Microsoft has helped develop an open source tool that translates Word files into a "talking" digital book format, which makes documents easily accessible by the 160 million people worldwide with impaired vision.
The tool was developed in an open source project with Sonata software and the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) consortium. It translates OOXML files into the DAISY format, which can be used in software such as Book Wizard Producer and the DAISY pipeline, to create a talking book.
Listening to a DAISY audio file is different to an MP3. With an MP3, the listener can only navigate between tracks. But someone listening to a DAISY format file can do things a sighted person would when reading a document, such as skip to specific page numbers, hear a table of contents and look up references in an index.
"When you don't see print, you lose more than the ability to read words ... you lose the ability to see the page, jump around in the text and be drawn to bolded or italicised information," said Jim Marks, director of services for students with disabilities at the University of Montana, who lost his sight while an undergraduate in the eighties.
"DAISY enhances the reading experience to most closely approximate how sighted people read print," Marks continued.
The DAISY format vastly increases the information accessible by visually impaired people — currently only about five percent of published material is in formats that can be accessed by people with disabilities, according to Vision Australia general manager business development Tim Evans.
"This is a major step forward to increase the amount of information that is accessible to our clients," said Evans.
There are 360,000 people in Australia with impaired vision, according to Microsoft. This number will rise to 500,000 by 2010, said Microsoft's corporate affairs director John Galligan.
The software is not only designed for the visually impaired, according to Galligan, who said it can be helpful for those suffering from dyslexia or disabilities resulting from a stroke. There are 1.7 million people in Australia who have a print or learning disability such as dyslexia, according to Vision Australia's Evans — almost a tenth of the population.
The tool, called Save as DAISY XML, can be downloaded from the Open XML Community Web site. It is compatible with Microsoft Word 2007 and 2003.
Because the project was open source, developers will be able to use the code for their own DAISY translators. Those interested can access information at the SourceForge open source project site.