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Optical Character Recognition

Canon ScannerOptical Character Recognition (OCR) is a rather fancy term for software that attempts to recognise text in an image. This is almost always through a standard flatbed scanner and gives people with a variety of needs access to letters, books and journals etc. that they might otherwise find difficult or impossible.

Users may be benefit because they have a reading difficulty due to dyslexia or a lack of literacy skills; or they may have a visual impairment or may even a physical difficulty that restricts their access to books.

OCR isn't always plain sailing and if you want to get the best quality results from complex documents then the process can get a little complicated. This article will give an overview of what options are available and maybe give you some advice as to what will work best for you or your pupil.

What can it do?

Scanning and OCR can make paper text more accessible in a variety of ways. The most basic solution is to scan text in to a computer so that you no longer need to be able to turn pages in order to access it. But once the text is on the computer there's no reason why you can't apply lots of tried-and-tested accessibility improvements onto it.

For a person with limited vision you could simply increase the font size or use your word processor's or PDF reader's zoom feature.

For those with more specific needs you could change the font style, the text colour, the background colour, the spacing between lines and the spacing between letters. This can then be viewed on screen in the new format or simply printed out.

In addition to these changes, one could have the text read aloud to you - either the occasional word as and when required (for someone with mild reading difficulties for example) or the whole document (for someone with more severe reading difficulties, low vision or no functional vision).

Software

The most popular OCR software that I come across in my everyday work are:

  • TextHelp Read & Write Gold

  • The scanning element is part of a larger package in this popular program. As well as scanning and OCR (using the Abby FineReader OCR engine) this software includes text-to-speech, a dictionary, homophone support, text prediction and other features - all designed for users with dyslexia and other reading and writing difficulties.
  • OmniPage

  • In my opinion the best stand-alone OCR program. The flexibility of this software goes far beyond the scanning feature in Read & Write or any other OCR software I have used. It is a little more complicated to use than Read & Write but it can yield excellent results from complex documents. I often recommend combining Read & Write Standard with OmniPage as the cost is around the same as Read & Write Gold.
  • Omnipage SE

  • A cut-down version of OmniPage that is bundled free with many scanners. Still uses the same OCR engine as the full-blown OmniPage but has some features missing.

There is a large variety of software which can then make the text more accessible. Most of the text style changes, such as font size and background colour can be accomplished directly in Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. Text-to-speech is available either free (for example ReadPlease) or as part of a more comprehensive commercial bundle (such as TextHelp Read & Write).

Types of scanning

Each OCR program offers, to a greater or lesser degree, different types of OCR scan. Basically you can choose what parts of the document to keep and what to ignore, and what you want the computer to do with the text once it has it. Here are the most common types of 'scan':

  • Scan to PDF - For Layout Accuracy

  • This is great for higher level dyslexia and people reading difficulties who need a little text-to-speech support. The document retains its exact appearance on-screen - sort of like a virtual photocopy - but can still be read aloud with the text highlighted. You can click on an individual word or listen to the entire document.
  • Scan to Word - For Flexibility

  • The immediate advantage of scanning into Word is the program's ability to edit and change the appearance of the text.

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