• How the Mac Gave Roger Ebert His Voice Back

    image via ET Online

    Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who lost his voice to complications related to thyroid cancer in 2006, has shared in a letter to the New York Times how his MacBook has helped him regain the ability to speak.

    Ebert was writing in response to an article about a woman who was offered an $8,000 DynaVox system but instead chose to use her iPhone with third-party text-to-speech software. "After trying an $8,000 custom device with little computing power and a small, dim screen," he wrote, "I tried the built-in speech software on my MacBook and found it much more practical."

    Ebert uses the MacBook's built-in VoiceOver Utility to "read anything aloud, including what I define on a Web page or in an e-mail message," allowing him to do things like "sharing a news headline with my wife."

    The original New York Times article featured a 48-year-old woman from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. who lost her voice to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (what is commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease). She notes that insurers usually cover only one device every five years, and as a result people with degenerative diseases like ALS often wait until their condition is so bad that they need highly-sophisticated devices that can, for example, track their eye and head movements, as physicist Stephen Hawking's assistive technology does.

    A representative of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services quoted in the article said that Medicaid “would not cover the iPhones and netbooks with speech-generating software capabilities because they are useful in the absence of an illness or injury.” The $8,000 DynaVox computers are standard Windows PCs with the non-speech related functions blocked. Once Medicare pays for the device, however, DynaVox will - for a $50 fee - turn them back into general-purpose computers.

    Whether the national health-care reform will make any headway in addressing such issues, of course, remains to be seen. But the iPhone's accessibility features certainly offer powerful new tools for people with disabilities, and - especially older models - can be within the reach of even people without insurance.
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