TORONTO – More than four in 10 adult Canadians have trouble reading this sentence, according to the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network.
If that number seems high, it’s likely because people often hide their struggles, fearing stigma or discrimination.
“The incidence of dyslexia and learning disabilities or developmental disabilities or lack of literacy is far greater than most people realize,” said Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto.
“They are reluctant to self-identify as requiring assistance.”
That’s where European-based ReadSpeaker comes in.
ReadSpeaker is a text-to-speech converter, designed to read text on websites out loud.
“ReadSpeaker is working towards a vision of a world in which people can access digital information through our speech technology, anywhere and anytime,” said Michael Hughes, ReadSpeaker’s Canadian business manager, in an email.
The technology, now available for use on Globalnews.ca, allows anyone to listen to a spoken version of text on virtually any device with the simple click of a button. It’s not only convenient for people on the go to get their news fix; it opens the door for those who struggle to read or comprehend online content.
Hughes calls this process “barrier-free.”
Increasing need for inclusive technologies
There’s a growing need for tools like these, Treviranus said. People with vision impairment, dyslexia, or limited English skills are common users of such services.
“One of the things that’s happening more frequently as we age, many people are requiring some assistance with text reading or deciphering text or navigating through text. The incidence is increasing all the time.”
What sets ReadSpeaker apart from other text-to-speech platforms is the fact that a user doesn’t need to install additional software to use it. It uses HTML5 to stream the voice you hear over the cloud to your device.
READ MORE: Take our survey on Readspeaker
Global News is the first news organization in Canada to offer this service, powered by ReadSpeaker.
“It is very encouraging to see this integrated into standard, mainstream systems so that you don’t need a segregated, additional add-on tool,” Treviranus said.
During a demo of the the new function available on GlobalNews.ca, Frederic Fovet, a Montreal-based accessibility and inclusion consultant, said features such as ReadSpeaker allow easier access to anyone, creating a hospitable, accessible environment.
“Looking at a software like this, you are trying to look at it from two different perspectives: the accessibility perspective obviously but also general usability,” said Fovet. “This is great; it’s great because not only does it give you the audio support but it also shows you the text, and it highlights the text it is reading.”
Fovet said there is still along way to go when it comes to accessibility online.
“Really, I’m very impressed. Especially on such an essential need as news, and a website that so many people do consult,” said Fovet. “This is a great improvement. And I really wish that a lot of service providers really thought about access on their websites through this sense as well.”
How text-to-speech works
There’s been significant progress since the first desktop-based robotic voices. ReadSpeaker’s reader uses a more conversational tone.
Originally text-to-speech technology used phonemes, the smallest units of speech, in combinations to produce the words and sentences a user hears. That tends to produce a more choppy, synthetic sound.
The technique now widely used by ReadSpeaker uses units that are larger than phonemes, sometimes complete sentences, when converting text to speech.
The process involves the digital recording of voice actors saying carefully chosen phrases and words, a process which can take many hours of recording sessions. The technology then weaves the recordings together to produce what users hear.
WATCH ABOVE: How to use Global News’ new audio service ReadSpeaker
ReadSpeaker employs a growing army of computational linguists to develop and improve its products. Computational linguistics is often grouped under the artificial intelligence field, and works to develop the computational understanding and generation of human languages.
Michelann Parr works in literacy theory at Nipissing University in Ontario, and has researched the use of text-to-speech technology as an educational tool.
“We have many adults and many kids who spend way too much time … trying to figure out letters and sounds,” Parr said. “They have so much energy that gets drained that now they no longer have time or capacity to actually understand the text they are reading.”
She said text-to-speech technology allows readers greater access.
“In a nutshell, it simply decodes,” she said.
“I think that’s the key to enhancing literacy.”
Parr’s blog uses ReadSpeaker, and she said she’s gotten positive feedback.
Hughes said he hopes the technology can help Canadians who speak English as an additional language, as well as seniors and those with impaired vision.
“Canadians are proud of our diversity,” he said, “and making barrier-free audio of important online news content easy to access is a key way to help build more engagement and opportunity as Canada becomes more digital.”
According to the company, ReadSpeaker is already being used in 60 countries around the world, in more than 30 languages.
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