Windows 8 hands-on test: major accessibility improvements

Friday, 23 September 2011 16:03pm

Microsoft has released a preview of its Windows 8 operating system and early tests by Media Access Australia show that accessibility has been a major focus during its development.

The Windows 8 Developer Preview build 8102 has been tested by Media Access Australia and it’s clear that accessibility has received a major focus in the upcoming operating system.

When Windows 7 was released several years ago, Media Access Australia highlighted in its hands-on test a number of accessibility improvements, such as the inclusion of a full screen magnifier.  However, with every benefit there seemed to be an equivalent issue: in this stance, the full screen Magnifier couldn’t be used with the high contrast colour scheme. In Window’s 8, however, even at this early stage it’s clear that many of the Windows 7 criticisms have been addressed.

Dr Scott Hollier, a project manager from Media Access Australia installed the developer preview and noted the following accessibility improvements:

Accessibility options during setup: when Windows 8 launches for the first time and prompts you for the name of the computer and other personal settings, an accessibility icon in the bottom-left corner. Opening this icon provides a list of all the major accessibility features and the option to turn them on. The instructions are also read out by Narrator. This is a great help as in Windows 7 it was difficult to complete the setup process as most features couldn’t be enabled until the setup process was completed and the Windows desktop appeared.

Magnifier now works with High Contrast: one of the biggest complaints of Windows 7 was that you could use the full-screen magnifier, but changing to the high contrast theme would change it to the old ‘strip’ magnifier that is used in windows XP and Vista. This has been rectified in Windows 8 and now both Magnifier and the high contrast themes can be used together. The magnifier itself also appears to have a few different modes and tweaks so it will be interesting to see how this evolves as the development process continues.

Narrator has improved: As noted by The Weird Writer in an article about screen reader support in Windows 8, Narrator has finally received a major update, the first since it appeared in Windows 2000 some 11 years ago. To date it seems to have a lot more commands, but it’s important to stress that it is still not an adequate screen reader in its own right at this stage of the development. Hopefully work on Narrator will continue so that Windows can finally have some reasonable functionality for people who are blind or vision impaired out of the box.

New accessibility choices for login and desktop: arguably one of the best improvements in Windows 8, the Ease of Access Center now features a ‘Change logon settings’ option.  This screen provides a list of all the major accessibility features in Windows 8 with the option to turn them on at the login screen, turn them on at the desktop, or both.  This can also apply to multiple assistive technologies, such as the On-Screen Keyboard and Sticky Keys.

However, while there are significant improvements, it is important to note that like most new versions of Windows, JAWS does not appear to function. Remarkably though NVDA did have some functionality but its behaviour is erratic. Presumably, these issues will be addressed as future versions of the assistive technology software programs are released.

As for Windows 8 itself, the initial interface may prove challenging at first as it is optimised for a tablet computer rather than a PC. After a bit of practice the more traditional Windows environment can be easily found and used.

Overall, while there are very clear benefits to Windows 8, it is important to note that this is a very early pre-beta release and it is likely to change significantly between now and the final release in 2012. Additional accessibility features in popular operating systems, please prefer to the Digital Technology section of the Media Access Australia website.

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