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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Optical Character Recognition for Reading Printed Material

Optical character recognition (OCR) technology offers blind or visually impaired employees the ability to obtain an image of printed text and have it spoken aloud, using speech output, displayed in braille, using a braille display, or saved to a computer to review later. Technology exists to convert graphics such as line art, photographs, and graphs into tactile images, but it is typically not used outside the classroom. An iPhone app, "Seeing AI," converts handwriting, whether script or block printing, into speech output.

There are three essential elements to OCR technology—obtaining an image, recognition, and reading text. Initially, a printed document is captured by a camera, OCR software then converts the image into recognized characters and words, and the synthesizer in the OCR system then speaks the recognized text aloud or displays it on a refreshable braille display. The information can then be stored in electronic format on the device running the OCR software or in the memory of the OCR stand-alone device.

The recognition process takes into account the logical structure of the language. An OCR system will deduce that the word "take" at the beginning of a sentence is a mistake and should be read as the word "the." OCR systems also use a lexicon and apply spell checking techniques similar to those found in many word processors.

All OCR systems create temporary files containing the texts' characters and page layout. In some OCR systems, these temporary files can be converted into formats retrievable by commonly used computer applications such as word processor, spreadsheet, and database software. The employee who is blind or visually impaired can access the scanned text by using assistive or access technology software that magnifies the computer screen or provides speech or braille output.

Current generation OCR systems provide very good accuracy and formatting capabilities at prices that are much lower than a few years ago. If you have a PC, the price range for an OCR system is $1,300 to $2,000. Self-contained OCR systems are in the $1,800 to $2,500 range. Apps for smartphones range from free to $99 and can be paired with a stand to make scanning easier and more reliable.

Now that it is possible to choose from among several different OCR systems, other considerations have become as important as price.

Does the OCR system:

  • require installation into a PC or is it a self-contained unit?
  • recognize a wide variety of typewritten and typeset documents including books, magazines, mail order catalogs, newspapers, and bank statements?
  • maintain the layout of the original text?
  • recognize columns of text with a minimum of user intervention?
  • require a minimum of computer knowledge to operate?
  • come with documentation that is easy to understand and in an accessible medium?
  • provide "online help" that can be accessed while using the system?
  • come with ongoing technical support from the manufacturer?
  • support different types of scanners, that is, flat-bed, sheet-fed, hand-held, and so on?
  • scan material at an efficient speed?
  • handle various sizes of paper and horizontally formatted documents?

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JVIB Special Issue on Critical Issues in Visual Impairment & Blindness

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