Volume 3, Episode 2: Accessible Word Processor with David Neimeijer for Wrise

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Announcer: Welcome to the IAAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast, bringing you the people, technology, and ideas helping to make the world accessible to everyone.

Mark: Hey, welcome to the IAAP!  I'm your host, Mark Miller thanking you for helping us keep it accessible.  Do us a favor.  If you're enjoying the IAAP, share it.  Tell someone about it.  Hey, even link to it from your accessible website.  So I want to welcome my guest today David.  David, I'm gonna ask you to help me pronounce your last name.

David: David Neimeijer.

Mark: ok, Neimeijer.  And David Neimeijer is from AssistiveWare.  They have a product out called Wrise, which is an accessible word processor.  Is that fair to say, David?

David: Yes, that is absolutely what it is.

Mark: And I got a hold of you guys because you were in Orlando talking about this.

David: Yes.

Mark: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were introducing exactly to the world out in Orlando?

David: Yeah, so Wrise is a word processor; it's for the Mac.  It has all the basic features of a basic word processor—things like, you know, you can change the font, you can change the size, you can do some zooming.  But it has a number of things that make it more accessible and make it more universally usable.  And so one of our aims is when we design a product like this is to see if we can do something that will help people who need just a little bit extra support but, at the same time, something that any student could potentially use.  So this is what we call universal design, not something only for those with special needs but basically something that anyone can use.  And what's special about Wrise is it provides a speak-as-you-type feature.  So, as you're typing, you can hear back what you're typing.  It also provides using text-to-speech.  It also provides playback controls.  You can listen back to a piece of text that you've created, which are both features can really help someone who is struggling with writing, but it can also really help someone who, for example, has vision impairment.  But, in general, it's a great way to review and proofread your own text.  For example, certain spelling errors that you don't catch with the SpellChecker but you will catch when you listen to your own text or composition things.  So that's part of it.  It also includes Word Prediction, and that again helps people who are struggling with writing.  The Word Prediction is multi-lingual. But a current limitation of Word Prediction is it does not guess the right word if you have poor spelling skills.  So it can help you speed up typing if you're a slow typer.  But if you start a word with a totally wrong letter, it will not predict the right word for you.  So it's lightweight support in that sense.

Mark: Gotchya.  You know what I find real interesting about what you said is that one, you brought up the concept of universal design.  So just thinking about this word processor, not in terms of assistive technology entirely but as something that anybody can use, even if you do have some sort of challenge that you're working through.  And I'll tell you the other thing that's interesting to me is that you talked about people who have issues with writing and the benefit of hearing back what you're typing.  And I consider myself a decent writer and I don't have….I'm somebody who's without disabilities so I don't use assistive technology.  But what I do do is I do listen with a screen reader back to what…what I write…..I listen back to it because I'm not a very good proof reader.  I do have challenges around spelling and I do have challenges around proofreading my own work.  So I find a lot of value in that auditory feedback in my writing because I will do exactly what you said.  I will catch things that I can read over and over and over again.  I can set it aside and read it at a later time.  I can read it out loud to myself.  I will read things incorrectly and not catch them.  But when something else, like the screen reader, is playing it back to me, I'll tend to catch it.  So I can see myself, as a person without disabilities actually, really benefiting from this.  And I love that.  I love that we can sorta fall into the same pool of being able to benefit from universal design like you said.  When you're designing like this, are you talking to people who have certain challenges and is that where you sort of come up with these features like…like playing back what you're typing?

David: Umm…we work quite a bit with end users in terms of feedback that we receive from people based on software we already have.  And we also…when we travel, we try to observe people using our products.  So, in this particular case, Wrise has an interesting history in the sense that it's largely based on a product called Ghost Reader that we created a couple of years back.  We recently did a major update of that.  And Ghost Reader is really a consumer product.  It doesn't, for example, have the speak-as-you-type feature, but it does allow you to proofread your text.  It doesn't have Word Prediction, but it shares a lot of the other features Wrise has.  And what we're finding is that there were a lot of people who were using Ghost Reader and actually could use a little extra support.  And so some of the most common requests were things like being able to speak as you type, being able to scale everything to a large font in the right color and have a crisp and high resolution and read it that way.  Word Prediction was another feature that people were asking for.  What we're seeing is that some of those features…they can have a general utility, but they also fall in what we call the assistive technology market.  And so, in a way, Wrise is a kinda cross between something that is designed for people with special needs and something that's designed just for general consumer user.  We kinda separated that out into separate products because that allows us to, you know, add certain bells and whistles for those who need that extra support without confusing or scaring the average consumer. So one of the ideas with Wrise is that if you have a classroom with students—let's say they are..I don't know…12, 13, 14 years old or something like that—instead of getting this one special app for this one student that   , you know, has vision issues or writing issues, you can get an app like this for all of them, and they can all use it.  One might use Speak-As-You-Type; another might use Reading Back.  Yet another might use the Easy Reading Mode, which is where any piece of text can instantly, with one press of the button, be scaled up, changed to an Easy Reading color. You can read it that way in one click, and you see it in its original styling. So the idea is really that everyone kinda takes what they need from it.  And there's one feature is, I think, is really unique, and that is you can mark up your text with tags and, for example, switch voices or slow down the speech or switch to a different language for a particular section of text. And that is something that's really great if you're, for example, playwright and you want to proofread your materials.  But it's really nice way when you use text-to-speech to create podcasts.  So we see a lot of creative potential there.  And this is not something that you typically find in a product aimed at the assistive technology market.  But it's something that allows you for a lot of creativity.  We think that people who have difficulty in writing and that struggles with either vision issues or other issues they, you know, will try to stay away from writing if they can. 

Mark: Right.

David: We try to make it fun and exciting.  And if you have a tool that really helps you to write better by reading back but, at the same time you can, you know, spice up your text with these tags and reproduce something that you're excited to share with someone else…you know.  That takes it to another level in a way.

Mark: Yeah, you guys are blurring the line between assistive technology and…and…and just an innovative product, it sounds like.  And I think, you know, when we look at assistive technology or things that starts out being created for someone who has a unique need…I always go back to Siri on the iphone…that lots of times it turns out to something that everybody can use.  And I…it's amazing to me.  I think this idea of tags is incredible.  I can see myself actually using that, you know.  And I also love the idea that you're introducing this one product into a classroom so that…that…that one or two individuals in the classroom that do have a disability or have a special need, they are not feeling quite as segregated out as they normally would.  They're just using the product that everybody else is using.  They're just using it in their unique way, as everybody else in the classroom is using it.

David: That's exactly our aim: to make something that has a broad appeal.  Anyone can use it.  Anyone can benefit from it.  And some people will use some features because they want to do stuff on the creative side.  Others will use some features because they need that extra writing or reading support.

Mark: Yeah, it's great.  This idea of tags—I've never heard of that.  But it's…it's fantastic.  And, like you said, a playwright or something like that being able to change voice, change speed.  It sounds like…it sounds to me like you probably haven't even discovered all the creative potentials and potential benefits that something like that would offer a variety of users.  So…

David: There's lots of stuff you can do with it.  In other areas where we see great utility is when it comes to, for example, language learning.  If you have multilingual text, it can automatically detect all the different languages…

Mark: Wow.

David: …and then automatically is able to…you know…pick the right voice for that language and continue reading, which is a great way to learn another language is, of course, reading and listening.  And here you can do both at once because, as it's reading back, it can also highlight every word or every sentence that it's reading.

Mark: Right.

David: So…and the tags allow you to control that behavior.  So if you're writing your own text and you say you'd like this voice to be used here, or let's use a British accent here and an American accent there, you can do all those kind of things.  And…well, it appears to make reading and writing fun.

Mark: Absolutely, absolutely.  Now, in terms of people with disabilities, there's obviously clear implications for an individual who is blind.  Were you guys thinking about people with…obviously…people with cognitive and learning disabilities as well when you started to put this together?

David: Yeah, we had two kinds of groups in mind.  One is people with vision impairments that are not…they don't have an impairment that really requires them to use a screen reader but that can benefit from large print, that can benefit from listening to text rather than reading it. 

Mark: Right.

David: And the other one was people who have mild forms of dyslexia.  There are really great products for people who have severe dyslexia. Those will, for example, do their word prediction based on…you know…misspellings and things like that.  But those are high end products.  Those products may cost $600 or more.  And they have a lot of bells and whistles that many people here don't need or don't want, and it makes them stand out.  So while they are really good solutions if you are one of those people who can use and benefit from those, they are often without outside reach for those people who have milder needs or just want something anyone can use so that they don't stand out.  And that's really what we're trying to do.  So we're not trying to create the solution that can do everything for everyone.  But a solution that is…you know…has certain things that really help a lot of different people but not necessarily everyone.

Mark: Well, that's fantastic.  David, can you tell me a little bit about AssistiveWare?  Because this is just one product that you guys have, and I know you work on several different things.  Can you tell me a little about the company itself and what your goals and aims are—that sort of thing?

David: Yeah, AssistiveWare was originally started in the early 2000's.  As a result of a friend of mine who had a serious car accident, broke his neck and couldn't use a mouse of keyboard anymore.  And so I decided I would help him out by writing and developing an onscreen keyboard for his Mac.  And that's kinda how I got into this field.  And once you have one product, people start asking for "Can you do this for this group of people?  Can you make something for them?"  And so over time we develop a series of products for Mac, supporting people with vision impairments, with physical impairments, speech impairments, and people who also have difficulty with reading and writing.  When the iphone came out and later the ipad, interest in Mac-based solutions started to decrease.  And so we focus more on developing things for iOS.  And we have a number of products for people who cannot speak—Proloquo2Go and Proloquo4Text on iOS.  And we also recently released a number of accessible and educational keyboards for iOS8, for ipad.  And some of those keyboards actually have some of the features you find in Wrise.  For example, our Keeble Keyboard, if you use that in any app that you're using, it can speak as you're typing—either every word, or every letter, or every sentence.

Mark: Interesting.

David: And so what we see is we have different products for different…you know…areas of need.  And yet, there's a crossover in terms of features that we find in several of our products.  Almost all of our products, for example, use text-to-speech.  That's another thing, by the way, that's interesting with Wrise; you can either use the Apple voices that are included with OS X 10, or you can use the Infovox Ivox voices, which is another product that we distribute and made together with Acapela Group, which is a text-to-speech company.  And it gives you like over a hundred different voices in different languages that you can combine with an application like Wrise and, for example, specialty voices.  There's a hiphop voice.  There's a Queen Elizabeth voice.  We also work with that same company to create children voices, which is something that didn't exist before.

Mark: Oh yeah.

David: And so there's…there's a lot of stuff that we tend to do with speech.  And I guess that's one of the reasons we developed this tag system, because you can use so much more with the text-to-speech voice than, you know, read text plainly.  Umm…so…yeah, mainly assistive technology communication, so-called augmentative communication where people have speech impairments, and things on the educational side--that's kinda where we are with most of our products.

Mark: Excellent.  Well, thanks David so much for joining me today.  I really appreciate it.  I think Wrise is an interesting product.  I love the way it's sorta falling in the space of universal design where it can be used by everyone.  And obviously, it sounds like you guys are doing great—great work over at AssistiveWare.  So thanks for joining me.  I appreciate it.

David: Well, thanks for having me, and it's nice to hear excitement about Wrise.  For us, it's like this brand new product.  You know, we're still getting the first feedback, and I'm looking forward to the kind of ideas that people have and see how we'll sort of grow and develop it over time while we're retaining ease-of-use and simplicity.  That's always a big challenge.

Mark: So if people are interested, how do they find you?

David: so assistiveware.com.  a-s-s-i-s-t-i-v-e-w-a-r-e dot com.  And there you find our products and all the background information, lot of resources, support materials.  We also have an active Facebook community, so look for AssistiveWare on Facebook.  And…you know…we're based in Amsterdam.  That may be far away for many, but we have actually several people doing support work in the US.  So we try to serve a global audience.

Mark: Yeah, nothing is far away anymore with the Internet.

David: Nope.

Mark: Thanks again, David.  I really appreciate it.  This is Mark Miller thanking David and telling you to keep it accessible.

Announcer: The IAP Interactive Accessibility Podcast is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts.  You can find their Accessibility Matters blog at www.interactiveaccessibility.com/blog .

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