Making IT accessible – Immersive Reader

I meet a lot of different people through running. Through parkrun I met a friend who sometimes acts as a guide for a local blind runner, Maggie. I was also lucky enough to be at the same running club as blind runner and guide during their 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents challenge, and have spent time running with them both I’ve always been fascinated, in awe and slightly terrified by the guide runner / visually impaired (VI) runner relationship.

I can’t remember when it was, but I had a chat with Maggie at some point when she was visiting our parkrun and it went something like:

“I’d really like to give guiding you a go, but I’m worried you’ll fall over and it will be my fault”

“I’ll tell you what you need to do and say, we’ll have a test jog beforehand and meh – if I fall over that’s life.”

And then it struck me  – she can’t just go out for a run when she feels like it, the whole process has to be facilitated by someone else.  Many things in day to day life that we as sighted people take for granted are different, adapted or not available.

We survived 5 races last winter:

Maggie grew up with very little technology available for blind people (and boy can she tell you many stories about discrimination, and the sheer weirdness but also the kindness of folks). She now uses some technology to help her in her daily life; she has an iPhone that is able to read the screen and Siri accepts voice commands; she also has a Google home appliance which allows her to obtain information and control elements in her house like the lights. This got me interested in what products and tech are available to help people with disabilities, not only Microsoft but Google, Amazon or any other companies out there.

I’ve tried to reach out to people in the accessibility teams in various tech companies with little success; it doesn’t seem to be big on anyone’s agenda. I’ve also tried contacting a major charity for visually impaired, and basically got routed to their help desk and the suggestion to “use Google” to find my answers. Well, I’m asking YOU about this because of who you are! All this is slightly surprising as the presentations I have seen around visual impairment and disability start off with citing the HUGE percentage of the population that are impacted by some disability in their life. But in other respects, not a massive shock, 70% of disabilities are invisible.

So I initially I’ve tried to task myself to learn how Microsoft’s offerings can assist those who are visually impaired, this has lead on to learning about how these can actually help users with dyslexia, reading and language issues. Actually, I’ve discovered quite a few new things to me, parts of the Office product suite, which I thought I knew lots about but had never hit my radar. These features can actually help sighted people be more productive, and some Office features we might think are standard components of the suite were originally born out of a requirement from and designed to help VI users.

So the design of these apps helps out people both with and without disabilities – it works for everyone. Some of these cool features I thought I’d share. Having got in to this, there are various different topics and features to cover and we will start with something I had never used, the Immersive reader:

Immersive Reader was originally designed for people with sight, learning and reading disabilities, and kids with dyslexia as part of an internal project within Microsoft. The immersive reader simplifies the user interface and removes distractions, this allows the user to focus on the content. I can be turned on whilst in Office online or the full Office client:

Using Immersive Reader in Office Online (from the options buttons):

Using Immersive Reader in the Office client (from the view menu):

Immersive reader will read the text out loud if required, and can also provide a visual marker at the same time so a user can follow along when the computer voice is reading. Voices, reading speed, text size, line and letter spacing can all be changed, even the background and text colours to assist with the readability of the text, as many users with reading issues find particular colour schemes easier to read than others. So whilst useful to the visually impaired, Immersive Reader is much more than just something that can “read the text”.

Here is Immersive Reader in Word Online. Obviously we can just choose for the application to read the text aloud using the play button at the bottom:

Grammar options can be toggled on and off to show words split in to syllables, and different word types can be highlighted in a particular colour. Options are available to highlight particular lines of text to keep the focus on one line at a time, and also clicking on a word can give a pictorial representation of the word.

Line focus from reading preferences can help to concentrate on one line at a time and cut distractions:

We can show syllables and parts of speech from Grammar options:

From reading preferences we can enable Picture Dictionary – the ability to click on a word to gain a visual representation:

And also from Reading preferences we can switch on Translation opting to translate individual words in a document in to a chosen language, and be able to hear how that word is pronounced.

Enabling translation:

Translating and hearing one word:

Translating a document:

So something there that initially might be used to read aloud text to a blind person, can also be used to help those with reading or learning difficulties, and actually as a child learning foreign languages I’d have killed for some of the grammar and translation features.

Stay tuned for the next cool set of accessibility related stuff!

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