Microsoft Outlines Accessibility Improvements in Windows 8

By Wesley Fenlon

Windows 8 improves upon its standard accessibility options and retools some for the touchscreen experience.

Microsoft's last three versions of Windows have iterated on accessibility options designed to make the operating system convenient for disabled users. Since the introduction of XP's onscreen keyboard, the company has added the Narrator, high contrast options, and Magnifier to optimize Windows for the hearing and visually impaired. Windows 8 expands on all of those accessibility options and, more importantly, offers developers tools that will simplify the process of developing accessible Metro apps.

Microsoft's Magnifier has been reworked to play nice with touchscreens, and the entire Windows 8 install process supports the Narrator assistant. Microsoft clearly wants as many people as possible to be able to install the OS.

The Narrator has seen all kinds of improvements in Windows 8. Microsoft outlines the changes:

  • We redesigned Narrator to improve its performance so that it quickly reads out what you have selected.
  • We added morel languages and voices to Narrator to support additional countries and preferences.
  • We updated components and features within Windows to leverage UI Automation that allows them to be read by Narrator.
  • We updated UI Automation (UIA) with more text patterns and document content so that Narrator can use it to read the outputs from applications.
  • Narrator has some new configuration options in Windows 8. You can select a voice, change the speed at which it speaks, create customizable commands, and specify some other aspects of Narrator’s behavior.
  • Right out-of-the-box with a new Windows 8 tablet, you will be able to press the Windows logo key and Volume Up to launch Narrator and walk through the setup of your machine. Whether you’re blind, have low vision, or are fully sighted, you’ll be able to start experiencing a Windows 8 tablet from the moment you get it.
  • Web browsing: Previously Narrator didn’t say much on webpages, and it was slow. But with the updates in Internet Explorer to leverage text patterns built into the UI Automation platform, and with additional performance updates, Narrator keeps up with you as you explore text on a webpage.

To encourage developers to create accessible apps, Microsoft's supporting common standards from the Web Accessibility Initiative, including HTML5's ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite) and detailing baseline accessibility requirements. The Windows Store will also offer an accessibility filter that users can search with to find apps that fit their needs.

The Magnifier tool, often invoked with a keyboard shortcut, has been redesigned for tablets to support multitouch control. A border along the edges of the tablet's screen allows users to drag the magnifier around without fingers obscuring screen visibility. Blind users can operate touch devices with the help of the narrator. Dragging a finger around the screen will prompt the Narrator to read aloud whatever's being highlighted. A tap from another finger will trigger the selected app or command.