Blind Innovators Build a Bridge to Accessibility

  • by Chancey Fleet

    Our technology team gets tons of calls from patrons who want to dictate text and commands to their Windows computers. Dictation appeals to all kinds of people, from those who type slowly or have repetitive stress injuries to people who just do their best writing when thinking out loud. In a world where Siri is happy to keep your calendar straight and Amazon Echo takes 24/7 requests for your favorite tunes, why not speak your mind to the blinking cursor in Microsoft Word?

    Shockingly, for users of popular Windows screen readers like JAWS or NVDA, dictation hasn’t been that simple. Out of the box, these screen readers have not read the controls that show a speech recognition user what the computer thinks they’ve said or the available choices when they want to make a correction. Without these controls, a blind user can’t correct their work, the computer never improves as it learns from its mistakes, and the dictation experience can be downright terrible. Third-party tools like JSAY solve this problem really well, but they’re expensive, so new and casual dictation users don’t tend to have them.

    After years of missing out on dictation, a group of blind programmers, tech trainers and accessibility professionals decided to stop waiting and start solving the problem. They launched a successful crowdfunding campaign which explained the steps, resources and budget it would take to make Windows-based dictation accessible, and invited anyone to contribute any amount toward funding the project. Thanks to a supportive community of screen reader users and their allies, the DictationBridge team met is financial goals and promptly got to work on a tool that takes minutes to install, allows screen reader users to access the same on-screen information that sighted dictation users have, and is free to everyone.  Anyone with a computer running Windows 7 or later can now enjoy the first DictationBridge public beta.

    So, how can you try speech recognition for yourself?

    If you don’t have difficulty reading standard print, you can skip DictationBridge and NVDA and still get a productivity boost, and a rest for your tired hands, with Windows Speech Recognition. Just go to the start menu, type “speech”, and click Speech Recognition to get started. If you’re sighted or support friends and colleagues who are, this Youtube video for provides a visual overview of how to get up and running.

    If you’re blind, visually impaired or otherwise print-averse, check out DictationBridge.com to learn how DictationBridge works, read about the history of the project and learn what inspired the makers of DictationBridge to take on this accessibility challenge.

    The DictationBridge team chose to support the Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader first, since it’s free, increasingly popular and available to any Windows user in the world. NVDA is also a creation of blind technology users who decided to make the kind of access they’d like the community to have. You can read their story and download the screen reader for free.

    Then, join us for our DictationBridge workshop on July 18 from 5:00 to 6:45 PM, where you’ll learn how to get up and running with DictationBridge, choose and position a microphone, train the computer to understand you better, and make edits and corrections using your voice. Email ChanceyFleet@nypl.org or give us a call at (212) 621-0627 to register.