Boon to the blind – Local company’s software reads books aloud and is affordable |

Boon to the blind – Local company’s software reads books aloud and is affordable

Dave Ayala of Nevada City was trapped in “almost six years of living in nonliteracy” after he started going blind from retinitis pigmentosa, a rare ailment that strikes the retina.

But he started using a talking computer about 12 years ago, and now that he has eClipseReader from Innovative Rehabilitation Technology,Inc. of Grass Valley, it “has just changed my life around,” Ayala said.

A $99 software program, eClipseReader uses synthetic voice technology to read digital talking books to the blind and dyslexic on a personal computer or portable recorder. The software reads from a compact disk, replacing what would be yards of audio tape.

“This is one of the reasons if a person had to be blind, it would be better to be blind in this day and age than ever before,” Ayala said. “Whatever has been written is becoming accessible.

“We may have a hard time driving to where everybody else goes but, by golly, we can know everything they do.”

The desire to create tools that give the blind easier access to the world around them drove Vito Proscia to establish IRTI in Mountain View in 1979. The company moved to Grass Valley in 1998.

“The original premise of the company was to locate low-cost consumer electronics and modify them for use by the blind,” said Peter Proscia, Vito’s son and now president and CEO of the company.

The company has built a steady business developing talking watches and recorders for the blind and modifying more sophisticated equipment for sale to government agencies, schools and individuals.

Now the company has opened up new vistas for its customers with the introduction of eClipseReader and eClipseWriter, a low-cost software program that can turn almost any electronic text document into a digital talking book.

Company officials believe eClipseReader, which is now used in about 1,000 schools in the U.S., will make it much easier for blind students to keep pace with their sighted classmates.

“(Blind students are) willing to do the work,” Proscia said. “What we need to do is give them the opportunity. We live in an information age, and access to information is the primary path to success.”

EClipseReader uses synthesized speech software from NeoSpeech of Fremont to read books and other documents recorded in the DAISY format, a digital talking book standard developed by an international consortium of libraries that serve the blind.

Students can use the software to mark important passages, make notes in the margins, and then review both in a single document in outline form. Users can easily find the place they stopped reading earlier and can find a specific page a teacher may be discussing in class.

Mark Wronski, vice president of sales and marketing for the 12-employee firm at the ‘Y’ in Cedar Ridge, said the software can also improve the comprehension of dyslexics, who have difficulty learning from written material.

“It’s not just for blind people,” he said, “but also a dyslexic population that could approach 40 million people in this country.”

Proscia believes eClipseWriter will “make everyday publishing accessible to the blind … It’s definitely breakthrough-ish, if that’s a word.”

EClipseWriter converts a computer document into an audio file in the DAISY format, which can be “read” on a computer or burned onto a CD for use in a compact recorder/player.

The software will recognize any electronic document, Wronski said, and can convert text to a talking book at the rate of one page every five seconds using a low-end PC. More powerful computers can perform the operation faster.

EClipseWriter can build a book in any language, he said. French and Spanish versions will soon join English on the market.

“We have built a tool at $299 that’s affordable to people,” Wronski said. “The next closest product costs $1,200. A lot of people can’t afford that, and the price limits the number schools can buy.”

“We want to make documents talk on low-cost portable devices so that the blind can enjoy a book in a hammock under their favorite apple tree,” Proscia said.

The concept of high tech at low cost resonates with Richard Crandall, executive director of Sierra Services for the Blind in Nevada City.

“Particularly in electronics, they have things that we can’t get anywhere else,” Crandall said. “They have stuff that is actually cheaper than we can get through the medical supply houses.”

Crandall said equipment that aids the blind tends to be expensive because it consists of specialty items for a limited market. “Just a simple walking cane can cost five times the price of a regular walking cane,” he said.

Sierra Services buys equipment for its clients at wholesale and sells it at the same price, but still can’t beat IRTI on some items.

This is what Vito Proscia had in mind when he started the company. Now 79, he was the first blind person to be accepted into an electrical engineering program when he enrolled at Columbia University.

He worked in the aerospace industry, directed a research unit at MIT, and was one of the first employees of Opticom, which introduced the original reading machine for the blind.

Vito passed that commitment to his son. “My heart always was really here,” Peter said. “Working on something that was focused on the greater good became very important to me. You get a little bit of a bonus here that you can’t get anywhere else.”

“You get something back that’s not monetary, and that can be pretty nice,” Wronski said. “We’re in a high tech business that’s doing good things.”

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