I Hear a Voice

As public awareness of learning disabilities grows, so does the number of computer programs to help those who suffer from them.

Awareness of the learning disabilities that disrupt the lives of 10 percent of the country's population has increased substantially during the last decade. But many people are still unaware of the great benefits offered to the learning-disabled by computers and the Internet.

Guy Finkelstein, director of Leshem, a non-profit organization that assists learning-disabled students, says that even though he holds a master's degree in social work, he could never pass his English exams. Says Finkelstein, who suffers from a variety of learning disabilities: "Without technology, I could not correspond with colleagues abroad. I can't read text without technical assistance, mainly from an English-reading program."

Assistance centers in academic institutions offer ongoing help to students in the form of special, and often costly, software. But Finkelstein says that programs as common as an ordinary word processor may represent a lifeline to those suffering from dyslexia or dysgraphia. "As someone who writes many letters that I don't have time to correct, the [Microsoft] Word Spell-Check program saves me. In addition to regular corrections, I can configure it to fix mistakes that I commonly make. I can correct 70 percent of my mistakes that way. Just typing on a keyboard compensates for my illegible handwriting," he adds.

Ido Tenenbaum, of the College of Judea and Samaria's Technological Learning Assistance Center, says that those with problems of concentration and organization may introduce some organization into their lives by means of Microsoft Outlook. "I teach the students here to use Outlook to create a schedule, to work with colors, and to activate signals to notify them - the simplest things."

Tenenbaum and Finkelstein are avid users of handheld computers. Finkelstein says his serves as his "memory and my entire office." He uses it as "a word processor, a Power Point program, and a digital recording device that is helpful in taping lectures. Other models have a camera that can be used to photograph formulas on the blackboard and a GPS system that helps people who have problems with spatial orientation."

Reading assistance programs

The Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law demands that employers adapt the working environment to the needs of disabled workers, including those with learning disabilities.

Such adaptations are conditional upon the size of the business and the availability of government assistance. Another pending bill that would guarantee the rights of students with learning disabilities in higher education, has passed preliminary hearings in the Knesset. The bill, authored by MK Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) with the collaboration of Leshem, calls for the provision of technological aids to learning-disabled students during exams, in addition to other forms of assistance.

Moreover, few are aware that the National Insurance Institute is currently offering an pilot rehabilitation-benefits package to learning-disabled individuals with at least 20 percent disability. The package includes tuition assistance and a variety of technological aids.

Tenenbaum and Adi Tzuberi, his colleague at the Technological Learning Assistance Center, demonstrate an array of devices meant to help people with difficulties with reading, particularly in a second language, such as Hebrew-speakers reading in English. "Some students have to hear the text, or they get lost in reading after two minutes," Tenenbaum observes.

Those students may use an optical character recognition (OCR) program such as Readiris, which supports Hebrew in versions 9.0 and higher. A free version of Readiris is available for download at www.irislink.com. The program transforms text originating in a graphic or PDF file into text that may be edited in MS Word. Users may then use an English-recitation program, such as Readplease. There is a free version of Readplease available at www.readplease.com, but it has fewer functions and a synthesized voice engine that is less pleasant to the ear than those in the purchased versions, which make use of a Natural Voices program.

There are also Hebrew-reading programs, like Kol Kore, produced by Tesher Gaash www.gaash.co.il/tsr/kolkore.htm, and ReadIt and Doc Talk 2.0, produced by Lets Talk. Both companies specialize in accessories and software for the blind, like screen readers, but some of their programs may also meet the needs of those with reading disabilities.

A human voice engine has yet to be integrated into Hebrew-reading programs. Thus, users are still forced to put up with a mechanical voice. But Lets Talk is looking for investors to facilitate the construction of a Hebrew voice engine. The company's founders, Itzik Arbiv and Yariv Zribi, did not wind up in the field by accident: Arbiv has low vision, and Zribi is blind. They often use a Sony program, which permits editing and the addition of comments, to tape written text. They burn these recordings for students who may then listen to them on their MP3 players.

Digital devices provide the flexibility that is missing from instruments commonly used in local schools. "The Education Ministry now works only with cassette tapes," Tzuberi explains. "Try to find the exact paragraph by fast-forwarding and reviewing back and forth. It's an especially horrendous system for students with attention disturbances. They use it only because they have no choice."