Sunday, September 18, 2005

Accessibility by speech

During juries of multimedia competitions accessibility is always a point of discussion. Testing sites on accessibility first, would make the work of jurors easier as not too many sites will be left after the evaluation tools have done their work.

Quite often accessibility is seen as a priority in government sites; not that all government sites stick to this. But I think that it should be an issue at every site being built. For visually impaired, deaf people and dyslexic people like also to browse in other sites on Internet. Just easy things like putting a title to a picture is often forgotten. This despite the free software evaluation tools of the Web Accessibility Initiative of W3C.

This week I saw a new tool being used for accessibility in practice: text-to-speech. Of course you know that this facility exists, but you do not directly think about using it when you start designing a site. Besides in the back of your mind you wave away the facility, as it will be expensive (but you never checked).

The VGZ page with a speech balloon

Last year May I saw this facility being used in Hong Kong and China. As the Chines sign language is difficult to read, a start-up company in Hong Kong had developed a similar program for simple Chinese, Mandarin and English. It has been in use for more than two years now for the department of Health in Hong Kong. The founder told me that the program made use of developed speech technology and could be used in combination with Dragon speech software. But this Readspeaker software comes from Sweden and is based on Phoneticom Accessibility Technology (PHAT), has been developed by ReadSpeaker’s parent company, Phoneticom AB, Sweden.

Readspeaker is available in UK English, American English, Swedish, French, Spanish and Italian

In this case, the Dutch health insurer VGZ has looked accessibility. Of course this is not strange for a health insurance company. They should improve the quality of life and do so by having a female voice reading the texts of the site. You push a speech button on the page and the texts are recited. From research the company knows that 20 per cent of the visitors rather listen to the text than read it themselves or that they have a handicap with reading.

VGZ has a collaboration for this facility with the Swedish company ReadSpeaker. Although the emphasis in some words is not perfect, the accessibility is greatly improved. All in all, I guess that blind people working with a word rule for feeling letters will rather listen to the voice; but there will be more people activating the speech button for whatever reason.

Readspeaker is also available in Dutch, be it with different commands (Say it vs Read it to me)

The addition of speech should be seen as an addition to the accessibility pallet. When setting up a site basic accessibility rules should be applied.

(Of course the promotion pages of Readspeaker can also be read to you by pushing the balloon)

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