Text-To-Speech Experiment & Evaluation: Cognable Speeka

I created a test page for an experiment with Speeka text-to-speech (TTS), graciously provided by Simon Evans of Cognable. I plan to incorporate TTS into every page of the future Clear Helper Web site.


Speeka, a free service, is a work in progress. It is not a polished, commercial product. It is one of many Mr. Evans is developing to improve accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities.  A brief description of each of his projects can be found on the Cognable home page.

I think Speeka’s initial implementation was on the the Web site of Inclusive New Media Design. INMD is an organization that, like me, is working to develop best practices of Web accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities. When I first saw Speeka, I immediately liked its small form factor compared to that of ccPlayer, which I have been using.

Appearance & Placement

Speeka is embedded throughout the INMD site in the top, right of the content section. It appears as the image below. Rectangular. 3 buttons: play, back, forward. A speaker symbol and the word 'listen'On my test page, it appears as the following image.3 buttons: play, back, forward. The words 'audio stopped' underneath

I too placed it in the top, right of the content section.  Of the Web sites I have visited that use a TTS feature, most embed it in a similar location.  Those that don’t place it on the bottom of their pages.


Setting up Speeka in my test page was a simple affair.  I inserted the HTML code provided by Mr. Evans.  I needed only to change the referenced file name.  I made one addition; that of the application landmark role to Speeka’s container. This helps people with screen readers, who use WAIARIA, to identify it. Upon placing the test page on the Clear Helper Web site, I invoked a hyperlink Mr. Evans provided to inform Speeka of the page’s presence.


I configured Speeka so it reads only primary content.  It can be set up to read all the textual content of a page, including menus, but I suspect it would be tiring to listen to the same menu over and over.

I chose to use a natural sounding, British male voice. [Edit on 2010-01-31: The voice is now an American one.] The test page it is reading contains text written as simply as I could at the time. Its pronunciation of the words and the sentences is very good. It had no problem with my last name.  I will have to test it with more complex text and with unusual proper nouns.

It announces every heading with the word “heading”; each list item prefaced by the word “bullet”; and the beginning- and the end of every list.  I was surprised. This feature is the first I have experienced with a TTS application.   It may be useful, but I think it would better serve as an option. [Edit on 2010-03-14: Announcement of list bullets, beginnings and ends is now an option. It is not active on the test page.]

General Navigation

The three-button interface is simple.  The audio narration can be played and paused with the same button. The forward button advances the narration by six seconds; the back button rewinds it by four.  Suggestions:

  • Perhaps it would be better if the forward- and the back buttons advance and rewind to adjacent sentences.
  • An option to restart the narration from the beginning may be helpful.  The only way I could do it was by refreshing the page using the Web browser.
  • Audio- and visible text labels for the buttons are a necessary feature, I think. An example can be found in a BBC Flash Player designed for people with intellectual disabilities.  It can be seen on the BBC’s Us 5 site, by clicking the link “Launch Us5 videos in pop-up windows”, then by selecting an actor.

Keyboard Navigation

Pressing the Tab key cycles through the buttons. The Space Bar or the Enter key invokes them. I had no trouble with this navigation within Speeka, but I could not tab inside the Web page to get to it. I could use the Tab key with Speeka only after changing focus to it by clicking it with my mouse.  This is not unique to Speeka.  I experienced the same with ccPlayer.  Keyboard navigation is important because many people with intellectual disabilities also have physical ones.  Such disabilities often preclude the use of a mouse, and require keyboard use or a single-switch device.

Interface Text

When the play button is clicked, the “audio stopped” text changes to a countdown of time until the end of the audio narration.  I think being presented immediately with the “audio stopped” text is potentially confusing.  I also think both it and the countdown test may not be necessary.

Speaka-Service Functions

Speeka converts Web-page text to MP3 files.  When a Web site visitor clicks the play button, the MP3 is streamed to the visitor’s computer from a Cognable server.  This is advantageous for Web sites that do not have a streaming-media server nor the bandwidth to support one.

A great feature of Speeka is it checks the text of each page on a regular basis.  When it detects a change, it updates the associated MP3 file.  Graphed statistics about this can be found on the Speeka home page.


Speeka has many nice features.  I think its inclusion on a Web site designed for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities would provide site visitors with a significant accessibility feature. With all of Mr. Evans’ projects, I don’t know if he has the time to consider some of the options I have mentioned, but I plan to discuss them with him.

Note: No endorsement of Speeka or Cognable is expressed or implied.

Ray Kurzweil’s Blio eReader: New, Free & Accessible to People with CD

Ray Kurzweil is a giant in the accessibility industry.  He has been inventing reading machines and devices used by people with visual- and reading disabilities for 35 years.  His newest creation is the Blio eReader, digital-book-reading software.

Note: At the time of this writing, the Blio eReader is not yet available to the public.  However, in a CNET interview (video below), Ray Kurzweil says it will be within one month.

Blio eReader Feature Highlights

  • It combines full-color, digital content with Web content, video, and audio narration.
  • It runs on Windows computers, tablets and mobile devices such as the iPhone.
  • It is free, and has access to a million free books. (Presumably, there will be a store of books for sale.)
  • Its catalog includes “cookbooks, travel guides, how-to books, schoolbooks, art books, children’s stories, and magazines”.
  • Books can have interactive, multi-media content and quizzes.

Accessibility Features Good for People with Cognitive Disabilities

The Blio eReader:

  • reads books aloud via either an accompanying, human-read audio track or via a text-to-speech reader;
  • synchronizes its synthesized voices with “follow-along word highlighting”;
  • has adjustable reading speed and font size;
  • has a text-only mode good for minimizing distractions and also for displaying on small screens;
  • uses a “3D book view which includes realistic page turning”; and
  • can be connected to a personalized set of reference Web sites for “one-touch look-up of highlighted phrases”.

In the YouTube video below, CNET interviews Ray Kurzweil about the Blio eReader.  A demonstration of it begins at about 2 minutes, 23 seconds (point 2:23).  This video is not closed captioned.


Note: No endorsement of the Blio eReader is intended or implied.

Readable Tool Better Than One David Pogue Says Is Best Tech Idea Of 09

Readability is a free Web-browser bookmarklet that strips all distractions from Web pages. David Pogue, the personal-technology columnist for The New York Times, called it the “… single best tech idea of 2009 …” and a “… real life-changer …”.

Pogue, D. (2009-12-31). The Pogie Awards for the Year’s Best Tech Ideas. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/technology/personaltech/31pogue.html?_r=1

It is indeed a promising tool.  Yet, as I pointed out in my review of Readability, it has a significant problem. For many Web pages I tested, it could not determine which was the main text content, or it displayed only a snippet of it.

Readable (created by Gabriel Coarna)

Readable, also a free Web-browser bookmarklet, includes the same configuration features, has more of them, and has a feature that solves Readability’s problem.  If Readable can not determine a page’s main text content, it enables users to identify the text they want to read.  A user holds down the Control (Ctrl) key, selects the text with the mouse, and clicks it.  Readable then shows that text free of extraneous content. (Instructions are on the “Tutorial” page.)

Readable can be used with Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer.


Free Tool Matching People with CD to Computer Technology: A Review

TechMatch is a free, Web-based assessment tool that matches people with cognitive disabilities to computer technology. It was produced by Personal Technologies, LLC, apparently also known as Life Technologies, LLC.  This is the same company that makes CogLink, e-mail software for people with cognitive disabilities, which I previously reviewed.


The TechMatch Web site does not meet accessibility standards, as is indicated by many images with missing alternative text.  Its tool, an assessment questionnaire, is not designed to be used directly by people with cognitive disabilities.  Instead, it is intended to be used by the people who care for and about them.


The company promotes TechMatch as offering “…clear and straight forward advice about the strengths and weaknesses of each potential technology…”.   It says its tool, which is a questionnaire, assesses factors of six areas affecting successful computer use by people with cognitive disabilities.  (The tool lists actually only five areas of questions.)  When completed, it produces a summary of the advantages and the disadvantages of each computer technology for the person being assessed.


To access the questionnaire, the TechMatch Web site requires visitors to create a user name and a password.  It also requests personal information, i.e, first name, last name, postal code and the visitor’s role in relation to the person being assessed. Upon submitting the information, a verification link is sent to the e-mail address used.  No explanation is provided on the log-in form about why the questionnaire can not be completed anonymously.

There are 34 multiple-choice questions.  The following are descriptions of the sets of questions.  They ask about:

  1. electronic devices and computer technologies the person uses; the difficulties experienced; and the related activities in which the person does and wants to engage.  There are also questions about Internet use.
  2. the types of environments in which the person visits and lives; the level of comfort using computer technology; and the type of related support available to the person.
  3. eye and hand coordination and use; the ability to carry and to use objects; and reading ability.
  4. the person’s ability to plan; to learn; to follow instructions; to concentrate; to remember secret names and passwords; and to protect computers from accidental damage.
  5. the person’s financial capability to buy computer technology; attitude for and motivation for new challenges; and general feeling about change.


The end result was a report of suggestions for generic computing technologies: netbook, laptop, desktop, cell phone and public computing.  The remaining item on the list was Pack Drive, the company’s own product.  It is a USB Flash drive containing Internet applications designed for people with cognitive disabilities.

Personal Info Unnecessarily Requested

An option is provided to print a comprehensive report.  Choosing it produces a form.  The evaluator’s contact information is requested, along with personal information about the person being evaluated.  This includes age, date of birth and medical diagnosis.  On the form, there is a statement that the information is for inclusion on the printed report only, and will not be saved in any way.  To me, it is too risky and unnecessary to provide such information simply to obtain a comprehensive report.


The privacy problems are concerning.  The site has no standard privacy statement.  On its sign-up form, there is not even a simple statement that the entered e-mail address will not be sold or used for marketing purposes.

TechMatch’s goal for its assessment tool is admirable and shows promise.  It may be useful for those who do not know much about computer technology.  Yet its table of computer technologies lists only six generic options.  From this, I suspect no others are suggested by any of TechMatch’s reports. That there are so few, and that they are so similar, seems to me to be a distinction without much of a difference.

I had expected reports would choose from a database of devices and software that were related to computer- and assistive technology.  These databases, e.g., AbleData, already exist.  Had the assessment been tied to such a database, it and the effort to complete it certainly would have been more useful.


  • TechMatch development was funded through NIDRR grant #H133S070096.
  • No endorsement of TechMatch, Pack Drive, their manufacturer, or any of its products is intended or implied.

Free Talking Firefox Extension for People with Cognitive Disabilities

CLiCk, Speak, created by Charles L. Chen, is an open-source, free extension for Firefox that reads Web pages out loud in a voice.  It is designed for sighted users with cognitive disabilities.


The image below shows CLiCk, Speak’s interface.  It is a toolbar with three, simple buttons for “Speak Selection”, “Auto Reading” and “Stop Speaking”.  Each has an accompanying image that can be enlarged and uses contextually-relevant colors.

Firefox toolbar of 3 buttons, each with a text label and image

CLiCk, Speak is mouse-driven. Web page text can be selected by clicking and dragging, then read out loud via a click to the “Speak Selection” button.  The “Auto Reading” button starts narration from the top of the page.  Each sentence is highlighted as it is read.

It does not identify elements or announce events, which Mr. Chen says is “… very annoying to sighted users,” but which would be important for people with visual disabilities.  This means fewer distractions from the primary, textual content.


CLiCk, Speak is compatible with Windows, Macintosh, and Linux; and has multilingual support.  Design information and source code are available for developers.

At the time of this writing, CliCk, Speak was last updated June 18, 2008.  It is compatible with Firefox 3.x.

Note: No endorsement of CliCk, Speak is intended or implied.

Web Browser for People with Intellectual Disabilities

Web Trek is a Web browser designed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. Based upon research (more info below), it is sold by AbleLink Technologies as part of two software suites for $199 and $399.  The following image shows screen shots of Web Trek in the background, and its associated “Visual Search Site” in the foreground.

screen shots of browser & search site, showing picture-based interfaces

Highlights Of WebTrek’s Features

  • built-in screen reader that narrates Web-page text aloud in a voice;
  • facility to use a picture from a Web page as an oversize favorites button on the user’s home screen;
  • a single-click interface for buttons on the home screen; and
  • access to the “Visual Search Site” (link to screen shots), a picture-based, Web search engine.

WebTrek’s Prototype Features

The prototype included the following features.  The AbleLink Technologies Web site does not mention them, so I do not know if they are present in the current product.  I hope they are.

  • an audio prompt-description of a button when the cursor hovers over it; (This was set up to be similar to balloon help.)
  • an audio prompt following a user-initiated event, such as a click, to guide the user through the next most-likely step in a task; (This was designed to minimize errors.)
  • a minimum of buttons displayed, and only when the current task requires them; (An attempt to reduce clutter / distractions.) and
  • the user’s name displayed on the start button and on the start page.  (Personalization is its goal.)

Grant- & Pilot Study

The prototype was developed starting in 1999 with a grant from The U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).  On the AbleLink Technologies site are a summary of the grant and the pilot study’s detailed description in an image-based, non-accessible PDF.


Readability: Free Tool Strips All Distractions From Web Pages

People with intellectual disabilities can be overwhelmed by Web pages cluttered with numerous links, images, advertisements, etc.  Faced with such interfaces, they can not complete core tasks such as finding the information they need or making a purchase.  (See bottom of this post for a couple examples.)

I recently found a free tool, called “Readability“, that is a Web browser bookmarklet. It strips all distractions from Web pages, and attempts to show only the primary text content.  Before a user adds it to the Web browser’s toolbar, it can be set to show text in one of four styles, a font size can be chosen, and the width of left- and right margins can be selected.

Example Transformation

A Wikipedia page about bananas, an image of which is below, has columns of links, images, tables and other non-text elements.

Wikipedia page with columns of links, images & tables

Clicking the Readability bookmarklet strips all elements from the page except for its central text.  The image below shows the same page, but it displays only the main, single column of text.

Wikipedia page showing only a central column of text

That is a great result.  Unfortunately, on numerous other sites I tried, all those of online newspapers, the results were poor.  Either Readability could not determine which was the main text content, or it displayed only a snippet of it.  Readability has promise, however, as is demonstrated with the example above.

Readability’s utility gives me an idea for the future Clear Helper Web site.  Perhaps I can enable users to switch between two interfaces: one with main content only, and one with extra elements.  More on this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: A description and a video-demonstration of Readability can be found on the Arc90 Lab Experiment Web site.

Previous, Related Blog Posts

CogLink E-Mail for People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Review

Coglink is e-mail software designed for use by people with intellectual disabilities.  This is a review of it.


I purchased CogLink for $49.   At the time of this writing, this is a one-time cost. There are no continuing subscription fees.  This is surprising given that a great feature of this product is toll-free, live technical support from 9 AM – 5 PM (PST).  My understanding from a conversation I had with a CogLink staff member is that the project is currently grant-funded.  This helps explain why the live technical support does not have to be funded by subscription costs.


Coglink is intended to be managed by a “Helper” who installs it and provides at least some initial help through its training and use.  Helpers may log-in to a Web site to enable and to disable CogLink’s advanced features, and to set up the people, called “Buddies”, with whom its user will communicate by e-mail.  Statistics are presented on the last time the e-mail software was used and the last time an e-mail message was sent.  There is an option to receive monthly usage reports.


Coglink’s interface is clean and simple.  A text instruction always appears at the top and a list of “buddies” is always on the left.  Contextually-relevant buttons are located at the bottom. The opening screen instructs the user to “Click a name to read and send mail”.

CogLink paneled interface. List of buddies on left, instructions at top.

A click presents the user with the same simple interface, but with a message text composition box on the right.

CogLink paneled screen. Buddies listed on left, text-compose box on right.

As the user types a word, a menu box of possible words appears.  The user can choose one, which is then entered into the message.  This word-prediction feature can be disabled.  A button at the bottom will speak aloud the message text at any point.  When done, the user can simply click the “Send” button or the “Cancel” button.


I believe CogLink is easy to use by its intended customer base.  It has many customizable-, accessibility- and safety features.

Other Versions

CogLink has “Pack”, a portable version contained on a USB drive. It also has a version called “TeenMail” with social-connection features for teens with intellectual disabilities.


Development of these products is “…supported by a National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research SBIR grant, Why Go It Alone?: The Use of Public Resources to Enhance Computer Accessibility for Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities, grant number H133S070096.” Retrieved from http://www.lifetechnologiesllc.com/products.html


For a review of the training that accompanied the Coglink e-mail software, see my blog post entitled “CogLink E-Mail for People with ID: Review of Its Training“. No endorsement is intended or implied for CogLink.

CogLink E-Mail for People with ID: Review of Its Training

Coglink is e-mail software designed for use by people with intellectual disabilities.  This is a review of the training that accompanies it.  The next blog post will be a review of the e-mail software itself.


CogLink arrived on one CD for the training software and one for the e-mail software.  A nice touch is they were labeled with my first name.

Both the training- and the e-mail software are Java-based.  The CogLink Web site says they require Windows XP, but I found they run just fine on Windows Vista. Installation of the training software took what most people would consider to be a long time.  After a little while, an animation does appear, presumably to indicate activity is occurring, but there is no progress bar typical of software-installation programs.

Interface Attributes

The training had three sections: how to use a mouse, how to use a keyboard and how to use the e-mail software.  Each was animated and narrated.  Their screens had simple, written instructions at the tops.  At the bottoms were two buttons, one for restarting the lesson and one for returning to the main menu.  The interface was free of distracting and/or irrelevant elements.screen with text instructions at top, mouse picture in center and buttons at bottom

Lesson Interactivity

Lessons required responses from the learner for each step.  Sessions had multiple practice instances.  Feedback occurred via voice- and written prompts. Most correct responses were followed by a visual- and an audio prompt that simply said, “Correct”.  The consequences for incorrect responses were basically a brief prompt that said, “Not quite”, and a repeated instruction to elicit a correct response.

It was evident the lessons were designed to limit mistake frequency.  Much of the time, the software did not react at all to mistakes, but only to correct responses.  This is good practice.

In the mouse training, an intentional mistake by me was recognized by the software as a correct response.  This is antithetical to the foundation of errorless learning, an instructional technique upon which the training is supposed to be based.  As well, at least one lesson included an instruction on a mistake not to make.  Within the field of applied behavior analysis, this is considered an inadvisable training technique.


The training software does not appear designed to be used with assistive technology, such as screen readers.  However, I judge it accessible to its target population.  In addition to the accessibility attributes mentioned above, it uses simple language, large fonts and contextually-relevant imagery.


The training provides instruction and practice for the most basic skills needed to use the e-mail software.  It was a good choice to include lessons on using a mouse and a keyboard.  Overall, I judge the training to be a fine attempt at helping people with intellectual disabilities to learn how to use the e-mail software, and one that is accessible to them.

Note: This is a follow-up to my previous post entitled “E-Mail Software for People with Cognitive Disabilities“. No endorsement is intended or implied for CogLink.

Great Text Accessibility Toolbar for People with Cognitive Disabilities

I recently discovered Talklets, a text accessibility toolbar for Web sites that could be of great help to people with cognitive disabilities.  It can be seen in action on the Web site of Rok Talk, the developer, and on the Web site of Regional Support Centre, Scotland North & East.  Take a look at it on the latter site.  To do so, click the button entitled “Click to Show Text Reader” on the right of the home page, near the top.  The toolbar then appears at the bottom of the page.  The main part of it looks like this.

strip of round, colored buttons with symbols for play, stop, record, etc.


Via simple buttons, the toolbar enables Web site visitors to:

  • listen to the text of the entire page or just to the text to which a user points the cursor;
  • record the text to a MP3 file that can be easily downloaded;
  • enlarge, reduce or restore the text size;
  • highlight the text in different colors; and
  • see a help window that explains how to use each feature.

Extra features include enabling users to retrieve the definition of any word, change the pronunciation of a word, and highlight words as they are read.

The developer says the toolbar does not interfere with screen readers, and can be used by people who are blind (and don’t have access to a screen reader) via keyboard controls.


I will be contacting Rok Talk to discuss its pricing structure and to determine if it would be willing to let me experiment with the toolbar on the future Clear Helper Web site.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for this product.