REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 7, 2001 — People with disabilities — there are 54 million in the United States alone — often dread the release of new operating systems. In the past it has taken up to 18 months for software companies to deliver assistive technologies that are reliable enough to run on a new operating system.
Not so with Windows XP. Just ask Michael Lawler. Not only does the Indiana developer create assistive technologies for people who are blind, he relies on them himself to help him read text on the screen. He has experienced the delay in compatibility with previous releases from the perspective of both a developer and a customer. Not this time. “I’m sold on XP,” Lawler says. “Microsoft realizes how important it is to make technology accessible to everyone.”
Launched on Oct. 25, Windows XP includes basic accessibility features and full compatibility with more than a dozen assistive-technology products. Assistive technology works with a computer’s operating system to help increase accessibility for specific disabilities. Examples include screen readers, on-screen keyboards, one-handed keyboards and augmentative communication devices that address a wide range of disabilities. With the advent of Windows XP, they can be put to work as soon as the product hits the shelves. Companies Microsoft worked with in developing assistive technologies to support Windows XP include Compaq, Interactive Solutions, Inc., GW Micro, Ai Squared, Freedom Scientific, Dolphin Computer Access, Tash, Inc. and NXi Communications, Inc.
In fact, Windows XP is the most accessible operating system Microsoft has ever released, says Gary Moulton, Microsoft’s assistive-technology vendor-relations manager. “We make products for everyone, and everyone includes people who have disabilities,” he says. “Designing accessible products is designing good products, period.”
In what Moulton considers a significant break with tradition, Microsoft developed Windows XP from the ground up to ensure that it includes the proper “hooks” developers and manufacturers need to make their assistive technologies fully compatible — not 18 months down the line, but right now.
“Windows XP,” Moulton says, “is an OS with improved accessibility support features, allowing customers to easily find and quickly connect to networks.” Moulton points to enhancements made to accessibility utilities such as Magnifier and Narrator as embodiments of the ease of use of Windows XP. For people with disabilities, the improved compatibility of Windows XP and the assistive technology they rely on means that the lag between the release of an OS and the time when they can actually use it has all but disappeared.
To further assist users with disabilities, Office XP, the latest version of Microsoft’s desktop productivity suite, also addresses accessibility with the inclusion of advanced speech recognition. The offering enables customers who suffer from repetitive stress injury and other related injuries to improve productivity by speaking to their PC.
Going Straight to the Source to Enhance Customer Experience
Moulton says the compatibility features in Windows XP are the result of Microsoft’s commitment to delivering the same experience to all users. “Our customers with disabilities want to use technology just like everyone else,” he says. “They want it to enable whatever it is they’re trying to do.”
The goal for Windows XP was to deliver easier and better customization, catered to specific hearing, vision and mobility needs. In designing and developing accessibility and compatibility features for Windows XP, Moulton says Microsoft worked closely with assistive-technology users and manufacturers, as well as Microsoft Accessibility Advisors, a cadre of professionals who bring a wide range of experience to the process of understanding the computing challenges of users with disabilities.
A key to making Windows XP attractive to manufacturers of assistive technology, Moulton says, is that different versions — Windows XP Home Edition or Windows XP Professional, for example — both run on the same base code. Previously, developers had to develop separate assistive technology for separate editions of Windows operating systems.
“The less time developers and assistive technology manufacturers spend down lower in the operating system, the better,” Moulton says. “Windows XP lets developers and manufacturers do what they do best — focus on the end user experience.”
End Users and Developers Appreciate a Faster, More Intelligent Operating System
Lawler says he appreciates the improvements in Windows XP on several levels. Last summer Lawler, who works for GW Micro in Fort Wayne, Ind., visited the Microsoft campus, where he demonstrated how a person who is blind uses a screen reader, an assistive technology that makes on-screen information available as synthesized speech or a refreshable Braille display. “They watched what I as a blind user had to do to read the text,” he says.
Lawler says Windows XP lets him deliver a smoother experience to the users of GW Micro’s Window-Eyes screen reader. GW Micro plans to release a new version, Window-Eyes Professional 4.2, early next year. The target customers, Lawler says, are those who use Windows XP.
“This operating system is faster, and it’s got more intelligent choices,” he says. “In cases where people are just getting their screen readers installed, the new interfaces mean you don’t have to spend a lot of time making changes under the hood. In Windows XP, Microsoft has taken the best of a consumer OS and merged it with the reliability of a business OS.”
For customers with visual disabilities, Lawler says the out-of-the-box compatibility with Windows XP means easy configuration and customization according to personal preferences, support of all video systems and Braille displays, automatic loading of speaking environments and dictionaries, audible signals that alert readers to capitalization and format changes when proof reading and incomparable access to Web pages via Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
And for his own personal use, Lawler says Windows XP clearly demonstrates Microsoft’s commitment to delivering technology to end users with disabilities.
At home, he uses Windows XP to find information on the Internet and scan photos. The fast user-switching feature allows Lawler’s wife, who is not blind, to share the same computer at home, using the interface she chooses, while Lawler can himself stick with his preferred interface, Classic Windows.
Windows XP’s Quick Access, Easy-To-Use Personalization Enhances Assistive Technology
According to Microsoft, an assistive technology that has been consistently well received is iCommunicator, an advanced, multi-sensory technology that provides communication accessibility for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or who have other communication disabilities.
In class at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Fla., Morgan Greene, Jr., who is deaf, uses iCommunicator as his primary source of communication. His teachers have trained the device with their speech, creating voice files that translate the spoken word into either print or sign language. Greene says that since he started using Windows XP, he’s noticed considerable improvements.
“Windows XP is quick to boot up and iCommunicator takes only 20 seconds to start on Windows XP, meaning I can go from class to class without missing any part of the teacher’s lesson,” says Greene, who works as an intern at Interactive Solutions, Inc., the developer of iCommunicator, in Sarasota, Fla.
Greene also appreciates the quick access to frequently used programs, and the easy-to-use personalization features and improved flexibility — both of which reduce guesswork while increasing understanding.
“On the Start menu I can arrange the displays the way I want them,” he says. “I can even remove other things that I never use from the Start menu completely.”
Improving Quality of Life
Customers aren’t the only ones pleased with Windows XP’s accessibility features. “Windows XP is a shining example of how technology can help people with disabilities enrich their lives,” says Dr. Mark Young, chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center/Workforce Technology Center in Baltimore. Young’s goal is to use technology to help people with acquired disabilities including coordination issues, disabilities limiting movement or loss of sight or hearing, ease back into the workplace.
Features that impress Young include Sticky Keys, which are useful for people who have difficulty pressing two keys simultaneously, as well as features that help users control the keyboard, and easy-to-use and cost-effective screen magnification features.
These types of features are why Young calls Windows XP the “flagship” of his center’s efforts to increase the quality of care doctors provide with technology. “Windows XP is technology that can revolutionize lives and give our patients one of the most valuable tools available — empowerment,” he says. And Microsoft was determined that with Windows XP, customers who use assistive technology won’t have to wait.