There’s a company called browsealoud that produces a browser pluggin that reads out the text on the screen. It’s pretty good, helpful for people with cognitive difficulties or who’s primary language isn’t English.
At work a client received an email from someone asking why their site wasn’t “speech enabled”. This person said they were blind, and found the talking-browser product helpful, and why wouldn’t we speech-enable the web site.
Browsealoud doesn’t claim to be useful for more than a mild visual disability, which is fine, this compliant is not one the company would support. But I have a fairly fundamental problem with the business model that the user is implicitly supporting. I can understand this person’s point of view, he is using a product that has really helped. That’s great (although unlikely they are actually blind). However, globally, it’s a flawed strategy.
A great deal of work has been done on the accessibility of the website in question, and the team is taking a long-term view to ensure that the accessibility for all is maintained.
Any modern developer knows that the best thing to do in this regard is to follow the international (W3C) standards for development and accessibility to ensure that as many people as possible can access the content of the site.
Whilst browsealoud is a good product to use, I don’t consider it a sustainable strategy. The product could work for all sites, but the company has decided on a strategy of charging site owners to ‘enable’ their site, at an expensive yearly cost. Nothing in the site is changed to enable speech, it is just that people with the plug-in are allowed to use the site.
This strategy is their prerogative, but I just don’t see it as the best solution. From the user’s point of view, there will always be some (in fact many) sites that are not enabled, either due to cost or not knowing of the product.
There are products from free to expensive that can do similar things but work for all sites. Some of these can also help with general computer use as well, whereas browsealoud is purely focused on the Internet browser.
That is the reason I wouldn’t recommend anyone subscribe to a service, in the same way I wouldn’t recommend a text-site conversion service. It is simply something that should happen on the user-agent end.
So what did I suggest to this person? They are caught in the cross-fire of commercial spin and not having a useful user-agent.
A friend at work is an expert Jaws user, very active on the screen reader email lists and knows a great deal about various technologies for the visually impaired. She suggested a few things that would help in terms of financing a full screen reader (there are options whether you are in or out of work).
Some options in terms of products from expensive to free are:
- Jaws (UK retailer) is available from the official UK distributors for either £655 (standard) or £785 (Pro). This has historically been recommended by the RNIB, although I’m not sure of their current policy. Their main competitors are Window eyes and Hal.
- The Lookout screen reader can be purchased for £105, giving you full access to your computer and common applications.
- If only assistance with reading web pages is required, then IBM’s Home Page Reader can be purchased for £115 (or £95 for visually impaired users).
- Browsealoud can also recite the content within a web page. Therefore it’s not suitable for people who are fully blind. It cannot relay information about the browser, or any other application or the operating system. Browsealoud cite people with mild visual impairment as being a beneficiary of their technology, but do not claim it is a substitute for a screen reader.
- The Opera browser, available free of charge, also has in-built speech capability which can assist with reading web page content.
- Firevox, an extension to the Firefox browser it into a Home Page Reader like voice browser, free of charge.
- Windows has an in-built screen reader which is provided as part of the operating system. It can be activated in Windows XP by pressing the Windows key and u.
There are a lot of options these days, accessibility should be built in, not on subscription.