An orange, highlighter-sized scanning pen is being used to scan a line of written text on paper.

Assistive Technology: Scanning Pens

Scanning pens are handheld assistive technology devices that use optical character recognition (OCR) to scan written text and convert it to digital text. This digital text can then be read aloud and stored in files or transferred to a computer, and individual words can be broken down, defined, and translated.

Scanning pens were initially created by the namesake British company Scanning Pens Inc, and are now produced and sold by other companies under similar names (i.e. pen readers, pen scanners). These handheld devices are about the size of a highlighter, and when scanned over written text, can both convert the words to digital text and narrate the text (either through the built-in speaker or through connected headphones).

One of the two founders of Scanning Pens, Jack Churchill, is dyslexic, and designed scanning pens with dyslexic and other neurodiverse people in mind. Scanning pens are assistive reading technology, and are accessible specifically in regards to utility and usability as they allow neurodiverse users to engage with written text in ways that suit their needs. As we’ve discussed in class, accessible technology isn’t only useful for the one particular need it was created for. It’s important to note that although scanning pens were initially conceived as assistive technology for dyslexic people, this device may be useful to a much wider audience; people with ADHD, some people with vision disabilities, and English language learners may all benefit from the use of scanning pens while reading. 

As aforementioned, the primary feature of a scanning pen is its ability to convert written text to digital text, which can then be narrated aloud. The digital text can be read aloud to the user through a built-in speaker or through connected headphones, with the ability to adjust volume and even the speed of the spoken text. Other features of scanning pens include built-in dictionary and translation functions. For example, Scanning Pens’ C-Pen Reader 2 contains English, Spanish, and French dictionaries. Upon scanning a particular word with the pen, a user can retrieve a definition and phonetic breakdown of the word, as well as its translation in one of the other offered languages. Further, scanned digital text and audio files of the spoken text can be stored as files in the pen itself, either to be used/played back later or to be transferred to a computer.

C-Pen Reader, Scanning Pens Inc.

Through the social model of disability, which posits that everyone has a right to meaningfully participate in society, scanning pens are accessible in that they open up the world of reading to users who encounter challenges with traditional print-based text. With assistive devices like scanning pens, the amount of people who can meaningfully engage with print text significantly increases, instead of the onus being on disabled people to fit themselves into traditional, ableist expectations of what reading looks like. Further, the utility of scanning pens aligns with the functional solutions model of disability, which seeks to provide solutions and services to meet disabled people where they are at to face challenges. By providing neurodiverse people with innovative means of reading, scanning pens provide a means of functioning in everyday life that otherwise may be difficult – not only for pleasure reading, but also to succeed in school and work settings and day-to-day life. This utility is exemplified by the fact that some scanning pens – like the Scanning Pens C-Pen Exam Reader 2 – are now certified to be used during standardized testing. 

Although scanning pens are accessible in how they expand the world of reading to more people, it’s important to note their inaccessibility in terms of cost. Scanning Pens’ C-Pen Reader 2 costs $295 each; similar devices under different names, like the Scanmarker Air Pen Scanner, seem to cost around $150. These pens are not as expensive as many multi-thousand dollar assistive devices, but still come at a considerable cost, and affordability needs to be taken into consideration when discussing these devices’ accessibility. Particularly in light of such pens now becoming recognized in school and work spaces (i.e., allowed use in standardized testing), we must raise the question of who such AT is affordable (and thus, accessible) to and consider the equity issues raised by only some disabled people having access to necessary, quality-of-life improving AT like scanning pens. For example: if scanning pens are permitted for standardized testing use, will all students who need one have one? Are schools providing the devices, or is the onus on the family to provide them? If the latter, there are equity concerns, and we cannot consider disability in a vacuum without considering its relationship to other oppressive social structures.