An OS for Everyone: Microsoft Integrates Assistive Technologies into Windows 8

by Matt Klassen on February 16, 2012

For years many people with disabilities have found modern technology to be out of reach, alienated by touchscreens, visual icons, keyboards and other standard user interfacing. While specific devices have been created for people with various physical or mental challenges, those devices are often terribly expensive, priced in the thousands of dollars for a comparable device that in the general consumer market space may only cost a few hundred. The good news is though, there are options.

While you may not know it, Microsoft has long been one of the few companies has worked diligently to incorporate assistive technologies into its Windows consumer grade operating system, making it more accessible particularly for people with hearing or mobility impairments.

Now with Windows 8 it looks like Microsoft is once again opening up the door to people with disabilities, providing enhanced accessibility features and inviting OS developers to begin programming with a wider more inclusive audience in mind.

The goal is laudable, to design a product for “an incredibly broad spectrum of people around the world,” as Jennifer Norberg, a senior program manager on Microsoft’s Human Interaction Platform team, explains it. To that end, Norberg writes, the company has worked diligently to ensure that, “Windows 8, particularly the new Metro style experience, is accessible to everyone regardless of their physical abilities.”

While not completely unique, Microsoft is one of the few companies who have long incorporated assistive technologies into its Windows operating system. Although many of us may not have ever used these features, the OS has a built-in Narrator that is able to read text aloud for those who are blind, while the Magnifier provides a helpful zoom-in feature to display content for those with other visual impairments. Beyond that, Microsoft continues to develop speech recognition technology that allows people who are unable to use traditional user interfacing like the keyboard or mouse to navigate via voice commands.

As Norberg stated, the company is now looking to build on those accessibility features to continue to reach an ever-growing percentage of the population that may feel alienated by current technology. In an effort to do so Microsoft has enhanced its Narrator and voice command features, allowing users to upgrade Windows 8, surf the Web, have Web pages read to them, and interact with the OS in newer, faster, and more customizable ways.

Taking things one step further, Microsoft has also given developers a challenge to begin building software applications that appeal to a wider spectrum of users, encouraging them to integrate such assistive technologies into the apps themselves. This, of course, comes as part of Microsoft’s push towards touchscreen tablets, an attempt to make the latest cutting edge consumer technology more accessible for everyone.

With such a focus on tablets, however, comes perhaps the one drawback in all of this, limited talk about making the traditional PC more accessible to those with disabilities. While such a tablet focus is certainly no surprise, I truly hope it comes with the caveat that work continues to be done to increase the accessibility of the standard desktop or laptop as well, in the hope that all technology can be accessed by a large spectrum of people, not just new technology.

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