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I was amazed when I first read that, according to the Cabinet Office, 7 million people in the UK have literacy problems. Before discussing this further I must define my use of the word literacy, it means that they have difficulty in reading even though their eyesight is adequate; it does not imply the other use of the word that they are uneducated or unintelligent. The numbers became less of a surprise when you consider the different groups covered which include:
- Children who come out of school having not learnt to read well. I will not make any political statement about this.
- People with dyslexia. This is a far more common problem than I had imagined with estimates of 10% of the population being affected to some degree.
- Immigrants whose first language is not English. Having lived in a country that had a different language and alphabet I realise how difficult it is for an adult to learn to read well.
- People with learning difficulties.
What is true for nearly all these people is that they can understand the spoken word better than the written word. This suggests that a website that can speak would be much more accessible to these groups. A small percentage of them may invest in screen reader technology because they want to use a computer frequently; however, most of them will not have this option for a variety of social and economic reasons.
Speech enabling a website would have a two-fold benefit to people with literacy problems. Firstly it would make the site accessible to them. Secondly information on paper will have been of no use to them and by putting this information on a speech-enabled website they will be able to access it for the first time.
I would suggest that any website that is intended for a wide public should be speech enabled; these sites will include government, e-commerce and entertainment.
Browsealoud, a company based in Ireland, provides the technology to speech-enable a website. The site will purchase a licence from Browsealoud and this will allow any user of the site to download the Browsealoud browser plug-in. Using the plug-in the user points at a piece of text that they want read to them and the software converts the text into spoken English. Not all the information on a website is in HTML so Browsealoud also supports the other major text formats including PDF, accessible Flash and accessible Java.
Browsealoud aids understanding by highlighting the sections and words being read. It also has options to change the speed, pitch, volume and selection (e.g. UK or US) of the voice to improve its usability.
Browsealoud will work with any website but it will be more effective if the website abides by the standard requirements of accessible sites and documents.
The solution has already been installed by a large variety of organisations including Dept of Health, London 2012, Cabinet Office, City of London, BUPA, BBC, Home Office, British Council and the British Dyslexia Association. This is a low cost technology that with minimal effort extends a websites access to a large, often disadvantaged, group of users; I believe it should be installed on most sites.