As a student registered with the Office of Accessibility and Education Opportunity at Vassar, I was recently given a computer program made by Texthelp called Read & Write Gold. This program includes text-to-speech capabilities such as spellcheck, word predictor, fact finder, fact mapper and speech programs with typing, among other tools. This program enables me to convert inaccessible PDF documents (PDFs that appear as images) into Word documents so that they can be read out loud to me. This program also allows me to convert these same documents into MP3 files so that I do not have to lug my computer around in order to have accessible texts. While this capability may seem like an unnecessary luxury to those of you who do not have a reading disability, for those of us with dyslexia and other processing disorders, this program really is gold. I have a reading rate in the second percentile, meaning that ninety-eight percent of people read faster than I do. Working with text alone, I often do not understand or retain much of what I have read. The Read & Write Gold program makes a world of difference for those of us who read, process information, and learn differently from the majority of people.
I received this program free from the Office of Accessibility and Education Opportunity. But out of curiosity, I looked up how much this program would cost if I had to pay for it myself–the program costs $645. While there are some free softwares with text-to-speech capabilities out there, many of them have voices that are painful to listen to and cannot convert inaccessible PDFs. This capability is crucial in college when many of the course readings are PDFs posted on Moodle (Vassar’s course site database). So while the Read & Write Gold software is designed to make education more accessible, this program actually marginalizes those who cannot afford it. This leaves students from less affluent backgrounds with learning disabilities at a sharp disadvantage.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to text-to-speech softwares. Many other technologies designed to make reading more accessible to students with learning disabilities are also outrageously expensive. For example, the Livescribe smart pen is designed to record as you are writing ss you can go back and listen if you missed something during, say, a class lecture: this is perfect for those of us with difficulties paying attention for long stretches of time. These pens, however, start at $120 and require special notepads, costing around $13.
An up-to-date diagnosis report from a neuropsychologist is required to purchase these technologies that students with learning disabilities need. Educational testing tends to cost upwards of $1000 and offices typically require that it be paid out of pocket: the option to even get tested for a learning disability is not accessible to many low-income individuals who might benefit from a correct diagnosis. Even if you have exceptional medical care, $1000 for a test that may or may not enable you to purchase highly priced technologies is a luxury. The way these technologies are distributed assures that only students with learning disabilities from affluent families will be able to obtain all the tools that may help them succeed. In other words, your “access” is controlled by your socio-economic class. If these technologies aim to make education more accessible, they should aim to make education more accessible to all, not just those who can afford it.