MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., October 22, 1998 — Microsoft will add several improvements to Office 2000 to make the product more accessible for people with disabilities when it is released during the first quarter of 1999, the company announced at this week’s “Closing the Gap” Conference on Computer Technology in Special Education and Rehabilitation.
Microsoft also demonstrated extensive accessibility features in its Microsoft Cordless Phone System, which will ship later this month. And it announced three cash and software grants to expand access to technology for the disabled community.
“It’s amazing for me to think how far we’ve come since we started addressing accessibility issues 10 years ago,” Greg Lowney, Microsoft’s Director of Accessibility, said in a speech to conference participants Thursday. The annual “Closing the Gap” conference focuses on technology that can help students with disabilities succeed in primary and secondary education.
Earlier this year Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates reaffirmed Microsoft’s commitment to delivering accessible products. He announced five new initiatives, including centralizing the Accessibility and Disabilities Group, increasing the number of staff members working full-time on accessibility, and committing to specific accessibility enhancements in products such as Office.
Lowney told conference participants his group is working to accomplish four strategic objectives to better serve people with disabilities. These include developing accessible products and technologies within Microsoft, motivating and equipping outside developers to produce accessible products, conducting outreach to the disability community and empowering consumers with information about the accessibility features of Microsoft products.
“This has been a year of big changes at Microsoft,” Lowney said.
The improvements to Office 2000 applications are aimed at providing improved features for people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments. According to government figures, more than 30 million people in the U.S. alone have a disability that can be affected by the design of computer software.
The Office 2000 development team worked directly with users to identify features that will make the software more accessible. As a result, new features include expanded keyboard access to several functions that were previously only available via a mouse and more high contrast support within the PowerPoint presentation graphics program. Improvements also include customizable views available within online “Help” and improved support for the Active Accessibility standard to make it even easier for accessibility aids to work with Office applications.
The team is also worked closely with independent software developers early during the product cycle to reduce the delay between the time Office 2000 is released to the public and when needed accessibility aids are available. The team also worked to make sure Office 2000 will be compatible with existing accessibility aids.
“We’ve been working with Microsoft’s development team on Office 2000 and feel that our constructive relationship will help ensure that our products will work well together,” said Randy Marsden, president and CEO of Madenta Inc., a maker of accessibility aids. “It has been refreshing to have the Office 2000 development team be proactive in ensuring that Office is accessible to users with disabilities.”
In addition to unveiling the accessibility features of Office 2000, Microsoft demonstrated accessible features that will be included with the Microsoft Cordless Phone System. These include simple teletypewriter (TTY) capabilities, compatibility with Windows-based screen readers for the blind, tactile and audio feedback on handset buttons, a handset earpiece that is compatible with hearing aids and audible caller ID announcement. It also includes voice commands that help to reduce keypad use and variously shaped buttons on the handset for easier orientation for blind and visually impaired individuals.
Microsoft also announced it will award three grants through its Connected Learning Community (CLC) grant program to organizations that promote technology use for people with disabilities.
One grant will allow the Easter Seals computer loan program initiative in Spokane, Wash. to purchase and loan additional computers to people with disabilities. The second grant will support a project by the Center for Computer Assistance to the Disabled (C-CAD) to provide Web-based instruction and technical training for people with disabilities. And the third grant will enable the MBF Center in Norristown, Pa., to purchase network-ready computers and provide Internet access and classroom training to individuals with disabilities.