Musings of a university web strategist

ReadSpeaker: accessibility boost or another annoying gadget?

In the past week I was contacted by two separate individuals regarding an online text to speech application called ReadSpeaker. For those unfamiliar with the product, ReadSpeaker is a commercial application which claims to improve web accessibility for visitors with “low literacy and reading skills, limited English proficiency, dyslexia or related disabilities and mild visual impairment.” While I can’t disprove their claim of accessibility enhancement, nor will I try to, I can’t help but doubt that such visitors will experience an substantially improved web experience if we implemented it across our site.

ReadSpeaker has an impressive client list including the US Library of Congress, Amnesty International and Ohio State University, but I had difficulty finding their implementations online. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to take a more in-depth look at the product and its possible benefits.

Outside of their own online marketing efforts, I did not find much discussion about these kind of tools. I did find one discussion on the AIM (Accessibility in Mind) website which brought up a couple of interesting points, but I failed to find a more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of embedded web text-to-speech gadgets.

Getting to root of truly accessible content

I can’t help but balk at the notion that we can substantially improve accessibility by applying some automated web gadget to all our pages. Wouldn’t our efforts be better spent sending content writers to a seminar or buying them a good book on writing for the web and creating a better web experience for everyone? Looking at established guidelines for improving cognitive website accessibility on websites, the emphasis is on writing simply and concisely. In other words, improve the content itself rather than the delivery method. It turns out that we have no deficiency of erudite individuals in the academy. As a result, much of our web content is rife with complexities that often baffles those of us with a solid command of the local langauge in written or spoken form. As a non-native-speaker of several languages myself I can attest to the fact that simply written text is many, many times easier to understand than normal speed spoken text, especially when that text contains complex grammatical structures.

Accessibility guidelines do mention providing multi-modality for web content. At first glance, ReadSpeaker might fulfill such a role, but despite impressive recent improvements in text-to-speech technology, automated recordings fall far short of providing the nuances real speech that might help individuals with low literacy skills or English proficiency. If audio (or video) is truly intended to offer an alternative way to perceive content, doesn’t that mean that the content itself should be altered to suit the medium? Most of us don’t use the same level or type of language when we speak as when we write, nor should we.

In a world increasingly infused with assistive technologies, it is good to remember that technology simply can’t always cure all our problems, even on the web…

Not to knock ReadSpeaker completely, I did enjoy listening to news stories on the United Press International website site courtesy of the tool. In this case, I can see its benefits for multi-tasking folks like myself…

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Author: Tatjana Salcedo

Tatjana is UVM's Web Strategist and is charged with planning and implementing various strategies for the UVM website including the UVM Web Publishing System. She offers workshops throughout the year on a variety topics pertinent to individuals developing content for the UVM website and consults with individuals and groups interested in developing or improving their UVM web presence.

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