By DEVIN WEEKS
COEUR d’ALENE — Helping people overcome obstacles that block their paths to reading is the noble goal of Coeur d'Alene High School junior Morgan Dixon.
"I started with an idea for an app to help my brother," Dixon, 17, said Thursday.
Dixon explained that his brother was working 60-hour weeks and falling behind in his organic chemistry studies.
"I wanted to help him by integrating any article of text into a smart device as an audio file," Dixon said.
The solution? The Outloud Reader app.
Available for iPhone, Outloud Reader converts text to sound and uses a customizable selection of voices and accents to speak the words. A person can zoom in on a page, scan the text to be read, take a photo and crop as needed. The app processes the text and reads it aloud for the app user, who can alter the speed and pitch of the speaking.
This makes reading accessible to virtually anyone, from individuals with vision disabilities to college students who just don't have time to sit down and read hours of homework.
“It makes me feel super good because I’m actually doing something with my life, unlike a lot of teenagers I know,” Dixon said.
In early 2017, he pursued guidance for this app idea and found mentors through the Innovation Collective, an organization that encourages thinking outside the box. There, he met Dr. Stephen Moss, who would become his business partner and inspire him to focus on helping the blind, visually impaired and dyslexic as well as children learning to read and people who struggle with literacy.
Dixon said he and Moss discussed how to turn this idea into something feasible and how to make it work. Dixon got some pointers from small business development coach Warren Miller and soon was on his way to raising $27,000 necessary to make this app happen.
It took him almost two years to secure funding from private investors and design the prototype. Finally, the Outloud Reader launched Feb. 2.
Special education teacher Melissa Mello's students at Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities were among the first to try Outloud Reader after Dixon contacted the Coeur d'Alene School District to see how it handled in the classroom.
"Once I met Morgan, I knew I needed to introduce him to one of my fifth-grade students, Tristen Slaughter," Mello said. "Tristen is super into technology, and I thought that if Morgan taught him how to use the app, Tristen could help me if I ever needed it! Morgan and Tristen hit it off immediately, it was awesome to watch. I was so impressed with Morgan; he's well-spoken, a good teacher and natural with kids. Tristen loves the app, he thought it was 'so cool!' I asked him how the app helps him and he said, 'It helps me read the books I want to read.'"
Mello said she has used text-to-speech tools in her work with struggling readers, but Dixon's app is unique "because it can be used immediately with any printed text."
"It's a powerful asset to have in my classroom because it gives kids independence and access to any book they're interested in," she said. "Since Morgan's visits, my students have used his app a few times each week for independent reading time in my classroom or for workshop time in their general education classrooms."
Mello said all of her students want to have Outloud Reader at home.
"I think one of the best parts of this story is that it's a local kid helping local kids, although I'm sure struggling readers everywhere would benefit from using it," she said.
Dixon said other apps similar to Outloud Reader cost as much as $100, but his app is only $3.99 at this time and, he hopes, will be free in the near future.
"I want to develop it and make it as accessible for anybody as possible and eventually make it open source and free to the public, which would be an awesome thing if we can do that," he said.