New Delhi, Dec 10: Microsoft Corp. and the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium have announced a joint standards-based development project that will make it possible for computer users who are blind or print disabled to make better use of assistive technology in their daily lives.
The collaborating project will enable the translation of millions of Open XML documents into DAISY XML, the lingua franca for digital talking books. The free downloadable plug-in will released in early 2008.
In recent decades, individuals with print disabilities have increasingly accessed information using a wide variety of assistive technologies such as screen readers, large print, refreshable Braille and text-to-speech synthesizers.
However, because these individuals cannot visually navigate complex page layouts, they often struggle to keep up with the demands of today's information-rich society.
The structure within DAISY publications makes it possible to navigate quickly by heading or page number and to use indexes and references, all with correctly ordered, synchronized audio and text. In addition to clear benefits for the print-disabled community, the Open XML to DAISY XML translator also offers the potential for further innovation in the information-intensive markets of publishing, training and education.
An Indian member of the DAISY consortium, the National Association for Blind (NAB), has welcomed the initiative.
Dipendra Manocha, Director IT and Services, NAB and President of the DAISY Forum of India, said, "With the largest blind population in the world, India needs initiatives like these to redress the problems faced by the visually challenged. This tool addresses a compelling need of the visually impaired - in all walks of life - who have so far been losing out on the benefits of the information-age. The announcement is monumental: it provides a clear, production path for organizations and universities who will be able to use the Microsoft plug-in to move into DAISY XML. Putting tools in the hands of people who create content is a giant step toward creating equal access to information."
George Kerscher, Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium, added, "In our information age, access to information is a fundamental human right. This is why leading organizations of and for the blind throughout the world are committed to the advancement of the DAISY Standard. The ability to create DAISY content from millions of Open XML-based documents using this translator for Microsoft Office Word will offer substantial and immediate benefits to publishers, governments, corporations, educators and, most important, to everyone who loves to read."
In order to navigate text, parse information, speed-read, skim over sections and locate the data that interests us, one performs a complex calculus of considerations for which one relies on visual cues like the table of contents, formatting, indentations, the index and the glossary to guide as the eyes move across the pages.
However, the 180 million blind or visually impaired people worldwide and the millions more who are otherwise print disabled, (unable to process text because of cognitive, learning, developmental, perceptual or physical disabilities) are deprived of all that rich visual data and that the information is one crude mass of undifferentiated text that they have to slog through sequentially in linear fashion from cover to cover.
For them, analog audio recordings are often the only means to access the same information the rest of the world takes for granted in books or on screen.
Now, however, "The Open XML to DAISY XML translator for Microsoft Office Word will begin the translation of Open XML-based content into an enriched multimedia format accessible to users around the world, regardless of the degree of their visual impairments," said Sanjay Manchanda, Director, Business Division, Microsoft India.
"This accessible technology is something that our customers have asked for, and we are pleased to be able to work collaboratively with the DAISY Consortium to realize this goal," Sanjay added.
DAISY material can be played on dedicated devices or on PCs by installing special software.
DAISY's specifications have been shaped by feedback from talking to book users and the spectrum of needs they identified. Those with low vision, for instance, said that with auditory cassettes they could hear the words but not see how they were spelled.
Accordingly, DAISY gives these users the option of visually following the text in large print as it is heard. People who are blind can track auditory output using a refreshable Braille display composed of tiny electronically-activated pins that pop up to denote words on screen as they pass their fingertips along the display.
"Consideration of special needs is an integral part of Microsoft's product design process. The Open XML-DAISY XML translator builds on Microsoft's long-standing commitment to promoting information access for users with disabilities. For users, the ability to "Save as DAISY" in Microsoft Office Word represents an important validation of disabled users' needs and sends a powerful message to society at large," said Sanjay.
Open XML adoption continues to expand across the software industry for use on various platforms that include Linux, Windows, Mac OS and the Palm OS.