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Introducing the CBBC Accessible Newsreader

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Jonathan Hassell | 10:23 UK time, Friday, 22 May 2009

One of the best and also the most challenging things about working for the BBC is the size and nature of our audience. Due to our public funding, we have a responsibility to ensure that all of our UK audience gets value for its licence fee, and that includes people who may not normally be catered for by commercial organisations.

A group like this is children with complex physical disabilities, including near total loss of motor control, who are not able to use a keyboard or mouse.

Computer access for these children is achieved through Switch technology - a small piece of hardware that accepts input from one or more custom devices, such as a large button, motion sensor or even a tube to blow into, and then maps this input to a key on the keyboard.

Content available for this technology is fairy sparse, custom-made, and often geared towards pre-school age groups. However, the high quality age-appropriate content which we already provide for other older children is often very difficult or impossible to use for this audience, although it would be of huge benefit to them.

That's the conclusion that Jennette Holden of Tor View Community Special School came to. She felt that the ideal content for her pupils would be news - as most were interested in how the football was going or celebrity gossip.

However, she'd written off the idea as impossible for anyone to provide, as no-one could possibly have the time or resources to do the daily updates and maintainance on a news website made specifically for this audience.

That was until she shared her idea with Ian Hamilton from the CBBC online team who immediately though that the children's Newsround website might be the answer. Two years later, with the recent launch of the CBBC Newsreader, Ian and his team have made her idea a reality.

Here Ian tells the story behind the creation of this innovative new service.

Jonathan Hassell is Head of Audience Experience & Accessibility, BBC Future Media & Technology.


I was introduced to Jennette's idea while investigating possible projects at an accessible technology lobby a couple of years ago, and it was immediately obvious that it wasn't so impossible after all. We already had access to perfectly suited content in the form of the Newsround website, and due to the clear division now between content and layout, it would be a relatively simple task to present our content feeds in a simple, highly accessible alternative interface, capable of being operated by a single keypress.

Ideas such as Jennette's which are simple to execute and have a real benefit to our audiences are the lifeblood of innovation at the BBC, and we have various mechanisms set up to incubate them. One of those mechanisms is our 1-in-10 process, which the project was chosen to be an early test-case for.

Since then we have researched and worked with her and other industry experts and academics to bring this about, in particular from within the BBC thanks to sterling individual efforts from Leigh Jenkinson and Mark Swinson, and also some assistance from BBC RAD.


Switch-accessible controls rely on scanning interfaces, which automatically move a coloured highlight around a menu, pausing on each option in turn for a given amount of seconds before moving on to the next. So to navigate around the interface the user just has to press the key (or their switch device mapped to that key) when the desired option is highlighted.

These kind of interfaces are normally bespoke applications, however the method we created for the CBBC Newsreader was to provide it on a normal HTML website by using some JavaScript to move the browser's built in tabbing focus around, which I believe is a first, and opens up some very interesting possibilities.

Another key feature of the Newsreader is dynamically generated speech via high-end voice synthesis, used to read out all of the story text and buttons. This is important as this audience could well have problems with seeing or reading, and may have difficulty using standard screen-reader software.

It's a very simple principle and one that could easily be applied to other content and audiences. Adults for example have even less age-appropriate content available than children, but providing this access could provide just as much benefit.


Technology like this can have a huge impact on people's lives. Allowing those who are not able to do much without assistance to have some independant interaction can be really empowering, especially if it means being able to access exactly the same content that everyone else can. The BBC's combination of public service mandate and access to a wide variety of high quality content gives us quite a unique opportunity to be able to develop it, and in doing so give some real help to people who need it the most.

We've already seen some very encouraging results from our user testing and initial post-launch feedback. The target audience of children with motor disabilities has really benefitted, and the teachers are also using the Newsreader as a teaching aid for children with learning difficulties.

Another particularly exciting finding is the Newsreader's potential to help people on the autistic spectrum, due to the low cognitive load of the simplified interface, the repetition between text and audio, and the strong connection between the content and the real world. Seeing autistic kids now able to cope well with the content was quite unexpected and rewarding, and we've been told that the it is already being used in lesson plans for autistic children.

We launched the service two weeks ago, and the feedback so far has been overwhelmingly encouraging, for example:

"Just to say a big THANK YOU on behalf of all my pupils and clients all over Scotland who are switch users and poor readers - the new accessible newsreader is absolutely brilliant and much needed."
- Sally Millar, Senior Research Fellow, CALL Scotland.
"This is excellent. I've added it as a link to my site and will be telling lots of people all about it through my work supporting London pupils with assistive technology needs and I'll get you feedback. Thank you for such a useful resource."
- Imogen Howarth, Assistive Technology Specialist, CENMAC Charlton School / checkthemap.org
"We are a school for moderate learning difficulties and Autism. I will be using it with my children (age range from 7-16). A key to working with ASD children is to find something that motivates them and this is usually more easily done through technology. This will be a useful tool for the classroom and to initiate discussion etc. with them. Simple but brilliant!"
- Anne Thorne, Head of Autism, Coombe Pafford School

As a result of the feedback we've had and also findings from our testing sessions we are currently working on the next phase of development, to further open up the benefits to as wide an audience as possible.

Ian Hamilton is a senior designer in BBC FM&T Vision.

The CBBC Newsreader can be accessed from the CBBC Homepage by clicking on the Switch icon or link bottom right of the page


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This is what makes the BBC and it's method of funding is so special, I can't think of any other media company in the UK who would have spent so much time (and money) developing something they would not be able to commercialise - I hope that the BBC can think of other areas of it's website were this technology could be deployed.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Always work hard to give the best for their audiences is made the biggest name: BBC, thank you.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    We've already seen some very encouraging results from our user testing and initial post-launch feedback. The target audience of children with motor disabilities has really benefitted, and the teachers are also using the Newsreader as a teaching aid for children with learning difficulties[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    I hope these childrens would have better life thanks to these methods. It would be great.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    It is my pleasure to read and contribute my comment about the new development in assistive technology for people with special needs. I am a special educator who trained special education teachers for over 20 years and have direct working experience with special needs children and their families. I am speaking from my professional experience in U.S. and other countries visited. Yes, I have worked with students with learning disabilities, ASD (particularly with Asperger Syndrome), and mild/moderate disabilities. Assistive technology has been my research interest for many years.

    I applauded to the collaboration among some educators and technology specialists in U.K. via B.B.C.'s assistance. We need to learn from your good model in U.S.! The Switch-accessible device described in your article was amazing and practically useful in both school and home settings, provided with funding support. The CBBC Newsreader encourages reading by listening and is a great tool for people with and without special needs too. I find that listening to text being translated to speech contents of any kinds is mostly a one-way communication. From an learning and instruction point of view, we need to ask a critical question if we want what we (or people with special needs of any ages) listen will be retained in our short- and long-term memory for later usage. If the purpose of learning any new knowledge and skills is for comprehending and applying what's learned, then something more is needed to supplement one-way communication device. I recommend 2 devices that I have used in my practice.

    The first one is MacSpeech for all ages. MacSpeech is a dictation tool that provides a new way to interact with Mac and OX2. MacSpeech also has an International version that supports English, French, German, and Italian. Instead of typing, use one’s own voice to input text; rather than clicking the mouse, just speak commands. My recommendation is to use a combination of the Switch-accessible device for listening to information 1-way, and use MacSpeech or other similar device (for PC, Mac, or OX2 systems of one’s choice) for responding or demonstrating one’s comprehension and/or application of information. Without 2-way communication, such as information input and then output, there is no way to evaluate learning success or improvement. It’s that simple! For the U.K. readers, MacSpeech will hold a live demonstration at BETT, the world's largest educational technology event at Olympia in London, from January 13-16, 2010.

    O.k., some people may say that voice recognition tools are not too new, I agree. So, I proceed to introduce what I have used and recommend this next audio visual tool for more capable students (and adults), including students with Asperger Syndrome, highest cognitive level of students with autism.

    It is an audio visual tool called Article Video Robot that can turn any text or article content to a "live talking video" on a desktop or laptop screen. Article Video Robot can be used to teach students a lot of things across the curriculum in addition to exercising their creativity. It’s not my purpose to elaborate how to use it for learning in here except for alerting the readers’ own review of the device. One can hardly find such a sophisticated device that does not cost a fortune at all!

    Using technology to help people with special needs is great. Somehow, people of all ages, regardless of their functioning abilities, can communicate better with animals that are not machines but creatures closer to be like us. Now, you will be amazed to read what I am about to share with you.

    Last summer, I presented a unique alpaca-assisted summer camp proposal to Mrs. Carrie Hull who is taking care of my 3 alpacas (see their pictures in melodyalpaca.us), in her Timber Basin Alpaca Ranch, Idaho, U.S. From my educator's intention, I am not talking about those recreational- and commercial-based, animal-assisted instruction that's geared for different purposes. We discussed about organizing a series of alpaca summer day camps for students (1st-12th grades) with mild/moderate disabilities. Using alpaca-assisted instruction provides meaningful and goal-directed educational activities that promote learning, physical, mental, and psychological growth. Given the alpacas’ friendly nature with superior intelligence and their hypoallergenic fur, children from all walks of life will find them delightful to work with. Alpacas make a very gentle humming sound that serves as an excellent communication starter and produces an emotional impact for all ages, especially for individuals who are different kinds of speech language issues and/or psychological barriers. Instead of prolonging my discussion about alpaca-assisted instruction blending with 1st -12th grades' arts and science core curriculum, I would reserve it for another discussion or contribution. But, I highly recommend the readers to review some free special education resources in olcsea.com that I have contributed my comments.

    I hope that my comments present some options for using both technology and breathing creatures to help people with special needs. Cheers!

    Happy Bird

  • Comment number 12.


    It's Happy Bird here again. I just found out a typo in my blog comment stated above. It's located in the 2nd last paragraph, "Alpacas make a very gentle humming sound... individuals who have ("are", the typo) different kinds of speech language issues and/or psychological barriers." Cheers!

    Happy Bird :-)

  • Comment number 13.

    this is pretty cool, are you using your own built from scratch text-to-voice software, or did you outsource that to one of the other companies?

    And are you having accuracy issues? there was a post a few days on techcrunch where they said that these text-to-voice solutions only have an 86% correct rate.

    Maybe a good possible solution for this(to make it sound less roboty), is to do it via Amazon's Mechanical Turk...feed those guys stories via api and have them record an MP3. Shouldn't cost much, since those guys work for peanuts. Only downside I see to that is you'll have a 5-10 minutes delay, while they go through the process.

    Just a suggestion.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 14.

    I think that this is great idea Jonathan. I found great article about voice recognition on wikipedia, you can read more about speech recognition via this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_recognition [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    All the best,


  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    I've just discovered the Newsreader via an article on the acecenter website https://www.ace-centre.org.uk/index.cfm?pageid=3F602D2A-3048-7290-FE1FED804805B290SEO. It's clearly written with well chosen photos, the interface has clear and distinct icons.

    I really appreciate the fact that the content is regularly updated and is age-appropriate to its audience, particularly as it is exactly the same content that is available to everyone else.

    Really good work !

  • Comment number 17.

    The idea of this newsreader was pretty good but for most people it's just not something they will notice. But for those who got some kind of physical problem like poor sights and similar it can truely be a great aid. I have been working with young people who could barely use a computer without such tools so for many of them this is truely a nice addition and I hope more sites would do the same and add such tools.

    Best regards,
    Charles Potty


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