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Microsoft Open Sources Office Effort For The Disabled

A new Word plug-in called "Save as DAISY" will allow users to convert OpenXML documents into a format structured to help the blind navigate text.

Microsoft has joined forces with the non-profit Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium to bring Microsoft Office to the blind, the company announced Tuesday.

The two are launching an open source development project on SourceForge to create a Word plug-in called "Save as DAISY" that will allow users to convert OpenXML documents into DAISY XML, a format for reading and publishing multimedia content from text.

"DAISY enhances the reading experience to most closely approximate how sighted people read print," Jim Marks, who is director of services for students with disabilities at the University of Montana and went blind during college himself, said in a statement. "I'm incredibly impressed with Microsoft's leadership on this."

Microsoft Office and Windows Vista already offer some text-to-speech capability, but the blind don't only need to hear the words. They need to navigate formatted pages to experience bolded text, a complicated list or a new page, and Microsoft doesn't today offer such capabilities. Save as DAISY will help make that happen by through a new Word toolbar.

The DAISY XML format is structured to help the blind navigate text via page numbers and headings and use indexes and references that are embedded into documents. Additional software is needed, however, since DAISY XML is only a file format, and not an application designed to actually navigate the text itself.

Even without being a full featured app, Word's ubiquity means Save as DAISY could help bring substantial new content to the blind, who already use technology like screen readers, Braille displays and text-to-speech synthesizers to work with computers.

DAISY XML eventually may not help only the blind, but the sighted as well. Marcus Gilling, international technical coordinator for the DAISY Consortium, said in an interview that the use cases for DAISY XML are expanding greatly, to the point where it may have potential in language training or even for interactive books on tape.

Microsoft is taking Save as DAISY open source to bring in community expertise, but isn't even the first accessibility tool that Microsoft has handled this way. There's a SharePoint accessibility toolkit currently in development on Microsoft's own open source site, CodePlex.

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