You can find a related post on Apple’s accessibility efforts and tools available for accessibility for Google as well.
I remember a time early in my teaching career where Microsoft was the only place to go if you wanted technology to be accessible. It wasn’t necessarily the Microsoft was committed to it or that Windows XP was the most user-friendly platform. At the time though 3rd-party companies only made software for Windows, so just like with so many other applications there was one choice. Eventually, Apple made the decision to craft their own internalized accessibility software which it is integrated completely into their system and has become the standard. Microsoft though, behind the leadership of their CEO Satya Nadella, has recommitted themselves to improving and innovating with accessible tech.
This new commitment can be seen in Microsoft’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial which aired the year Mr. Nadella, a father of three including an adult son with cerebral palsy.
Their teamwork and technology and 2015 Super Bowl ads also address the power of technology to address the needs of people with disabilities. So when schools are making the decisions on Google Education vs. Office 365, they should consider Microsoft’s commitment to special needs students as a major component. They even offer an accessibility training course
Ease of Access
Most of Window’s accessibility options can be found in settings under ease of access.
The new Narrator works better than ever as a screen reader, especially on the web. You can choose from a few different voices. Adjusting reader speed and jumping between headings is easier. Narrator can also be set to scan and respond to touch. Simply use the cursor keys to adjust scanning by paragraph rather than by line. It will also generate image descriptions for the user as well as work with braille readers. You used to use Alt+N to turn it on but you can now use Windows+Enter. You can access Narrator settings with Windows+Ctrl+N. You can check out a full list of keyboard commands and touch gestures for Narrator.
Other visual adaptations include the magnifier, high contrast, and other ways to improve details like the size and color of the mouse pointer or cursor. Microsoft media players also support audio description tracks.
“We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”
― Stevie Wonder
Built-in closed captions are the main improvement for the hearing impaired. You can adjust the colors and appearance of closed captions in apps. It also allows you to set up visual notifications for sounds.
For people with milder mobility challenges, you can adjust the mouse and keyboard settings. That includes sticky keys, toggle keys, filter keys, or the on-screen keyboard. Sticky keys works for those that can’t hold down multiple keys simultaneously and filter keys will help those users who have a hard time with a stutter or holding down keys. You can even set the number keys to move the mouse pointer around the screen.
One of the best Windows tools for people with mobility challenges is Cortana. Just with their voice, users can open apps, find files, play music, check reminders, manage calendars, send emails, and play games like movie trivia or rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock. The speech recognition software takes this even further. You can turn all the objects on your screen into numbers to help you choose with your voice. You can vocally select or double-click, dictate, or specify key presses. You can see the full list of speech recognition commands to see all that it can do.
There are a range of tools and 3rd party software that take these features even further. For example, Tobii Dynavox makes a PCEye Mini and AAC software like Communicator 5 that I have set up on Windows tablets that allow students to use eye-gaze to control the device.
By offering a platform that is equally accessible on a touchscreen tablet as a computer and providing the Surface which is adept at both, Windows gives multiple ways to engage students with content. Now they are pioneering new ways for users to participate in their mixed reality hardware including the HoloLens. It gives students a way to access content that was previously out-of-reach.
Microsoft offers software that allows a teacher to present content to multiple modalities with videos and audio now embedded in PowerPoint. Built-in features in Word like citation make it easy for struggling students to add and cite content while the editor checks language for clarity, inclusivity, and formality in addition to spelling. Teachers can digitize worksheets or their board using Office Lens. Much of the text will be converted and can be interpreted by a screen reader. Skype includes a translation tool that can automatically transcribe and translate conversations which can be helpful for ELL students.
The greatest tool for accessibility (and learning in general) that Microsoft offers though is OneNote. Yes, you can quickly and easily organize information in a variety of formats but features like handwriting recognition and built-in recording help set it apart from other note apps. Then when you consider OneNote’s Learning Tools that include Immersive Reader, it becomes one of the best tools available for literacy and general classroom accessibility. Check out the teacher Jameson Lee from Canada who is using OneNote amazingly with students.
“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?”
― Steve Krug