Speech Technology Magazine

 

IBM Drafts the Standard in Text-to-Speech

IBM in mid-December released a new application programming interface, or middleware, that expands the ability of screenreading programs like Freedom Scientific's JAWS and GW Micro's Window-Eyes, to convert on-screen text and graphics to audio for the blind or visually impaired.
By Leonard Klie - Posted Jan 30, 2007
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Designed to run on Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems, the IAccessible2 interface makes it possible for those assistive technologies to interface with virtually any program. The interface even supports Open Document Format (ODF), browser-based Rich Internet Applications, Web 2.0, AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) and DHTML (dynamic hypertext markup language) documents; some assistive technologies previously had difficulty translating complex graphics, editing functions, hyperlinks, charts, menus, headings and captions in tables, fonts, text colors, text selected for cutting and pasting, and caret location in those applications into spoken form.

"The challenge until now has been in keeping up with technology," explains IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind. "Things have been advancing so quickly that it's hard for assistive technology vendors to keep up."

To that end, IBM has donated the IAccessible2 middleware to the Free Standards Group, a non-profit group that promotes open-source software, to make it the standard interface for all assistive technologies for  the blind or visually impaired. If it does become the standard, that will virtually eliminate the need for software vendors to write text-to-speech translation applications into their programs and for assistive technology providers to modify their software to keep up with new document formats, programming languages, and operating systems each time they come out.

Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Mozilla, Oracle, SAP, and Sun Microsystems have already pledged their support for IAccessible2 as the standard. In fact, Mozilla will be the first software vendor to incorporate it into its offerings when it releases in the spring a version of its Firefox Web browser with the middleware already written into it. Other releases from some of the other software vendors are slated for the summer.

IAccessible2 complements a proprietary middleware application, called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), that Microsoft began developing about 10 years ago. IBM's version is based on open technology that the company originally developed with Sun Microsystems to make Java and Linux accessible to those with disabilities.

"Having this technology will make assistive technology more affordable for the blind," Fishkind says, "because the software vendors do not have to spend as much to customize their solutions."

It will also make it easier for the blind to get and use the latest software, he adds. "They will not have to wait long until the software can be understood by their assistive technology."

As with other Americans, it's extremely important that the 1.3 Americans who are legally blind have access to computers in education, in the workplace, and at home. "The computer has become an important aspect of life, so anything that can make them more accessible to the blind will be a big help," says John Pare, director of public relations at the National Federation of the Blind. — Leonard Klie

 

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