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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.

3
Dec
29

Loss and Communication

Outline drawings of two adults with a squiggly bubble representing communication with a line from one person''s mouth to the bubble and a line from the bubble to the other person's ear

Audio Version (5 Minutes)

Five years. My 26-year-old son passed away unexpectedly five years ago today. It's still difficult to believe. So many things were going well for him. He was married, raising a young baby, and beginning to excel in a career. He had so much life ahead of him. I miss him and his vigor, silliness, and passion.

Although we didn't visit face to face as often as we could have, we communicated through text messages, daily snapchats of his daughter, him singing, his dog Jet and we talked every few days. I am grateful for all those modes of communication we shared. Although these modes may not be typical for your students, it's important to discover their best modes.

How do you ensure that ALL your students are connected and communicating with their most important people, friends and classmates and not losing out on communicative opportunities?

"An 18-month-old child has been exposed to 4,380 waking hours of oral language. A typical AAC user, exposed to modeling, two times a week for 30 minutes, would take 84 years to have the same level of exposure." - source AAC Community

What can you do? - Model AAC

At PATINS, I have been privileged to work with many K-12 stakeholders throughout the entire state through video consultations, webinars, or onsite trainings. Some of these relationships have continued for several years. These are important to me because most of these interactions supported students with Complex Communication Needs (CCN) and/or Orthopedic Impairments (OI). 

What else can you do? Request Free PATINS AAC Consultation

Students with CCN (go to practicalaac.org for additional information) have the right to communicate. It may be difficult to identify their methods of communication, but we must do our best to see and validate those attempts. We have several tools available to help and a great place to start is the Communication Matrix (Free).

You can think about your student as an active participant rather than a passive observer. How can you engage your student? Consider the basic purposes of communication:

  1. Refusing,
  2. Getting things,
  3. Socializing and
  4. Sharing/Gaining information.

When your student fusses, pushes something away or throws items, do you acknowledge and identify that as a refusal ("No thanks", "Don't want", or model a refusal icon) and offer an alternative? Start with a few symbols - Project-Core and Universal Core Vocabulary Selector

Engineer the environment so your student must ask for assistance (e.g., missing part to an activity, missing/dead battery, missing color, etc.). Also, have your student with CCN block the hallway path of a general education peer in order to initiate a conversation using a Step By Step communication device (101 Ideas for Step by Step).

The Step by Step is awesome for recording multiple words, phrases, and sentences to have conversations/social interactions (program the student's half of the conversation - “My name is x. What’s your name? I have two dogs and a cat. Do you have any pets? I like watching videos. What do you like to do?), counting, singing songs, giving instructions, or following directions, and much more!

Encourage all students to greet one another, new people, provide opportunities to share information, control others (e.g., activities such as cooking, art, cleaning, PE, etc.). See link for 101 Ideas above.

Encourage families to share information about home activities and events so that staff can engage the student about those. Use a written notebook, email, shared online document, recorded messages on voice output device, tablet or dedicated communication device.

Finally, you must also ensure the following to encourage robust authentic communication. When teaching/using AAC, students can easily get bored, frustrated if it's only used for academic tasks. Additionally, the AAC system must be taught keeping these ideas in mind:

  1. There must be a need to communicate
  2. There must be an opportunity to communicate
  3. There must be motivation
  4. There must be a way to communicate
  5. Give appropriate wait time and talk less!!!

Many students with CCN have already lost out on many opportunities to communicate. Please work with your team to determine the best mode of communication for your student, give them a voice and make sure everyone listens. Every student has the right to communicate (ASHA Communication Bill of Rights) and share their unique personalities.

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