Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is making accessibility improvements to its forthcoming Windows 8 operating system. The company announced efforts this week to create an environment that is friendlier to users with disabilities. Nearly 50 million Americans have a disability that affects hearing, vision, cognition, or mobility. Most of the Windows 8 improvements detailed thus far are designed to accommodate the visually impaired.
Jennifer Norberg, senior program manager of the company’s Human Interaction Platform team, wrote about the developments on the official Microsoft Developer Network blog. The initiative is twofold: make touchscreen-appropriate upgrades to existing accessibility programs, such as Narrator and Magnifier, while tweaking the accessible-programming interface to support those efforts.
Narrator is a screen reader that has been packaged with Windows since the 2000 edition. It the past, Narrator drew complaints that it was slow and limited in functionality. The Windows 8 version will feature a speed boost, broader voice output options, and customizable features. The improvements also aim to improve Web browsing in Internet Explorer by increasing the range of details that Narrator can read.
Keeping with the touchscreen theme of the operating system, the new Narrator will allow even fully blind users to operate a tablet. Touching the screen with a single finger while Narrator is turned on will read the features rather than activate them. A double tap will cause the feature to launch.
A better touchscreen interface
Magnifier, which launched with Windows 98, provided adequate screen magnification on a computer screen but lagged behind in touchscreen usage. The problem was that the dragging motion required to activate the feature also placed the user’s hand in front of the content. Windows 8’s Magnifier will have horizontal and vertical scrollbars that can be tapped to zoom in and out on content.
Accessibility of these programs is dependent upon a solid underlying interface. Microsoft established the UI Automation (UIA) framework standards in 2005 to serve as a bridge between developed applications and accessible workability. Windows 8 will add more depth to the UIA, allowing Narrator in particular to tap richer sources of data and offer a broader range of functions. In other words, more items will be tagged with words that Narrator will be able to read to a blind user.
Microsoft says it has plans to coordinate with other assisted technology (AT) companies to make sure that the operating system is suitable. Additional AT programs are available for purchase from third parties if Windows 8 needs further customization.
If the accessibility options for the visually impaired are well executed, Windows 8 could replace popular screen reading solutions such as JAWS from Freedom Scientific, which retails for nearly $900 for the standard version, a cost many blind users can’t afford. This could also lead to large computer orders from schools for the blind and other assistance programs for visually impaired people.