How a Taipei school for the visually impaired is helping make Microsoft Windows even more accessible
Shen Yan-lin can mix music by computer. His fingers whip across the panel of a smartphone from app to app, changing settings at the same high speed. The faithful Windows user who studied PCs mostly by himself just wants more precision when using Narrator, a built-in Microsoft tool that literally reads things aloud, voicing text and describing notifications or calendar appointments.
Shen, 18, is in his third year at Taipei School for the Visually Impaired, which partners with Microsoft to provide feedback on Narrator and other accessibility features of its operating system. Shen is “totally blind,” to use his own words. The screen readers are crucial.
“Only direct users of the screen readers will understand the challenges on the frontlines,” Shen said. “Because Microsoft and my school cooperate, I’ve been paying attention to accessibility matters.”
Shen grew up in a rural, mountainous part of Taiwan where local schools for the visually impaired offered little computer education. He was supposed to take his first course in computers in third grade but didn’t start until sixth grade because the schools fell short of resources.
“Curiosity” about the outside world that he cannot physically see piqued an interest in the internet in middle school, Shen said. It was then that he memorized the keyboard by touch and sound. Thanks largely to his self-education to date and daily voluntary use of PCs, Shen can now use Windows to do his high school homework.
Shen, 11 other students and three teachers from the Taipei School for the Visually Impaired have met twice with members of Microsoft’s Taiwan staff since May 2017 to pass on feedback based on their routine interaction with computers. Some ideas collected get sent back to Microsoft’s head office in the United States.
Shen signed up separately, at Microsoft’s request, for the company’s Insider program, allowing him to submit ideas regularly. “I raised ideas to Microsoft,” Shen said, “and I hope they will become part of a later development update.”
Skype, which Microsoft acquired in 2011, should make it easier for PC users with standard keyboards – the best kind for the visually impaired – to type in mobile phone numbers, telephone extensions and Chinese characters, he said.
Another area of improvement identified by Shawn Chi, Shen’s teacher: Narrator “sometimes might misplace the meaning” that users are looking for, he said, and might announce less important or less relevant results when users go from file to file on a PC.
Microsoft, which uses that feedback to improve its Windows accessibility features, says it’s now working on three “fixes” based in part on the Taipei school’s feedback: supporting Chinese-language typing on Skype for a desktop Narrator, allowing more adjustments in Narrator’s volume, and letting Narrator read pictures.
Microsoft and the Taipei school of just 100 students found each other in May through Taipei city council member Wang Wei-chung.
It occurred to Wang that Microsoft would want to know how the students were faring with accessibility, while the students could use the experience to take a lead in shaping computer technology.
“I think the visually impaired school’s kids need more platforms and shouldn’t just be people who always need help,” Wang said. “Accessibility features in Windows operating system are a first step. What I hope is that the kids can use the accessibility features and study those tools, and then make more inventions and do more things to help people around the world.”
School principal Tsai Ming-tsang sees engagement with Microsoft as a chance to give voice to a “weak group.”
“That a child can be on his own and independent is a moment of pride for us,” she told at a November ceremony for Microsoft’s Computer Science Education Week Kick off campaign in Taiwan.
Shen said he may study computer science further after graduation, but fears a lack of instructors who are qualified to teach him. He leans instead toward jazz drumming, something he has practiced since middle school.
At the Microsoft event in November, Shen showed his use of software to mix music from the official school song with vocals and sound effects for the school’s 100th anniversary.
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