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LESSON 5: Reading Support Technology For Persons With Learning Disabilities

This lesson is divided into the following parts:

Part 1: Screen Readers and Document Readers

Part 2: Introduction to Support Tools For People With Learning Disabilities

Part 3: What Are The Features Of Reading Support Applications

Part 4: Overview Of Several Reading Support Applications

Part 5: Lesson take-aways

This material is copyrighted by Norman Coombs in 2017. We encourage your sharing useful individual pieces of information to help people. However, we request that you do not share the entire workshop without specific written permission.

Part 1: Screen Readers and Document Readers

This lesson deals with reading support tools which focus on people with so-called learning disabilities or learning impairments.

First, It is important to understand the difference between screen readers and document readers. Often, this distinction is blurred. In fact in the AdapTech database, both types of software are lumped together under the label, screen readers.

Software such as JAWS NVDA and VoiceOver are screen readers. They can turn anything on the screen into vocalized content and read them whether they are the application interface or whether they are the contents of a document. Document readers only read what is in an actual document and cannot read the interface for a blind user. This means that a document reader will not read anything on the desktop. It won't let a person who is blind navigate to locate the document. If someone helps locate the document and opens it, then the document can speak the document contents for the person who has a visual impairment. But,people with learning disabilities do not need software to provide access to the interface or help navigating to the document, but they may benefit from support in accessing the actual document's contents. For example the Kindle for a long time could speak the contents of a book, but it didn't speak anything on the interface. If someone opened a document for a user who is blind, the Kindle spoke the contents, but the person could not find the book independently. Kindle has gradually and eventually improved.

Here is where you obtain software that will provide support for these students to read and understand a document. When you go to the AdapTech Site, select the computer platform for which you want software. AdapTech lumps screen readers and document readers together. Select that category and select one or two applications to download and try using it.

Go to the AdapTech Site and download software that supports reading

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Part 2: Introduction to Support Tools For People With Learning Disabilities

There are so many categories under this label and in each category, each person's impairments can be personal and individual. I am sure you all recognize that a learning impairment is not the same as limited intelligence. Many famous scholars and leaders have admitted to having some such impairment. Two of the groups can be categorized as having visual and/or cognitive processing impairments. This means that they have either difficulty in processing information in a visual format or difficulty in organizing and processing that information. People who are blind or who have severe visual limitations have difficulty accessing the information. This can be assisted with screen reader software or screen magnification software. However those with visual or cognitive processing are able to access (see) the information but have processing problems. For that reason we label their software tools as support tools not access tools.

This lesson will focus on the various technologies that assist learning, organizing and memory, all of which can help persons with learning disabilities to compensate and succeed. The technologies discussed in this lesson can help with tasks such as reading, writing, and organization. (While the focus of this lesson is reading, many of the same tools that assist with reading also assist with writing. Our division is a bit artificial and arbitrary.) This lesson will ask you to do some hands-on work on a couple software packages that will be useful for many people with learning disabilities.

As you can see, the possible range of such software is gigantic, and we can only lead you to experiment with a couple applications.

As is the case with any disability, it is important to thoroughly evaluate a person with a learning or any other disability before any adaptive technology is prescribed. And, as with other disabilities, the first priority is to determine how the individual is affected by the learning disability when performing selected tasks. Those tasks, for the purposes of this overview, consist of reading, writing, mathematics, memory, and organizational skills. To be consistent, this lesson focuses on technologies that can assist in those areas.

The first step is to speak with the individual to determine how the learning disability affects his or her life. The evaluation focuses on how the disability affects the individual, the tasks the individual needs to perform, the environment in which those tasks are performed, any time limits or constraints on the task being performed, and the features of products that might prove beneficial. The evaluation also covers areas that may affect the person's ability to operate equipment, such as fine motor control or other skills and factors that will influence the determination of the most appropriate technology. The most powerful device in the world will do little good if an individual is unable to comprehend its functions and thus use it properly. We need to stress that technology should never be applied in a vacuum and that the user's voice must be in the forefront of any discussion. With all this in mind, we shall explore some of the basic technologies designed to assist persons with learning disabilities.

While you should get some applications and try them yourself, the samples shall show parts from a webinar series on Read&Write by TextHelp. We will direct you to the archive of that 4-part series and indicate which part that is relevant to the topic being discussed.

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Part 3: What Are The Features Of Reading Support Applications

A document reader will let the user personalize the foreground and background colors. Adjust text size to meet individual needs. The user could also adjust the display so that a limited amount of content is showing at one time thereby reducing distractions. Some of the better document readers connect to dictionaries and other reference tools providing more background content where the person is struggling to understand unfamiliar words or concepts.

One of the most useful features of many document readers is that it can provide both a visual output of the content simultaneously with an audible output. Usually, the software will actually highlight the words that are being vocalized. This helps the user concentrate and focus. Another way to increase focus and avoid distractions is for the user to adjust the display so that only a limited amount of content is visible at once.

Supportive reading software programs provide numerous enhancements that assist students in comprehending text, such as sequential highlighting, definitions, and text-to-speech and note-taking capabilities. What more, these enhancements can be customized and scaffolded to meet the individualized needs or preferences of students. For example, students can have text highlighted and read aloud by letter, word, line, sentence, or paragraph. Another option is to have text sequentially highlighted but not read aloud. Or, students might choose to have only particular words or phrases read aloud. Additionally, reading speed, voices, and highlighting colors are all variables. These features provide flexible, appropriate scaffolds, supporting students abilities to focus on meaning as they read.

several of the more sophisticated software packages also interface with dictionaries to help find the meaning of words including having synonyms, homonyms and a thesaurus.

When you select and download the reading applications to explore, look for any documentation. Lacking that, use the 'help' features to see how your application can replicate some of the features just discussed here. Also go to the software options and see if you can configure it so you can make use of some of these support features.

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Part 4: Overview Of Several Reading Support Applications

At this point you should take the link below for Read&Write and watch part of the overview webinar Session "General Overview and program setup". But what you should watch is "Session 2, Reading Tools". From the site on simple tools, pick something that deals with some writing support application.

Use this link to get the archive of the Read&Write webinar series

This part of the lesson will list a few of the more popular, commercial reading support tools which are widely used by students and professionals with disabilities and which are feature-rich. Even if you do not experiment with them here, you need to know about them. Then, the lesson will comment on a couple of the popular free reading support tools. Again, if you do not select them for your applications for this lesson, you need to be aware of them as you may need to know about them at a future time.

The popular applications we will cover include:

Kurzweil 3000

Kurzweil 1000 is tailored for users who are blind or who are visually impaired. Kurzweil 3000 is a reading system that focuses on improving reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension.

View a short video of Kurzweil 3000

Kurzweil 3000 is available in both Windows and Macintosh versions and a trial version is available. If you don't get the applications mentioned here from the AdapTech site, use the link listed here.

Get a Kurzweil 3000 trial

Selected features include:

  1. Dual highlighting as the text is spoken
  2. Ability to create voice notes two minutes in length
  3. Word spacing feature that allows users to alter the appearance of text for greater word discrimination
  4. Ability to scan, read, and define words in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Dutch
  5. Ability to define and phonetically spell any word
  6. A customized toolbar to meet different learning needs and preferences

The scan/read version of Kurzweil 3000 includes high quality optical character recognition (OCR) software for scanning documents, making them available to be read aloud by Kurzweil 3000.


Wynn by Freedomscientific is a software program that helps students read, write, study, and comprehend more effectively. It has four color-coded toolbars for different tasks and skill development.

All of the toolbars can be rotated to provide access to all functions.

Selected features of WYNN include:

  1. Dual auditory and visual presentation
  2. Ability to insert text and voice notes
  3. Ability to increase the line and word spacing and adjust margins, enabling the student to decode and comprehend the reading material more easily
  4. Ability to highlight, bookmark, and have syllables read aloud
  5. Ability to block out distracting sections of the page to promote focus

View an extensive demo of Wynn

Wynn has a trial version which runs for a limited time and then requires a system reboot.

Get the trial version of Wynn


TextAloud is an excellent tool for people with learning disabilities and low vision. It also has the ability to convert file formats that many other programs of this type do not.

View a demo of TextAloud

Text Aloud will import .pdf, .html and Word .doc files. There are two basic modes in which TextAloud handles what it calls articles. TextAloud considers an article to be any chunk of text that you ask it to read. An article, to TextAloud, could be a sentence, a paragraph or an entire reading like a journal article. So, if you open a text file or an html page in the software, that is an article as well.

There is a Floating Toolbar which is very useful. You can position the toolbar where you like on the screen and it stay on top all the time. That means that you can have text read to you without having to go from whatever program you are in to TextAloud and then back to the program again. There are six buttons on the floating toolbar and they are Speak, To File, Pause, Skip, Stop and Main. The floating toolbar can be set to always be on top and that is often the best way to use the software. No matter where you are, you can have basic TextAloud reading options available at all times and you do not have to remember any shortcut keys to perform tasks.

If you did not locate TextAloud from the AdapTech site, the link below should take you to the trial

Get the TextAloud trial

Shareware/Freeware Reading Tools

In addition to the commercial products just presented, text-to-speech technologies are available freely on the Web. Many have included features specifically to meet the needs of users with disabilities, but many do not. Presently, one of the most popular is Natural Reader.

The link below will show you its current rating and there will be a demo video.

if you have not got it or a similar product from AdapTech, you can get this from the link below.

download NaturalReader

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Part 5: Lesson take-aways

The last 2 lessons shift from software which enables people with disabilities to get information from the Screen. Now we move to software which does not primarily change the screen for people who cannot or who have trouble seeing the content on the monitor. These tools are support tools. For people who have trouble making sense of what they see on the screen, these tools support their disabilities in several ways. This time we are stressing reading support, but most of this software also supports writing.

To get the benefit from these last 2 lessons, you really need to get copies of the software and work with it hands-on. You can understand what they do from the videos, but you can't appreciate what they do till you spend a little time with them. For people with visual or cognitive processing of information, these tools can change their lives. Think about your experience with them, and ponder on what support seems most useful to you.


Did the support features seem unnecessary and interfered with your learning?

Which support features seemed like they could benefit you and others without any of these disabilities?

Do you think that the time to familiarize someone with the software be worth the investment?

Send the assignment to Norm Coombs

end of Trainer lesson 5