Accessibility features built into Windows
Ruth Loebl, Royal National Institute of the Blind
Open Door - August 2006 pages 10-11
Do you find it difficult to see the mouse pointer on your computer? Is it hard to click on small images, or perhaps you just can't double click fast enough? Do the colours or fonts in emails or on websites sometimes make it difficult to read the content?
If you use a PC running Microsoft Windows, then you may not be aware of a wealth of accessibility features built into the operating system itself that can make life easier for you. This article will mention a lot of them, and I hope that once you get started you'll carry on experimenting. For users of systems other than Windows, see the links at the end of the article.
There have been at least six versions of Windows, and not all of them have all the accessibility features mentioned in this article. The illustrations are taken from Windows XP. A list of all accessibility features and comparison of the different versions of Windows can be found on the Microsoft website.
The Accessibility Wizard
Microsoft's Accessibility Wizard is a good place to start. You should find it through the menus: click the Start button, then choose Programs, Accessories, Accessibility and you should see the Accessibility Wizard there. If not, a quick way to launch it is using the Run... option in the Start menu: type accwiz in the entry field and the Wizard should start.
If this doesn't work, then maybe you have Windows 95. You can still apply many of the accessibility features through the Control Panel, described later.
The Accessibility Wizard is fairly self explanatory, and although not exactly foolproof, the final screen lists the changes you have made and offers the option to cancel everything in case you want to start again. So go ahead and play!
There are three main sections in the Accessibility Wizard, aimed at people who have difficulty seeing, hearing, or using the keyboard or mouse. If we just look at the keyboard and mouse options, there are quite a few choices:
- StickyKeys lets you activate key combinations like Ctrl+O by pressing the keys one at a time
- BounceKeys makes the system ignore repeated keystrokes
- ToggleKeys turns on a sound when you press Caps Lock, Num Lock or Scroll Lock
- MouseKeys allows you to use the number pad to move the mouse around
- Mouse button settings lets you swap the mouse buttons for left or right handed use
- Mouse speed lets you slow down or speed up the movement of the mouse pointer on the screen
To enhance visibility, we can change the size and the colours of things appearing on the screen - text, background, icons, menu and task bars, buttons, pointers, cursors and so on. The Accessibility Wizard gives you a selection:
- Scroll Bar and Window Border Size offers a choice of four different widths
- Icon Size presents small, large and extra large icons and associated text
- Display Color Settings gives four preset colour schemes, although tailored colour schemes can be created from the Display Properties dialog (see Control Panel section below)
- Mouse Cursor offers some more visible colour schemes for the mouse pointer
- Cursor settings allow you to change the cursor width and blink rate
The Control Panel
There are even more features that aren't included in the Accessibility Wizard, and you can reach most of these via the Control Panel. Click on the Start button, then choose Settings, Control Panel. Or click Start, Run... and type control into the entry field.
- Accessibility Options, where the features we met in the Accessibility Wizard can be activated directly, plus a few more
- Appearance and Themes, includes Clear Type Tuning, particularly for LCD monitors
- Display, especially the Appearance and the Settings tabs, which allow you to select some screen fonts and your colours of choice for different screen elements individually
- Network and Internet connections, includes Internet Options: check out the Colors and the Accessibility buttons, (assuming that Internet Explorer is your browser of choice)
- Sounds, Speech and Audio Devices, includes Sounds and Audio Devices: the Sounds tab allows you to associate sounds with different activities, like closing a window, low battery indicators, 'print complete' indications and quite a few others
- Printers and Other Hardware, includes
- Keyboard, to alter the repeat rate for keys pressed, and the cursor blink rate
- Mouse, which has a host of interesting options such as ClickLock, which allows you to highlight or drag without holding down the mouse button, and SnapTo, which automatically moves the mouse pointer to the default button in a dialog box
All these built in features are great, but some people will need more assistance than can be built into Windows, and 'access technology' or 'assistive technology' is for them.
The choice of access technology is not simple, especially as some items can cost a significant amount of money. Information is available from RNIB, particularly around technology relating to sight impairment, and AbilityNet provides information and advice about technology for people with all types of disabling conditions.
There are three applications that provide a bridge between the built-in accessibility features and full-blown access technology. They are the Microsoft Magnifier, Narrator and the On-Screen Keyboard. They can all be launched from the Utility manager: look under Start, Programs, Accessories, Accessibility or click Start, Run... and enter utilman in the entry field.
These utilities are not intended to replicate the powerful functionality of access technology, but may be handy as a stopgap measure, just to keep you going on the odd occasion.