NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2012
Making Your Computer Easier to Use
Nancy DeMarte, Regular Columnist (Office Talk),
Sarasota PCUG, Florida May 2012 issue,
Sarasota PC Monitor
ndemarte (at) Verizon.net (click to email author)

In these days when almost everyone is using a computer, there are many features of operating systems and software that can help users with physical limitations. Microsoft has enhanced its features in this area, both in Windows 7 and recent versions of Microsoft Office. This article gives an overview of these features and links to some helpful sites for people interested in making the tools work for them. In Windows 7, the accessibility tools are found in the Ease of Access Center (Start – Control Panel – Ease of Access Center). These tools are designed to help people who have problems with vision, hearing, and dexterity.

Low Vision and Blindness For the person who finds the computer display hard to read, changing a few settings in the Ease of Access Center can make life easier. You can select a High Contrast theme which shows either white text on a black background or all bold black text on a white background for all text, including toolbars and ribbons. This feature is especially useful for users with conditions like macular degeneration. The Magnifier tool enlarges the portion of the screen where the mouse pointer is located, a lifesaver when trying to read small text in a document or on a webpage. Like other tools, it can be pinned to the taskbar for easy access. Other settings let you remove unnecessary background images or animations, make the flashing cursor thicker and more visible when typing, and sharpen the appearance of window borders to make them easier to see.

A person who is blind can work with a Windows computer through a combination of the Narrator and Voice Recognition tools using speakers and a microphone. Narrator reads text aloud as it appears on the screen and describes things like error messages. The Voice Recognition tool, introduced in Word 2010, translates the user’s speech into text on the screen. It does need initial setup, involving training the tool to understand the user’s vocal patterns. Another tool, Audio Description, gives oral narration of the action in videos.

Limited Dexterity A number of tools are designed to assist the person with limited finger dexterity. Turning on the Mouse Keys lets you move the pointer on the screen using the arrow keys instead of the mouse. Sticky Keys let you press keystroke combinations, such as Ctrl+Alt+Del, one key at a time. Toggle Keys play an alert sound when you press the Caps Lock, Num Lock or Scroll Lock keys, saving you from unanticipated results like a sentence in all caps. Filter Keys can be set to ignore unintentional keystrokes, such as several in rapid succession or holding down a key for an unusually long time.

The Voice Recognition tool, besides assisting blind users, is also useful either for those with limited dexterity or inadequate typing skills. The on-screen keyboard lets the hunt-and-peck typist click letters on a keyboard displayed on the screen. For those who have trouble maneuvering a mouse, one solution is to develop the habit of using keyboard shortcuts in place of mouse clicks. Searching the Internet will provide lists of standard keystroke shortcuts; you can also create your own. Windows’ Ease of Access Center also has features that can help. One option lets you hover the mouse pointer over a window to open it, rather than clicking. Other settings for the mouse use can be found in the Control Panel - Mouse. Here you can change the speed of the mouse click and create a trail of pointer images behind the moving pointer to keep it in view. You can also change the shape and size of pointer icons.

Hearing Loss Although computers are more visual than auditory, users with hearing loss need a few tools to assist them. In the Ease of Access Center, you can change alerts in many programs from sound to a text alert or a flash on the screen. Another setting displays text captions for spoken dialogue in multi media programs.

Accessibility Features in MS Office 2010 Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2010 have new features to help make documents, spreadsheets, and presentations more accessible to those with limitations. One is the Accessibility Checker. This tool diagnoses a file for any areas that might make it difficult to view or use. The author of the file can review the list and make any changes he feels are needed. Another new tool is Mini Translator, which translates a word or phrase from another language into English when the mouse points to it. Clicking the Play button lets you hear the word or phrase pronounced. Another feature new to Office 2010 is the ability to add text descriptions to shapes and images for those who can’t view them. Enlarging text in Word 2010 is easy with the zoom slider in the right bottom corner and a new full screen Reading View option which enlarges and sharpens document text. PowerPoint 2010 has added the capability to add closed captions to audio and video and embed them in a slide presentation.

Windows is compatible with many third party assistive software programs and devices. MS Office 2003 –2010 users can turn documents into Talking Books by downloading the “Save As Daisy” add-in. Go to http://sourceforge.net and search for and download/install “Save As DAISY for Office (your version).” Then install a DAISY-compatible digital talking book reader, such as the free AMIS reader. http://www.DAISY.org/amis/download. Versions are available for Office 2007/2010 and for Office 2003 with the Office 2007 compatibility pack installed. Other requirements are listed at the sourceforge.net website.

The number of options to increase accessibility to a computer can be overwhelming. This overview will make you aware of some of them, but only you can decide which ones you want to try. You can complete a short questionnaire in the Ease of Access Center to help with your decision. A few of these tools have a learning curve that can be greatly reduced by watching the video tutorials (some close-captioned) and reading support documents located at http://www.microsoft.com/enable/products/office. Most can also be accessed directly from links in the Ease of Access Center. Fortunately, the support and setup tutorials for most of these tools are numerous and well done. More information can be found by searching http://www.microsoft.com/accessibility.

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