In praise of speech-to-text software

One thing that has helped me quite a bit as a blogger, writer, grad student and person with chronic pain subject to flare-ups has been speech-to-text software. The basic idea is fairly self-evident: You install the software, plug in the headset that comes with it, open up the word processing program of your choice, and start talking.

Repetitive motion is one of those things that can be the bane of one’s existence if that person happens to have chronic pain issues; while there are people who might say, Oh, typing at a computer can’t be that painful or Just work through the pain or some other ridiculous piece of “advice,” typing can, at times, be enormously painful or draining for some folks with pain issues. No matter how much one may want to complete a piece, post or assignment, sometimes it just will not happen due to pain. When it feels like your hands are encased in cement blocks, there is no “working through the pain.” Having your hands and wrists feel like they have been set on fire by pain when you are on a deadline — like a lot of circumstances surrounding pain flares — can be excruciating. It’s kind of like having your hands and wrists feel like the Human Torch, but without any of the cool superpowers.

With speech-to-text, the additional pain brought on by repetitive typing is significantly reduced, as it takes at least some of the typing (but not editing, as I will address below) out of the equation. There are some additional issues to consider, however: one is “fibro fog,” the name given to some of the cognitive effects of a fibromyalgia flare, which can, for the person experiencing the flare, make it difficult to put thoughts, words and sentences together with anything resembling coherency. This is more of a condition issue than one that has to do with typing, but it’s fairly obvious as to how fibro-fog could impact the use of text-to-speech: if your thoughts are jumbled because of pain and fatigue, it’s likely that they will be just as jumbled regardless of whether you are typing or speaking into a text-to-speech headset. I’m fairly lucky with fibro-fog myself, as it tends to be rather mild unless I am experiencing a pain flare that feels closer to acute pain than chronic, but typing is one of those processes that can seem bizarrely confusing during a massive pain flare-up (and the whole “simple things as confusing” side effect is damn near impossible to truly understand unless you’ve been through it).

Of course, there are some aspects of text-to-speech software that are less than perfect: similar to the iPhone’s auto-correct feature (some of the amazing slip-ups of which have been documented by websites such as Damn You Autocorrect),  speech-to-text software can “read” one spoken word or phrase as something else entirely, sometimes producing hilarious (or irritating) fragments that often make no sense within the context of what you are actually writing. My personal favorite thus far has been my speech-to-text program “translating” Judith Butler as Judas butt lark, which made me wonder if I need to work on my pronunciation skills if only for the convenience of my software program.

There is also the cost issue: many speech-to-text software programs are expensive. In a utopia, everyone who could benefit from text-to-speech programs would have a reliable and fairly-priced one ready for use. I’m one of those weirdos who thinks that accessible technology should not be something available only to those who can afford to pay for it, but that, unfortunately, is most likely a long time coming.

10 Comments

  1. Do you have any suggestions for such software?

  2. is there particular software that you like?
    a friend of mine was looking for free software (because, yeah, money), but she didn’t find anything really good. if there’s something that works well, though, it’d be good to know.

  3. regarding the expense of speech-to-text software: Some schools or workplaces cover the expense as an accommodation. Both Universities I have attended have offered the software to students, staff and faculty through the disability offices (although my current university department uses Linux mostly, and I don’t know of any good software for Linux). And my boyfriend was able to get an alternative keyboard (the Kinesis Advantage, which has been AMAZINGLY helpful for his hand problems) through his workplace as well.

    Because of my ADHD I’m constantly getting up at work to get up and walk around, and I think that has helped me to not get RSI even though I work at the computer for 8-12 hours a day. And one of my colleagues mentioned to me that his wrists started hurting more ever since he quit smoking (because he is no longer taking frequent breaks to go outside).

  4. As a dyslexic student I have got a lot of use from my speech to text software, one thing which occurs to me as worth mentioning is that I got my software free from my universities disability support department, which might be a possible means of access for other students as well.

  5. This post is Highly Relevent To My Interests! I am on the lookout for speech to text software at the moment–fatigue, pain, and stupid skin make it quite difficult to type. I am a bit worried about the editing aspect, though, as I’ve always been very poor with verbal communication (I can type a sentence fluently, but can’t always SAY it, and I lose words when I’m talking but don’t when I’m typing). Do all these programs come with headsets?

  6. I have used speech-to-text to help with pain issues in my wrists and arms, and I’ve found it hit and miss. The one that’s built in to Windows 7 is supposed to be pretty much the equal of anything on the market (my research indicated that Dragon is slightly better, but I’ve never used it, because I had access to the one that came with my operating system and figured why pay extra).

    The thing is, it takes quite a bit of training to recognise your speech. I’m at a disadvantage being a Brit living in the US, and all the programs seem to have trouble with my accent. I find myself spending more brainpower faking a USian accent than I spend on what actual words are going to come next. I would think that people who have disabilities that affect the way they speak would have even more trouble.

    But yeah, the Judas Butt Lark moments can make the whole thing worthwhile.

  7. Not to tout a specific program, but Dragon Naturally Speaking is on a black-friday sale from Newegg(dotcom) right now for $40, if that helps anyone.

    (No connection with newegg, I just remember seeing it in the sales flyer.

  8. I’ve tried out the speech-to-text system in Windows Vista (don’t have Win7) and found that it doesn’t work at all with applications written with certain toolkits, such as Qt which I use to write a blogging client (the advantage of something like Qt is that you can deploy the app on other platforms, including Macs). It will let you select which widget (i.e. which menu or text box) you want to enter something into, but won’t enter any text for you when you speak. I suspect it works well only with pure Windows applications – the same used to be true of Jaws with Mozilla and Firefox. I don’t know if Dragon is any different.

  9. @K and @Iris: I’m not sure which computer platform you use but Dragon Naturally Speaking is popular on Windows machines and I use the Mac equivalent Dragon Dictate. Hope that helps.

  10. K and iris, I use Mac Speech but I’ve heard Dragon is good too, particularly if you’re not on a Mac. Everyone else, thanks for the comments and software suggestions! 🙂