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Versatile Read & Write Program Offers Opportunities for People with Learning Disabilities

John M. Williams

I have always believed that versatile software provides people with learning disabilities (often called a hidden disability) the best opportunities to compete in education and professional fields. Working with the same versatile program, but updated frequently, instills users with confidence and builds a sense of security that is shown in their work and attitude. Such programs guarantee that assistive technology products are the great equalizers by tearing down communications barriers that traditionally have prevented people with learning disabilities from intellectually competing with their peers.

Internationally tens of millions of people with learning disabilities face many personal and intellectual challenges in the information technology field. They experience personal difficulty comprehending the information presented in traditional formats such as reading material on a CRT. Without the tools to alter this situation their self-esteem sinks and their futures as professionals are bleak.

Recognizing the need to ensure that individuals with learning disabilities can process information in ways that benefit them, companies, such as Northern Ireland 's Texthelp Systems Ltd. (www.texthelp.com), are diligently creating alternative communications formats to expand opportunities through their information technology programs. These programs allow individuals with learning disabilities to access mainstream software applications without the need to use specialized stand alone programs.

"It's the features that count in these programs and Texthelp's Read & Write Gold program provides people with learning disabilities the tools they need," says Daryl Banks, 22. He has a learning disability and is familiar with the company's programs. When working with his computer, Banks requires that words are highlighted as they are spoken for audio-visual reinforcement. Also, spelling is a weakness of his, as it is with other people with learning disabilities, and therefore he requires a phonetic spell checker and color-coding features. Texthelp's programs provide Banks the tools that compensate for his disability.

Color-coded identification of errors helps users identify their mistakes. The phonetic spell checker assists Banks in correcting the most complex of errors. All spelling suggestions and dictionary definitions are spoken. And context based word prediction suggests the word Banks might need. Banks believes improving the probability of correct suggested words assist users in their goal to produce a high standard of work.

What is the opinion of people with learning disabilities using word prediction? Special education teacher Lois Tyler, New York City, says, "For a person with a learning disability, word prediction strengthens their sentence structure and grammar."

Banks learns through listening and says he retains more information when data is read back to him, and Texthelp's Read & Write program will read each word, sentence and paragraph.

Having seen and read about Texthelp, Tyler is impressed with its multiple features including: the logs that record incorrect spelling mistakes by date and type; allowing users to save and access their individual settings on one machine or across an entire network - a cost effective way of providing literacy support to many students; 180,000-word dictionary; the ability to scan any text document or saved image into MS Word, HTML, MS Excel or PDF format; an on-screen speaking calculator providing all the main functions of a scientific calculator with audible audit trail and multiple display memory locations; the ability to convert text to MP3, WMA or WAV files and listen to text "on the move" with portable personal devices; and a web search tool that can perform a search on a selected word through a default search engine.

Also, the web-highlighting feature allows the user to experience dual highlighting with audible feedback in HTML documents. "We highlighting is an immense benefit to students when accessing information online and aids concentration and comprehension," says John Seamon, director, Helping Hands, Hazleton , PA. Seamon has more than 35 years of experience working with children with learning disabilities, including hundreds with severe learning disabilities. He believes that technology is a great teaching tool for people with learning disabilities.

Seamon believes that equipment continuity is important to users of all ages with a learning disability. He advocates for children with learning disabilities to have access to assistive technology from the time they are diagnosed as having a learning disability throughout their lives.

Having worked with people with learning disabilities who have difficulty pronouncing words, Seamon and Tyler are thrilled with Read & Write's pronunciation tutor that breaks words into syllables allowing easy recognition of syllables in a word. An on-screen moving mouth assists in improving pronunciation and is enhanced by use of the international phonetic alphabet. The tutor provides advantages to people for whom English is not their native language, as it highlights the pronunciation of a given word in a visual format.

Tyler sees value in the Read & Write toolbar with fun, professional and classic settings that fit easily into Microsoft Windows. The settings come with their own icons and can be changed easily to meet the preferences of individual users. Features to be displayed on the toolbar and the size of the buttons can be edited. Each icon on the toolbar also contains a video training presentation, ensuring that every user fully understands how to use the toolbar.

"These settings make it easier for people with learning disabilities to learn the program," says Tyler .

Read & Write is a universal product. Testament to its versatility is confirmed by its users who include The British Foreign Office, T.U.C (Trade Union Council), H.M Prison Service, British Army
Trinity College, Dublin, University of Central England, Cambridge University, and Queens University Belfast. According to Texthelp's Andrew Crozier Read & Write is used in various international schools on the European continent.

In this country, Texthelp's Read & Write is used in New York , Texas , North Carolina , California , Kentucky , Iowa and Wisconsin in schools, colleges and universities, libraries and prisons. What are the requirements for Read & Write? Users need: Pentium 350, 128 MB RAM, 400 MB Disk Space, sound card, speakers, Windows 98 SE, 2000, ME, NT & XP and a HP printer.

Depending on the user, the prices vary for Read & Write GOLD. A single user pays $645, a license for middle/high school is $2695, for a college or university the price is $6995 and for satellite usage the price is $2495. These prices reflect market value.

Established in 1996,Texthelp is an international leader in developing technology to assist people with learning disabilities. It knows the IT challenges people with learning disabilities face and is working with them to ensure they are addressed. In less than a decade the firm has come a long way and plans to go even farther in the future. Their competitive presence is beneficial to the industry as a whole and to the future of people with learning disabilities worldwide.

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