Volume III Number 4, December 1996

Department: Job Accommodations

Joseph J. Lazzaro

Access to Windows and Windows 95 continues to be at the forefront of vocational rehabilitation for the blind and visually impaired. The disability community has long been aware of the problems that the graphical user interface has presented for computer users with limited vision. In order to solve the accessibility problem, MicroSoft has created Active Accessibility, a series of hooks that will enable adaptive hardware and software to more easily communicate with the Windows 95 operating system. Active Accessibility holds the promise of increased reliability, stability, and increased efficiency in general. It should be noted that several screen reader developers have indicated publicly and privately that they will be supporting Active Accessibility in their screen reader software programs. MicroSoft has also incorporated many of the features from their older Windows Access Pack, and have made them part of the default Windows 95 installation. It should be noted with pride that many of the utilities now available in Windows 3.1, 95, Macintosh, and Unix began life at the Trace Research & Development Center in Madison Wisconsin. Funded by NIDRR, the Trace Center is responsible for increasing access across the board, although it is not widely known. With all this in mind, we bring you two articles that were previously published in Byte Magazine. The first article describes the basic accessibility features that are currently built into Windows 95. The second article appeared in the December 1996 issue, and describes two accessible web browsers -- MicroSoft Internet Explorer, and Productivity Works PWWebSpeak. Internet Explorer is the first MicroSoft product to have Active Accessibility hooks built-in, and works with Windows 95 based screen readers. PWWebSpeak is a talking internet browser that provides both speech and enlarged video output.

If you run an office staffed with more than 15 employees, you must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This may require that you provide adaptive hardware and software on office workers' computers. Such equipment enables workers with disabilities to accomplish many tasks independently. For example, if you are blind, it can transform on-screen text to synthesized speech or braille. If you can't hear, adaptive hardware transforms a computer's audible cues into a visual format. So far, adaptive technology has consisted of third-party add-ons to OSes, with the exception of the Mac. This has resulted in adaptive equipment that only sometimes works. Fortunately, because of lobbying by the disabled community, OS vendors have begun to embed adaptive-access features directly into their OSes. This makes such features widely available right out of the box, more reliable, and a lot less expensive. Microsoft began to build a suite of disability-access features starting with Windows 3.x. Win 95 offers access to a built-in set of utilities that accommodate users with hearing, motor, and some visual disabilities. Furthermore, the Win 95 Help system includes information on these built-in accessibility features. The control and configuration of most of these features are centralized in an Accessibility Options Control Panel, as shown in the screen. This Control Panel lets you activate or deactivate specific access features and customize timings and feedback for certain utilities. It also lets you set hot keys so that you can activate these features quickly.

Keyboard and Mouse

Using a keyboard requires a significant amount of hand dexterity, particularly when using the modifier keys, such as Shift, Control, and Alt. For persons unable to use a standard keyboard or mouse easily -- if at all -- several Win 95 utilities can help by altering the keyboard's behavior. You can configure these utilities in a pane on the Accessibility Options Control Panel. The StickyKeys utility, for instance, helps you type capital letters or manage complex key sequences, like Control-Alt-Delete, that require the use of both hands. StickyKeys lets you press one key at a time in a sequence instead of pressing multiple keys simultaneously. Another powerful utility, FilterKeys, helps users who accidentally strike keys by filtering out those keystrokes that do not fall under a user-definable time duration. In other words, for a key press to become a valid keystroke, it must be held down long enough to register. Any keystrokes that don't last for the specified duration are discarded. ToggleKeys is a utility that provides audio feedback for certain keystrokes. This is a useful tool for computer users who are unable to determine the status of the keyboard's modifier keys by using any other method. The ToggleKeys utility provides both high- and low-pitched beeps that indicate the current status of the Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock keys. Driving a mouse demands strong hand/eye coordination and good hand/arm agility. It's a prerequisite for using the GUIs on many of today's desktop computers. MouseKeys assists users who have difficulty pointing the rodent. The program lets you use the arrow keys on the keyboard's numeric keypad to move the mouse pointer around the screen and emulate mouse actions, such as clicking, double-clicking, dragging, and dropping. Holding down the Control key accelerates pointer movement, while holding down the Shift key propels the pointer a pixel at a time, offering fine-grained control.

Video and Sound

For persons who have difficulty seeing images on a standard computer screen, Win 95 offers several features that make the monitor easier to see. Some of these features are simply a matter of adjusting certain Control Panel settings. For example, if you are visually impaired, you can use the Display Panel to scale the size of various user-interface elements, such as window titles, scroll bars, borders, menu text, and icons. The Mouse Control Panel allows you to adjust the mouse pointer's characteristics. You can select from among several sizes (small, medium, and large), which is valuable for users with limited vision or learning disabilities. You can also adjust the pointer's color and apply animation effects to increase its recognition factor and visibility. For users with limited vision, color plays an important role in their ability to read comfortably -- or at all. Again, Win 95's built-in customization features enable you to modify the color scheme of the environment. You can select a high-contrast mode or choose from several ready-made appearance schemes that make it easier for users with limited vision to focus on the screen. The Accessibility Options Control Panel allows you to set a global flag that instructs your applications to employ the high-contrast color scheme, as shown in the screen. It also enables you to avoid schemes that are difficult to see, such as text that's displayed over pictures. For users who are deaf or hearing-impaired, Microsoft has implemented several useful features into Win 95 that increase access to the computer and its data. This is of vital importance as many applications begin to use text-to-speech or audio playback. Win 95's SoundSentry lets you have sounds presented in an alternative format, such as visually or through text captions. ShowSounds lets you set a global flag that displays sounds in a visual format. This can be accomplished by several methods, depending on your preference. For instance, you can have the active window flash every time a sound is generated or display text captions that represent the sounds.

Third-Party Speech-Access Products

Despite all these improvements, Win 95 still lacks critical support for users who are totally blind and must rely on speech-synthesis systems to read the information on a computer screen. Microsoft plans to implement an off-screen model that captures on-screen information so that special-purpose software can perform a text-to-speech conversion on it or drive a braille-output device. Unfortunately, the hooks to this mechanism might still be unavailable when this article sees print. This sorry state of affairs presents an opportunity for third-party access technology, chief among them speech- and braille-output packages designed to read the screen.

(Readers Note: Since the publication of this article, Active Accessibility has shipped to independent software developers, and several developers have publicly and privately stated support for Active Accessibility. the proof of the pudding now lays in the hands of the independent software developers and Microsoft as Active Accessibility continues to evolve.)

The Automatic Screen Access program for Windows (ASAW), from MicroTalk, is one of the latest Win 95 screen readers to enter the market. ASAW works with Win 3.x and Win 95 applications. Biolink's ProTalk32 is a screen reader for Win 95. A Win 3.x and NT version is also available. Winvision, from Artic Technologies, runs on both Win 3.x and 95 and supports several commercially available speech synthesizers. Winvision also drives braille displays, providing a tactile representation of Windows screens. Syntha-Voice's Window Bridge, which runs under Win 3.x, Win 95, and DOS, was the first Windows-based screen reader to enter the adaptive market. Computers play a major role in our society; they're used at home, at school, and on the job. It only makes sense for OSes to provide adaptive-access features. This makes the computer accessible to everyone, no matter what their abilities, so they can make a contribution in the workplace. Microsoft has done a commendable job so far with much-needed improvements to Win 95. But the company still has a lot of work to do if Windows is going to provide OS-level support for blind computer users.

Where to Find:

Arctic Technologies Troy, MI Phone: (810) 588-7370 Fax: (810) 588-2650

Biolink North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Phone: (604) 984-4099 Fax: (604) 985-8493
Internet: http://biz.bct6l.net/biolink

MicroTalk Texarkana, TX Phone: (903) 792-2570 Fax: (903) 792-5140
Internet: http://www.screenaccess.com

Syntha-Voice Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada Phone: (905) 662-0565
Internet: http://www.synthavoice.on.ca/~davidk


Surfing the Internet's World Wide Web can be extra challenging if you can't see the screen. For thousands of blind or visually impaired computer users, the Web is accessed using speech, braille, or screen-enlargement hardware/software. If you have a PC and a visual disability, it is possible for you to access the Web, but most Web sites won't work well with your adaptive equipment.

Webmasters who don't add descriptive tags to elements in their pages make it more difficult for adaptive programs to describe to a blind user what's on the screen. But the good news is that awareness about adaptive technology is increasing in the computer industry. Microsoft is leading an ambitious effort to make adaptive technology more mainstream, and Netscape is investigating ways to make its software better support accessibility products. Microsoft's Active Accessibility program will make future versions of Windows and its applications more accessible to users with vision impairments. Software developers can use the Accessibility SDK, slated to ship in November, to write adaptive programs that run on top of Windows.

The flagship Active Accessibility product is Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE) Version 3.0, which has hooks to enable screen- reader software used by the blind community. MSIE works more effectively with synthesizers, braille displays, large print programs, and other assistive technology.

The Productivity Works (609-984-8044 or info@prodworks.com) wrote its Web browser for the blind from scratch. PWWebSpeak has its own built-in speech processor, and does not require a separate screen reader program. PWWebSpeak parses a Web page's HTML code to present the information in a more speech-friendly manner. You can browse through pages by word, sentence, paragraph, or link units. The program also presents the Web page in enlarged format at the same time. PWWebSpeak can drive a wide variety of speech synthesizers, including the SoundBlaster voice card.

With increasing awareness of adaptive technology among mainstream software developers, the future may loom a bit brighter for computer users with disabilities.

Joseph J. Lazzaro is the author of Adapting PCs for Disabilities (Addison-Wesley, 1996). He is also project director of the Adaptive Technology Program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in Boston. You can reach him at lazzaro@world.std.com or at lazzaro@bix.com.

Lazzaro, J. J. (1996). Job accommodations. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 3(4).