Microsoft ups software accessibility

In response to demand from disabled workers who rely heavily on computers to do their jobs, Microsoft Corp. has begun promoting its plans for making its operating system and applications software more widely accessible.

The plans include new features in the Windows 98 operating system tailored for people with impaired vision and a World Wide Web developers' toolkit that will make it easier to tailor Web sites to users with special requirements.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates set the tone for the initiatives in February when he pledged to make the PC "the greatest accessibility aid ever," and now the estimated 130,000 federal employees who reported having a disability in a 1996 Office of Personnel Management survey are waiting to find out how this will improve their work environment.

Gary Moulton, a Microsoft product manager who works full time on accessibility issues, said the company is committed to addressing the needs of disabled computer users during all phases of product planning, development and support.

"There's a lot of great government work that's going on in this area," Moulton said. "The government definitely appreciates the challenges and is setting a good example and [making] sure everything it purchases is accessible to people with disabilities."

Moulton and two other Microsoft employees who are dedicated to accessibility issues made a stop in Washington, D.C., during a recent nationwide tour to inform key account managers about Microsoft's accessibility plans. The changes include increasing from nine to about 24 the number of full-time Microsoft employees dedicated to accessibility issues and creating an advisory council that will advise company executives on how products can be approved.

Specifics on how the council will be organized have not been worked out, but Moulton said he envisions a panel made up exclusively of users of adaptive hardware and software technologies.

"They have to have a fundamental appreciation of what an individual with a disability goes through in terms of their use of personal computer technology," Moulton said.

Microsoft also plans to include two new accessibility features in Windows 98. One is a magnifier that will increase the size of type and graphics up to nine times and that can be dragged to any point on the screen and expanded. The other feature is a wizard that guides the user through the process of setting preferences for things such as the size of typeface within dialog boxes.

To make Web content more accessible, Microsoft is encouraging developers to use special files to separate the code that determines a site's style from the code that determines content, said Charles Oppermann, a Microsoft developer who works with the accessibility/disability group. This would let users select their own typefaces, colors and backgrounds for reading Web sites— simple adjustments that do not change content but make a difference for people who have difficulty reading, Oppermann said.

Furthermore, Microsoft in May plans to release a tool to help Web content developers create more accessible sites. The Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange tool can be used to add closed captioning to an audio feed so that hearing-impaired people can read the script. It also can add a spoken explanation to the visual elements of a site so that blind people can understand the content by hearing a discription, said David A. Bolnick of Microsoft's accessibility/disability group.

"Every single customer I have has a significant number of employees who have some type of disability," said Sean Kantorow, government account executive at Microsoft. If the software suddenly does not support their keyboards or screen readers, they are locked out, and that is unnecessary, he said.

The disability initiatives follow complaints from people who were angry over the release last year of Internet Explorer Version 4.0, which did not include a set of tools called Active Accessibility, which lets applications work with accessibility aids, such as magnifiers and screen readers, and lets utilities automate the control of the application.

Microsoft attempted to correct the problem by shipping Internet Explorer 4.01, a version that supports Active Accessibility, but the company was stung by the criticism and the appearance that it had been insensitive to the needs of disabled users.

Jamal Mazrui, legislative analyst at the National Council on Disability, said Microsoft deserves recognition for making its software more accessible, but he said Windows 95 is not yet truly accessible to blind people, and Internet Explorer 4.01 is too slow in retrieving the information it needs from Active Accessibility to make it practical to use when reading Web pages.

Mazrui, who is visually impaired, complained that there is generally always a lag between new products and the point at which they become accessible, especially to blind people.

"It's like we're always getting access to yesterday's version of the software," Mazrui said. Despite Microsoft's pledges to make Windows 98 more accessible, Mazrui said he doubts Windows 98will work with most third-party screen readers. "We still haven't reached the point where the programs that are accessible to [blind people] are the latest versions of the programs."

Mazrui said that with the next version of Microsoft Office, a suite of productivity applications that is due out soon, the most important thing the company could do for blind employees would be to commit itself to making the software fully accessible. "Because Microsoft Office suite has thoroughly dominated the market, those applications are really critical for disabled people to be able to succeed in the average place of business," Mazrui said.

Microsoft's effort to promote greater accessibility is a good example for corporate America and probably more effective than a legislative effort, said Carol Hughes of Marietta, Ga., whose 21-year-old son is disabled. Hughes, who is chairwoman of a task force on disability in the Georgia district represented by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, considers technology the key to her son's ability to find a job and support himself. "I would love to see this happen in a lot of other places," she said. "The more we see people with significant disabilities in the work place, the quicker they will be accepted."

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