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By Guest Blogger, Anirban Lahiri

The introduction of Windows 8 perhaps brings along the most radical revolution in user interface that Microsoft has introduced since its shift from command line based MS DOS to Windows 3.1.

With regards to Accessibility, Microsoft had initiated the practice of bundling these options within the Operating System as supplementary installations since its launch of Windows 95. Later, some of these accessibility features were developed into a bundled software package by the Trace R&D Center for compatibility with Windows 3.x machines. This was known as the Trace Access Pack for Windows 3.0 and 3.1. However, built-in accessibility options became more of a common practice in the future releases of Operating Systems from Microsoft (i.e. Windows 98, XP, and Windows 7).

With the improvements in the development of third party assistive technologies, and the gaining acceptance of operating system developers to allow integration of accessibility features, the widespread usage and availability of such solutions has been noticeable. Over the years, assistive technology developers have designed solutions that work well with systems like Windows XP and Windows 7. There have been challenges at times in porting such solutions with these operating systems, but this has been part of ongoing design considerations taken by assistive technology developers.

The launch of Windows 8, however, might bring about a new set of accessibility challenges all together. My very first reaction to the Windows 8 interface was – “this is very different”. The most noticeable change is the introduction of what Microsoft calls the “Metro User Interface.” This is essentially a screen with tiled icons for various applications (including Windows Apps that can be downloaded from the new Windows Store). Although fully customizable, these icons may not necessarily be of a fixed shape and size to begin with, which might present a confusing navigational experience for screen-reader users as there can be unequal number of icons in each row.

Another new feature of Windows 8 is a menu bar which pops out from either side of the screen. While these menus seem to be natural extensions when using a touch screen, they are quite unexpected and unnatural while using a mouse or keyboard. The only indicator to their existence is a miniature “+” sign which is really unnoticeable. This icon needs to be clicked for the side panels to be expanded. However, it should be noted that keyboard shortcuts have been assigned to allow quick access to such menus, and the keyboard arrow keys support navigating through the menu items, which will work well for certain segments of disabled users (e.g. Screen Reader Users, Users with restricted mobility, etc). However, this will still remain a challenge to users with access issues.

The Metro layout did look promising to me in certain ways. The tile based icons make it look familiar for switch based navigation. What happens once an icon is selected, however, is solely dependent on the “switch accessibility” features found within the selected application. For those of us who are unfamiliar with switch access, it is a mechanism that allows the user to operate a device (in this case the computer) by pressing one or more switches (usually in the form of large round plastic buttons). While operating a computer using switches, a “scan pattern” is setup which scans through and highlights relevant “clickable” items (i.e. icons, files, web links, etc) on the screen; once the desired item is reached (i.e. highlighted) the switch is pressed to select it. I strongly believe that Microsoft at some point should allow for some degree of switch access to be integrated into its built-in Accessibility Options. Currently the native On-Screen Keyboard in Windows 7 supports switch scanning by emulating a specified keystroke via the switch. I look forward to seeing the features the Windows 8 onscreen keyboard has to offer, and whether these features will remain or even be enhanced.

There don’t seem to be a lot of new accessibility features introduced for Windows 8. To be fair, however, considerable work has been put into the enhancement of existing features, particularly so these features can be used with touch interfaces as well. Some features such as the Narrator (the Windows built in screen reader) have expanded capabilities such as support for a greater number of screen elements and languages.

Despite these gains, my first glimpse into the accessibility of Windows 8 has fallen short of expectations. With the look and feel of Windows 8 being so different, I expect AT developers to have an initial “frantic” response, concerned by the need to successfully port existing products to such a drastically different operating system. As such, the adoption of Windows 8 within the disabled community will also take its own time for these reasons. It might be worth reflecting that the core to most of the upcoming issues is Microsoft’s approach of designing a single interface that is compatible with both touch and non-touch interfaces. Is this hybrid approach realistic for a feature filled & graphically rich system like Windows 8? No one has attempted this before – so we will only learn over time.

Sources:

Windows 3.1x, Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_3.1x

Trace Access Pack for Windows 3.0 and 3.1, Microsoft Support Article – http://support.microsoft.com/kb/99381

Excerpts from article published in Advance for Speech and Language Pathologists (Sep 1998), Clay Nichols with Terri Nichols, MS, CCC-SLP – http://www.bungalowsoftware.com/articles/AccArticle.htm

How good are Windows 8 accessibility features for the blind?, Mardon Erbland – http://betanews.com/2012/03/02/how-good-are-windows-8-accessibility-features-for-the-blind/

Switch Access to Technology, ACE Centre – http://www.acecentre.org.uk/assets/Product%20Downloads/SwitchScanningMaster_8_472.pdf

• Assistive Technology Tech Talk Blog – http://www.at-techtalk.blogspot.com/

Anirban Lahiri, Senior AT Specialist, Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center)

Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) is a non-profit organization committed to connecting people with disabilities to the world of ICT. Established formally in June 2010 Mada strives to empower and enable people with disabilities through the greater use of Information and Communication Technologies. Mada provides Assistive Technology solutions including assessment and training for people with all types of disabilities, parents and professionals throughout Qatar. Being the only center of its kind in the Middle East, Mada is also actively involved in the field of eAccessibility and Assistive Technology Research & Development.