The mercury is flirting with 100 degrees on a Thursday afternoon in New York. The humidity makes it feel even worse. But inside the air-conditioned Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center operated by Selfhelp Community Services, about a dozen seniors are queued up to go virtual bowling on a Microsoft Xbox Kinect system on a big screen television set amid card and Mahjong tables. This is one of several efforts by Selfhelp to partner with Microsoft to bring new technology to seniors, whether at a center like this one, or through efforts at a new “Virtual Senior Center” aimed at connecting seniors who are homebound.
Three thousand miles away, at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash., the company has a demonstration area to show how it is dealing with accessibility. That may be for seniors challenged by limited motor skills or cognitive impairments. Or it might be for those who are visually or hearing disabled. These days the team, led by Microsoft's chief accessibility officer Rob Sinclair, is particularly busy, working to ensure that its newest operating system, Windows 8, is the most accessible the company has ever created.
Windows 8 accessibility features
Windows 8, with its so-called Metro style interface, is a dramatic change from the traditional desktop icons that most of us have become accustomed to in Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. The new interface more closely resembles the Windows Phone software, with customizable tiles for the things you use frequently, whether that’s programs, websites, applications or content, such as music or videos. The new operating system offers improvements in terms of accessibility with significant enhancement of both Microsoft Magnifier and Microsoft Narrator.
The new Narrator will take advantage of the touch capabilities of Windows 8. Move your finger (or your cursor) over an area on the screen and Narrator will tell you what’s there. It will also allow you to initiate actions, and will be far more helpful in reading materials on a website than previous versions. The new version of Magnifier appears to be far easier to use, and, frankly, far less annoying. You’ll be able to use touch to quickly zoom in on text. You can maneuver Magnifier from the edge of the screen so your fingers don’t block what you’re trying to read. And if you’re not sure where you are in the new Windows universe, you can easily jump to a full screen, then maneuver the Magnifier rectangle wherever you want to go.
But having all these accessibility features doesn’t mean much if they’re not easy for the end user to find. Rob Sinclair admits that discovery has been a significant impediment. He tells the story of a woman whose eyesight was declining and out of frustration she quit her job because she was unable to read her computer screen. Only later did she find out that Windows had a magnifier function. No one had told her. To prevent this from happening, Sinclair says his team is putting major emphasis on the Windows Ease of Access Center. It will be easily visible on the Windows 8 home page. Instead of asking the user which features to initiate, the center asks a series of questions such as, “Do you have difficulty seeing the screen?” ”Do you have difficulty making out speech if several people are talking at once?” The questions are designed to drive users to the features they need to be using, even if they don’t know them by name.
Sinclair says the accessibility effort has evolved over the past seven years, “This effort here began with people with disabilities, severe disabilities. We added the features into our platform around mild disabilities as well … What we realized is that there’s a huge change in demographics, the global aging population. So what we’ve now done is to combine aging together with disabilities in something we call the natural interface. What it all boils down to is that each person needs an individual computing experience. It could be because of disabilities or work style or preferences.”