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Winter 2008 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Spoken Text Website Launched&And Its Free

By Christine Sweeton, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario
Reprinted with permission from The Charlatan, Carleton University Independent Newspaper, September 14, 2007.

Abstract: A Carleton Univ. graduate launches a free website, , that allows members to convert text files into speech recordings.

Key words: blindness, visual impairment, print-disabled, The Charlatan, Carleton University, spokentext, screen reader, Mark McKay, Carleton School of Psychology Human-Oriented Technology Laboratory.

A bright, young student at an American university eagerly awaited the start of the school year. She started attending her classes and enjoyed all her lectures. It was not until she went to purchase textbooks for her courses that her university career slammed to a devastating halt.

This student was blind, and her textbooks were not available as audio books.

The university rushed to acquire the information in another format. Reluctantly, publishers released the texts as digital files on CD. The written words on the computer screen were no easier to see than those on a page. As she fell behind in her courses, she wondered if this signaled the end of her university career.

While searching the Internet, one of her professors stumbled upon spokentext.net. Created through a partnership between Carleton graduate Mark McKay and the Carleton School of Psychology Human-Oriented Technology Laboratory (HOT Lab) the website is designed to assist visually-impaired people around the globe. The website, spokentext.net, is free for all users and allows members to easily convert text files into speech recordings. The recordings can then be listened to directly or transferred to iTunes or an iPod.

Being able to quickly and easily turn digital textbooks into recordings helped save that American students education. Thankful for the solution, the student wrote to McKay, the websites creator.

McKay graduated from Carleton in 2000 with a commerce degree, specializing in information systems. He is also visually-impaired and worked with the government on web accessibility prior to starting the website. Focused on helping other people, his goal was to create an easier way for the people to access text in spoken form.

I had the idea for years, says McKay. When his government contract ended and he met Robert Biddle, a HOT Lab professor, the website began to take form. McKay wrote all the computer code and designed the interface himself.

Spokentext.net went live in December 2006 and now includes members from more than 80 countries.

After its launch, McKay and Biddle began researching user reaction to the site. They aim to keep spokentext.net as simple as possible, but many features were added at the request of users.

I believe that technology should bend to the user, not the user bending to technology. The sites design is user-driven, says McKay. I wanted to remove the pain from converting text. The site is empowering. There is no need to wait for the files.

The site was originally designed for the print-disabled, but now includes many non-disabled members. Print-disabled is a broad category, which includes the blind, visually-impaired, those who are illiterate or who have learning disabilities, and anyone learning English as a second language. Unable to easily read the written word, the print-disabled look for other ways of receiving the information.

McKay says he hopes the website will reach even further. Students have started using the site to convert their study notes into recordings that they can listen to while doing things like exercising.

McKay is currently focused on promoting the site, emphasizing to those in need of this service that it is available, and free and simple to use. He has already had meetings with Carletons Paul Menton Centre to share information about the site.

Without an official sponsor, the site is funded by McKay, Biddle and a Paypal donation feature on the home page. I want the people who use it to support it, says McKay. They are currently raising money to add a female voice option, which will cost $260. It is not a huge sum, says McKay, who notes that he would love to add other voices and languages though the funding is not available yet. Both the interface and speech files are available only in English, but McKay says he eventually wants to provide multilingual speech conversions

After six months online, Spokentext.net is still growing and changing. McKay says he hopes that spokentext.net membership will continue to grow and the site will gain popularity. We know it isnt perfect, we know it doesnt have all these features, but its usable and it helps.