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Microsoft Word files to speak to the blind

Plug-in to enable Microsoft Word 2007 documents to be converted to documents in the Daisy XML format, which can be read aloud by speech synthesizers.

Microsoft and open-source site SourceForge plan to offer a free plug-in early next year that will convert Office 2007 files to the Daisy format, which translates text to speech.

The free tool will add a "Save as Daisy" option within Word 2007 and 2003. Daisy, or Digital Accessible Information System, XML files can be "read" aloud by speech synthesizers, paired with audio narration, and used to create electronic Braille. Users can navigate open-standard Daisy documents quickly by jumping between page elements such as headers and indexes.

The Daisy Consortium of 70 nonprofits has aimed since 1996 to make all published information available to people with visual impairments and learning disabilities.

Digital narration serves computer users with visual impairments, people with learning challenges like dyslexia, as well as those with Parkinson's disease and other conditions that make it hard to type or hold a book.

With the release of the Office 2007 suite in January, Microsoft shunned the popular, XML-based OpenDocument Format for its own, new Office Open XML format. The OOXML documents, which include Word files with the DOCX extension, are easier to retrieve, if corrupted, than older DOC files.

Versions of Word prior to 2007 can open OOXML documents after a one-time download of a free converter from Microsoft. However, critics gripe that Microsoft's format change was unnecessary and clumsy. Microsoft maintains that the new format enables greater flexibility, such as accessibility features.

(See also accessibility in Mac OS 10.5 Leopard.)