SherimcleishBy Sheri McLeish

Microsoft’s release this week of the free Word add-in for DAISY XML is great news for blind consumers, as it opens the door for easy conversion of Word documents to digital "talking books." Forget about the criticism that was leveled at Microsoft that its foray into disability-related technology was in part fueled by self-interest to gain ISO approval for its Office Open XML standard (which it finally did receive April 1). Today, only a fraction of published works have been made available for the 180 million blind or visually impaired people worldwide. Microsoft’s efforts will help not only writers and publishers make their work more accessible, but be a boon for businesses, schools, governments, and other agencies that can now convert their Word docs to talking books.

The "Save as DAISY XML" add-in was created through an open source project with Microsoft, Sonata Software Ltd., and the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) Consortium. DAISY provides a framework to create a talking book format. With increased regulations to make content accessible — it’s a requirement in the US for school textbook publishers to provide copies of books in DAISY format, for example — the Word add-in is a welcome complement other text-to-speech technologies. The challenge for earlier technologies to convert text-to-voice was providing a navigation capability similar to how a sighted person might scan a document, by title, chapter, or skipping around to points of interest. DAISY-formatted content provides a reading experience that most closely approximates how sighted people read print. The free tool creates a "Save as Daisy" option within Word 2007 and 2003. The files can then be "read" aloud by speech synthesizers, paired with audio narration, and used to create electronic Braille.

Microsoft isn’t alone in trying to make the printed word more accessible to the blind. Adobe has a Read Out Loud feature for PDF. Both approaches use the hierarchical organization of structured documents to deliver voice translated content. But Microsoft’s approach takes advantage its new Office Open XML format, and through this add-in is aggressively embracing accessibility. The competing Open Document Format (ODF) doesn’t support the same accessibility demands, and these are the things that matter to a business when evaluating standards and file formats.

And for those at Microsoft involved with the DAISY XML add-in for Word, it really isn’t just about standards: Microsoft Word’s product manager Reed Shaffner has said, "Working in this area is by far the most rewarding part of my job — It’s not like service packs and Word aren’t fun …. it’s just that thought of making technology usable for more people really makes me happy." Now, thanks to Microsoft’s efforts to make the DAISY XML add-in widely available, a whole lot of other folks are going to be made happy too.