Office XP: New Accessibility Features Provide Improved Experience for all Users

REDMOND, Wash., March 21, 2001 — With every new release of a product, Microsoft continues to honor a long-standing commitment to develop products, technologies and services that are accessible and usable by all — including people with disabilities.

Microsoft Office XP furthers that commitment to accessibility. Whether Office XP users work as individuals or on a team, in a business large or small, in private industry or for the government, they’ll find that the suite offers new and improved features that help make users more productive and efficient.

“In our release of Office XP, we have extended some of the great work we’ve already done to provide the most accessible version of the product,” says Colin Birge, an accessibility program manager on the Office team. “Our primary goal was, and continues to be, that with every release we make it easier and more seamless for customers who have a disability to use our products. We want all customers to be able to take full advantage of our software.”

For this and previous releases of Office, Microsoft worked closely with members of the disability community to help the company better understand and respond to customer needs. That included conducting usability studies about new product features and participating in various accessibility conferences around the United States.

“These interactions give us a chance to talk with third-party vendors who are partnering with us to create solutions, and with customers who offer their thoughts about what we can improve,” Birge says.

Streamlined User Interface, Voice Commands and Formatting

Office XP features a new user interface designed to improve the entire Office experience. This includes a reduction in the number of elements on a page and the elimination of some competing elements. Letter and word spacing and color combinations are optimized for general readability. People with learning disabilities will find less clutter and fewer visually competing elements on the computer screen.

New speech support will allow users to dictate text into Office XP and to navigate Office program menus using voice commands through a microphone. A person with a repetitive stress injury, for example, may have difficulty using a mouse. With the speech functionality of Office XP, users can issue spoken commands to open menus and select options in all Office programs.

“This allows users to minimize their interactions with the mouse and keyboard as much as possible,” Birge says. “They’ll still use the keyboard for certain functions that you can’t access with speech, but it allows them to skip a lot of the repetitive movements that may aggravate a physical condition.”

In addition, Microsoft Word 2002 users can now easily find out what formatting is applied to a particular section of text by using the new Reveal Formatting Task Pane, a feature especially helpful for users who are blind. Consider the example of a business analyst who is blind and is preparing a presentation for his team. He wants to use different text sizes and italics to emphasize headings and other important points in the presentation. Prior to Office XP, checking formatting would have been very difficult for a person with a visual impairment. Now, that analyst can simply highlight the text in question and use the Reveal Formatting Task Pane.

“We’re trying to give customers who are blind a chance to quickly and easily determine the characteristics of a particular block of text,” Birge says. “A screen reader will be able to read through the Reveal Formatting pane to let people know the font, point size, and other formatting characteristics of the selected text. This is a feature that our customers have been requesting for a long time, and we’re very pleased to provide it.”

Improving Readability and Strengthening Accessibility Features

People who use high-contrast color schemes with Microsoft Outlook can now view Rich Text messages more easily. For example, let’s take someone who, because of limited vision, uses a high contrast scheme to improve screen readability. When a co-worker sends her a message in Rich Text, it’s initially displayed in royal blue, which is the default color for replies. All the recipient need do is switch to Draft Mode in Outlook to see the message displayed in her preferred High Contrast color scheme.

“This feature will strip all of the formatting out of the email and present it as if it were sent in plain text and in the high contrast setting the user has selected,” Birge notes. “That’s a big win for people who need this high contrast capability.”

In addition to the new features, accessibility aids included in earlier versions of Office have been strengthened — particularly the Help system documentation, which has been expanded and improved on the Web for many accessibility options, including extensive support and documentation for keyboard shortcuts; resizing and rearranging toolbars and menus; completing words as they’re typed; adding frequently used words and phrases; automatically correcting misspelled words; and storing and inserting text and graphics, all of which can be automated in Office XP to save time and keystrokes.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done on Office XP, and we hope that users will be pleased with the improvements we’ve made,” Birge says.