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Operating systems offer accessibility within your computer

by Tara Wood on September 1, 2004 - 1:55pm

Chances are that, if you're a personal computer user who also has a disability, you weren't able to use an ordinary computer straight out of the box.

You may have had to make modifications to your computer. Those could be as minor as changing a setting on the operating system, or as complex as adding on sophisticated hardware or software.

Know this: You're among a growing population that has caught the eye of major computer companies.

Microsoft, maker of Windows operating systems, and Apple, which manufactures Macintosh computers, have long incorporated special features for accessibility into their operating systems. These include (depending on the brand and version) features to compensate for difficulties users may have with vision, mobility, hearing and dexterity.

For example, you can choose to move the cursor by using the numeric keypad or a designated cluster of keys on the keyboard instead of a mouse. You can also enlarge the image and text, or dramatically change the contrast on your screen to make it easier to read.

These built-in features might not compensate for severe limitations, such as those of a person who needs a head mouse to operate a computer. (For more on hardware and other assistive technology that allows for computer accessibility, see "Access Unlimited," May-June.)

But the operating features can be helpful in school settings, computer labs, or public computer situations, allowing any user to make quick adjustments for access.

A population with potential

Manufacturers are taking steps to enhance the operating features built into personal computers, as well as to identify people who might benefit from this kind of assistive technology.

In 2003, Microsoft commissioned a study by Forrester Research that measured the market for assistive technology users; you can read it online at www.microsoft.com/enable/research.

It found that in the United States, 60 percent of working-age adults who range from 18 to 64 years old — 101.4 million people — are "likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology due to difficulties and impairments that may impact computer use."

The study also concluded that "further innovation should be done to make technology even more accessible," and that addressing the needs of those who can benefit from assistive technology "requires an industry-wide effort."

Some innovation today

This spring, Apple previewed its new VoiceOver Spoken Interface, which provides a new way, through speech, audible cues and keyboard navigation, to access the Macintosh.

"We believe this is an actual extension of the interface of the computer in general. It isn't just some add-on piece that reads the screen back to you," says Chris Bourdon, Apple's Senior Product Line Manager for Mac OS X.

Besides helping people who are blind or have limited vision, the VoiceOver can also help those with certain learning disabilities, Bourdon said.

"Along with using the computer and seeing what's going on, they can hear it spoken back to them. It helps in the learning process. There is a large group of people that can benefit from it," Bourdon said.

VoiceOver was scheduled for delivery with the next major release of the Mac OS X, to be called Tiger. At press time, Apple wouldn't specify a date for the Tiger release, but a sneak preview can be viewed at www.apple.com.

The VoiceOver won't cost extra since it will be bundled with the operating system and fills an industry void of Macintosh-compatible screen readers (software that reads aloud everything on the computer screen).

The innovation has so far been well received by computer users with disabilities who have previewed the system. It's also part of a bigger goal of the company, Bourdon said.

"Our approach is we want to make the Macintosh as accessible for everyone despite any limitations they might have," he said. "[Apple is] always keeping in mind all of our users when were developing interfaces for applications, and that there's more than one way to use the computer."


On a computer with Windows

From Windows XP version; other Windows versions may be slightly different.

From Desktop, double-click "My Computer."

Click "Control Panel" from list of "Other Places."

Double click "Accessibility Options."

Explore specific features, which are grouped by Keyboard, Sound, Display, Mouse and General.

On a Macintosh with OS X

From Panther or 10.3.3 version. Other versions may be slightly different.

From the Apple drop-down menu, select "System Preferences."

Under "System," click "Universal Access."

Explore specific features grouped under Seeing, Hearing, Keyboard and Mouse.

Basic voice-recognition functions

From the Apple drop-down menu, select "System Preferences."

Under System, click "Speech."

Click "Speech Recognition" button.

"Speakable Items" are listed there: commands you speak into your computer's built-in microphone, or with an auxiliary microphone you add on.

Select the "On" button for Apple Speakable Items, and hold down the "Escape" key while speaking.

A glossary of some computer accessibility terms

Keyboard shortcuts: These are key combinations that can activate certain functions.

Mouse keys: You can use the numeric keypad in place of the mouse if you have trouble moving a mouse.

Filter keys (also called repeat or slow keys): These set how a repeated key is accepted by the computer. A user can set a delay time for holding a key down before it repeats. This is useful for someone who has difficulty with typing accuracy or speed.

Sticky keys: This feature eliminates the need to press and hold more than one key at a time, as in the "Control S" shortcut for saving a document. It's useful with keyboard shortcuts.

Toggle keys: This Windows function lets you hear tones when pressing "Caps Lock," "Num Lock" and "Scroll Lock" keys.

Voice/speech recognition: You can use spoken commands to control your computer; it's sometimes accomplished with a software program and auxiliary microphone.

Zoom: Apple's built-in screen magnifier makes the screen easier to see.

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