Archive for the ‘assistive technology’ Category


Although awareness of the Mac built-in text to speech feature has grown, I think it’s important to keep disseminating information and technical assistance. Where I work in Maine, all of our middle schools and many high schools are 1:1 with MacBooks through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). In these schools, students have immediate and timely access to “Alex,” Apple’s most recent and highest quality voice for the Mac. Alex is an impressively  human-sounding voice with natural intonation. And it’s easy to use: simply select the text that you want Alex to read aloud, and then press a self-selected key combination.

Imagine the possibilities, particularly in content area classrooms:

  • Students with specific learning disabilities benefit from seeing and hearing the text as it’s spoken aloud
  • English language learners benefit from having content area instructional materials spoken aloud
  • Novice and master writers alike benefit from employing Alex as their proofreader

Alex will read aloud any digital text: Web sites, text files, email, data in spreadsheets…any digital text.

If you have a Mac, you gotta listen to Alex. Here’s how:

  1. Open the System Preferences panel
  2. Choose the Speech pane
  3. Choose the Text to Speech tab
  4. Alex will appear by default in the System Voice dropdown menu. Adjust the Speaking Rate slider and choose the Play button to test your settings. Adjust as necessary.
  5. Select the box next to Speak selected text when the key is pressed. A dropdown box should appear. If not, select the Set Key… button.
  6. In the dropdown box, you’ll be instructed to Set a key combination to speak selected text. Your key combination should start with a modifier key (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) and at least one other key. Keep in mind that whatever combination you choose, it won’t be available to you for any other purpose on your computer. For example, I recommend that you not choose “Command-S” if you typically use this shortcut to save files. You may be tempted to click inside the key combination field, but you’ll soon realize that your key combination will appear as you press keys on your keyboard.
  7. Choose the OK button.
  8. Quit System Preferences.

Now you’re ready to have Alex read aloud to you. Select any digital text on your computer by highlighting it. Press your key combination. To stop Alex from speaking, press the key combination again.

Here’s a short video Quick Tip of the process.



Welcome to UD in ME, a blog about the role of universal design in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, better known as the MLTI. The purpose of bringing UD to the MLTI is simple: to make learning with technology accessible to all students in Maine, including students with disabilities.

Stop! Don’t tag this blog exclusively for special education. You see, while UD has its roots in disability and related social movements, its message to us as general education teachers is that we can learn from and generally apply what we know about the most unique learning needs of our students. That is, we don’t individualize the curriculum for all learners (repeat statement as necessary). Rather, we aim to integrate the common needs of diverse learners into the repertoire of methods, strategies, resources, and tools for teaching our content area.

Why UD in the MLTI? One reason is that one-to-one computing is the ideal environment for implementing UD! Flexibility, usability, and accessibility are the primary elements of UD, and when learners can customize the content of the curriculum for their own needs and preferences – voila! – auto individualization without the teacher having to create the content in (fill in the number of students you have) ways. The most simple example: Providing a “handout” in electronic format creates access and increases engagement by enabling learners to:

  • Change the text size or font
  • Create more white space
  • Adjust the color/contrast
  • Have the text read aloud with Mac OS X built-in speech
  • Transfer the content of the handout to their specialized software program (e.g., Kurzweil 3000 or Read & Write Gold)
  • Use a specialized screen reading program for students who are blind or have low vision (e.g., Mac OS X VoiceOver)
  • Interact with the handout via assistive technology for students with motor impairments (e.g., switch access; onscreen keyboards; or voice recognition software, such as iListen or MacSpeech Dictate)
  • Markup the handout using any number of input strategies (e.g., traditional keyboarding, alternative keyboarding, or voice recognition)

Imagine, all of those options for student access, engagement, and interaction as a result of simply providing a handout in its electronic format rather than taking a trip to the photocopier!

Of course, not all MLTI teachers have one-to-one computing in their classrooms. Students who do not have laptops, however, may still have access to computers within the classroom, library, computer lab, and at home. High school teachers with MacBooks can get a lot of mileage out of making their curriculum materials available electronically and directing students to a route for retrieving them.

OK, you say, UD isn’t that simple. There’s a learning curve to this. Yes…as simple as the most simple step of providing a handout in electronic format may be, UD is a process.

I’m sometimes referred to as a “UD expert.” At a recent conference I was asked the question, “Who’s the authority on universal design in Maine?” Experts? Authorities? Truth be told, I think we’re all grappling each and every day with how to be the best teachers we can…and still have time for our families and get a decent night’s sleep. As much as I’ve thought about, researched, and practiced UD over the past 8 years, I continue to learn – a lot from my own mistakes and shortcomings. I learn the most, however, from working with teachers and sharing experiences. So, I’m excited about this blog and its place in UD in ME!