What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Speech-to-Text and Accessibility

Speech recognition (AKA Speech-to-text, S2T, Voice Activation) is the process of turning speech into actions or text on the computer, replacing or minimizing the need for a keyboard and/or mouse control. It has tremendous potential and benefit for many, many students with disabilities. Some of the benefits for students with disabilities include improved access to the computer, increases in writing production, improvements in writing mechanics, increased independence, decreased anxiety around writing, and improvements in core reading and writing abilities.This posting is really about S2T as a support for writing.

The technology has improved over the years, becoming commonly used with the every day use of smart phones.  As it becomes more accurate, S2T is opening more doors for everyone. As we use it though, it may seem simple but it can be very complex for some users. It is not a simple technology (try teaching it to someone who is not real computer savvy and see what happens.) It does require training, support and practice. It also requires patience, perseverance and persistence.

At this time, S2T will only do what you tell it to do.  For example, it will not:
  1. Misspell - Spell checking is completely useless because the S2T will never ever misspell a word - although it will frequently 'misrecognize' a word.
  2. Punctuate - You must speak when and where to add punctuation marks. It will not do this automatically.
  3. Aid in sentence production - you still are in the driver's seat. If the student is unable to write or speak a complete sentence, this will not change automatically.

S2T is
  1. An amazing tool when you see your words flow on the computer and/or tablet when you are speaking. This can be such a freeing system for those with limited fine motor use and for those who struggle with spelling but do have great verbal skills.
  2. Cognitively demanding - The user must be able to Think-Process-Say-Check-Edit.

How many of us have had something like this appear when we try to talk into our phones?
So, if we do not know how to edit, what happens? We can see where this might be very challenging for our students.

Some of the skills and characteristics by a student to be considered:
  • speech abilities
  • reading abilities
  • spelling abilities
  • language processing abilities
  • self-monitoring skills
  • perseverance
  • interest in writing

Students with learning disabilities who are motivated to write, and have at least average ability and average oral language skills are good candidates for S2T. Success in using the program also depends on the amount of training and support that is available for the student. Some students are successful in using the program with very limited training while others require ongoing training and support to make effective use of the software. In using continuous speech recognition there is a need for good language processing skills including the ability to speak in complete sentences or at least long phrases. There is also a need to be able to focus. If the student continues to be distracted, this could cause major glitches in the process.

As Daniel Cochrane and Kelly Key in ”Speech Recognition as AT in Writing” share - Remember: Writing with speech recognition software is different from handwriting or typing and requires the integration of different skill sets. You must explicitly teach this process to students.
Here is a task analysis of the speech recognition writing process:
  1. THINK about your topic and what you want to write.
  2. Mentally compose your sentence.
    1. You may need to talk it through (silently or out loud) to get it to sound right.
    2. Decide which punctuation is needed at the end and whether any punctuation is needed in the middle (e.g. commas. quotation marks).
    3. Hold the sentence (or part of it) in memory.
  3. Turn on the microphone
  4. SAY your sentence with clear enunciation but in a natural manner (not too slow or too fast).
  5. Verbally add the correct punctuation at the end.
  6. Turn off the microphone.
  7. CHECK the recognition accuracy. Students with weak decoding skills should use T2S software to assist the editing process.
  8. Fix the recognition errors manually (or verbally.)
  9. Repeat the process for the next sentence.

Another consideration: S2T often requires a quiet atmosphere. S2T has become much easier to use in some noisy atmospheres but it is important to remember that for some students the distractions still make it challenging to concentrate and stay with a verbal flow. If the user is to be successful, often the rest of the class must be silent. If the rest of the class is silent, the user will be distracting others and will probably become very uncomfortable due to the class being able to hear what he/she is saying. Most classrooms encourage students to interact with other students and have some form of cooperative learning within their array of teaching strategies. Because of this, S2T will often not work in a traditional K-12 classroom setting and could be setting the student up for more failure.

The team may want to start introducing S2T by providing the student with an older iPhone (without data service, but with WiFi) or iPodTouch type of system to explore as this technology takes less configuration and set-up than a computer takes. It is important to start small by answering questions with single sentences and build up to longer forms of writing. If the team wants to try S2T with a computer, most computers have speech recognition built-in the system that can be easily accessed. (See the end of this posting for where to find the program with links.)

Other Ideas:
If a range of strategies have been attempted without success, or if the team feels additional support would build upon their existing writing skills, then S2T may be worth exploring. Before moving this direction, which is a more restrictive and challenging option, you may want to consider the following:
  • Is it time to move beyond using instructional strategies? Are we holding the student back in history and/or science, due to their struggles with writing?
  • Is the student able to use alternative access options such as an onscreen keyboard, an alternative mouse, a portable word processor or word prediction software? These tools would be less restrictive and may support the concern.
  • In a classroom setting would it be better to use audio recordings, which may or may not be transcribed later? Copies of notes and presentations?
Or, is it time to use a combination of several strategies/assistive technology tools?

What should be taken into Consideration (According to Greg O'Connor, written for Spectronics):
  • Age of the student: Software is generally not introduced until upper primary grades.
  • Level of literacy: Able to read at least at a grade four level.
  • Computer skills: Proficient use of a computer.
  • Speech consistency: A clear, consistent voice is required.
  • Motivation:  Willingness to participate in the writing process.
  • Tolerance levels:  Reasonable attention span with sustained concentration.
  • Support from teacher or significant other:  Ongoing training and support needs to be available from teachers, family or others.
  • Access to high quality technology: An appropriate computer (or tablet), readily accessible in a not too noisy environment, with a good quality USB microphone (if using a computer).

Try it out? How to Guides for accessing S2T on various systems:
There are also many apps and other free options available. If you have the hardware, there is a S2T program available, guarantee!

If you plan to use voice activation with your students, please refer to Daniel Cochrane and Kelly Key’s guide ”Speech Recognition as AT in Writing” for detailed instructions.
For more information about what systems have to offer to support access, check the following guides for Operating System Accessibility:
Just an added FYI: MathTalk.com - allows you to do math without keyboard or mouse, using S2T.