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Blind to Get Help Reading Word Docs

Microsoft is joining with an international organization for the vision-impaired to produce a plug-in for Word that's meant to transform text into audio for people with severe reading difficulties.

The company announced Tuesday a collaboration with the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) Consortium to create a standards-based plug-in for Word XP, Word 2003, and Word 2007 that will be available early next year.

"The timeline [aims] to have this ready by mid-March next year," Reed Shaffner, worldwide product manager for Microsoft Word, told InternetNews.com.

The plug-in will translate documents formatted using Microsoft's Office Open XML, the default format for Word 2007, into DAISY XML for use in players that support the group's standard. Users who are either blind or who have some other serious "print disability" -- which could range from dyslexia or macular degeneration to advanced Parkinson's disease, for instance -- are the target audience.

"The [Office] Open XML to DAISY XML translator for Microsoft Office Word will begin the translation of Open XML-based content into an enriched multimedia format accessible to users around the world, regardless of the degree of their visual impairments," Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, said in a joint statement issued by Microsoft and the DAISY Consortium.

The plug-in, when it's released, will be available as a free download. Additionally, the source code for the plug-in will be released on the open source SourceForge site, enabling developers to port the plug-in to other platforms.

Founded in 1996, the Zurich, Switzerland-based DAISY Consortium is responsible for maintaining an XML-based standard for converting text (originally library books) to speech. The group developed the standard in connection with the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and other groups.

The consortium's membership consists of international associations for the visually impaired and libraries for the blind. Corporate supporters include Microsoft, PC media player Plextor and audio products manufacturer Telex.

In 2002, DAISY's standard received the backing of the American National Standards Institute and the National Information Standards Organization as ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002; it was subsequently revised three years later as ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2005.

"The structure within DAISY publications makes it possible to navigate quickly by heading or page number and to use indexes and references, all with correctly ordered, synchronized audio and text," the joint statement said.

Perhaps ironically, Microsoft's Office Open XML, also referred to as OOXML, has been very controversial in the world of standards bodies. While it received international standards status by European standards group Ecma International almost a year ago, Microsoft's attempt to have it certified as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard on a so-called "fast track" basis faltered when it didn't receive enough votes in favor during balloting in September.

While Microsoft's OOXML isn't out of the running for ISO certification, whether or not the company can resolve all the outstanding technical issues raised by voting ISO members and achieve fast track status will not be decided until February at the earliest.