learning environment. PATINS AEMing for Achievement grant teams receive intensive support to set up accessibility policies, procedures, and practices district wide. Additionally, our specialists can help you get the ball rolling if you have questions about designing accessible lessons or would like training in this area. Furthermore, the Indiana Center for Accessible Materials (ICAM) provides Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) to qualifying students. All of these services come at no cost to employees of Indiana Local Education Agencies (i.e. public/charter schools). 

Our students do not have time to wait for access to their education. They need it now and the PATINS Project is here to support you in achieving this in 2022 and beyond.

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