Accessibility for Everyone
Windows is a graphical user interface that assumes its users can see and hear perfectly and have excellent fine-motor skills. Fortunately, that's just the default behavior. For users with limited vision, hearing, or motor ability, Windows supports a variety of alternatives for input and output. Most of them are configured using the Control Panel's Accessibility Options applet, which is present in Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, and Windows 2000. This applet is similar across the various Windows platforms, though not all options are present on all platforms. Some Windows platforms also include an Accessibility Wizard for easy configuration and a Magnifier utility that can enlarge the area around the cursor up to nine times. Microsoft maintains a special Web site for accessibility features at
The fact that you can operate Windows without help from the Accessibility Options applet doesn't mean you should ignore it; some of the accessibility features can benefit every Windows user. If the applet is not present in your Control Panel, insert the Windows CD-rom and install it. Now launch the Accessibility Options applet; we're going to take a tour.
The Keyboard tab (Figure 1) controls three features-StickyKeys, FilterKeys, and ToggleKeys-of which ToggleKeys is the most useful. Every touch-typist has had the experience of hitting Caps Lock by accident and not realizing for several words (or paragraphs) that
EVERYTHING IS UPPERCASE. With ToggleKeys activated, you'll get an audible warning every time Caps Lock, Num Lock, or Scroll Lock goes on or off. You hear a brief, high-pitched beep when the key is activated and a lower-pitched beep when it is deactivated.
The StickyKeys feature eliminates the need to press more than one key at a time. If you've ever tried to hold a laptop in one hand and type with the other, you know just how useful an option like this can be. Let's see how StickyKeys works: First, check the
StickyKeys box, click the adjacent Settings... button, and check off all the boxes. Click
OK to close the Settings dialog, and then click Apply.
Try cutting and pasting one word of text using StickyKeys.
- Navigate to the start of the word.
- Press Shift twice to lock the key.
- Press and release Ctrl, then press and release [Right Arrow] to select the word.
- Press Shift once to unlock it.
- Press Ctrl followed by x to cut the word to the Clipboard.
- Navigate to the word's new location.
- Press Ctrl followed by v to paste the word.
With StickyKeys enabled, you enter key combinations that involve the Ctrl, Alt, and Shift modifier keys by pressing the modifier key first, then pressing the other key. For example, to bring up the Thesaurus, you would press and release the Shift key, then press and release F7. To lock a modifier key, press it twice in a row; press it once more to unlock. You'll get an audible signal with each press of a modifier key. By default, pressing two keys at once turns off StickyKeys, and pressing Shift five times turns it back on.
FilterKeys provides two kinds of help for those who can't type in the usual fashion. In BounceKeys mode, it filters out repeated keystrokes that are entered too close together, preventing accidental doubling of keystrokes. In SlowKeys mode, it slows or disables automatic key-repeat and requires you to hold down a key for up to 2 seconds before it's accepted. The second mode helps filter out keys struck by accident.
The check box labeled Show extra keyboard help in programs at the bottom of this tab sounds useful, but it doesn't do anything except set a flag in your Windows configuration. Nothing else happens unless you run a program that is designed to check for that flag and provide extra help.
The SoundSentry and ShowSounds options are disappointing, especially for Windows 9x users. ShowSounds tells programs to display captions for speech and sounds, but like the extra keyboard help box, it's just a configuration setting. Unless a program is designed to check this setting and act on it, you'll see no results.
SoundSentry provides visual cues for system sounds, such as those associated with the
Asterisk, Critical Stop, Exclamation, and Question events in Control Panel's Sounds applet. It can flash the active window's caption, flash the active window, or flash the entire screen. Under Windows NT and Windows 2000, this can be convenient; in a noisy office, you'll see system warnings even if you can't hear them. Unfortunately, in Windows 9x this feature is triggered only by sounds played through the internal speaker, not by sounds generated using the sound card.
If you have occasional difficulty reading the screen, try the High Contrast option on the
Display tab. It associates a hotkey with one of the color and font schemes found on the Appearance tab of the
Display Properties dialog. You can choose white on black (equivalent to the
High Contrast Black (extra large) scheme), black on white (equivalent to the
High Contrast White (extra large) scheme), or any scheme from the list. Press the hotkey to shift into your chosen high-contrast mode, and press it again to restore the normal appearance scheme.
In theory, you should be able to operate every Windows program using only the keyboard. In practice, even Windows itself breaks this rule; try activating a program in the system tray using only the keyboard! MouseKeys lets you use the numeric keypad keys to simulate moving, clicking, and dragging with the mouse. When this feature is active, the number-pad navigation keys move the mouse pointer, the middle key (5) generates a click, and the number-pad Plus key (+) generates a double- click. Ctrl makes the pointer move farther for each keystroke; Shift makes each keystroke move the pointer just one pixel. You can generate a right-click or double-click by preceding (5) or (+) with the number- pad Minus (-). You can even simulate a click or double-click of both buttons at once by using the number-pad Asterisk (*) before (5) or (+). Press number-pad Ins to start a drag operation and Del to drop. If you're ever stuck without a working mouse, remember MouseKeys.
The General tab's options affect all of the Accessibility Options features. You can set them to turn off automatically after a certain period of inactivity, and to generate an audible warning when they're turned on or off. On some platforms, you can request a warning message each time a feature is turned on. The
General tab also lets you enable SerialKey devices-input devices that rely on head movement, mouth- operated joysticks, or other alternatives to keyboard and mouse.
As mentioned earlier, the implementation of the Accessibility Options dialog differs slightly among the various Windows platforms. Some show the status of StickyKeys, FilterKeys, and MouseKeys in tray icons, and optionally in a larger status window. When you click ok to close the applet under Windows NT, you'll be asked if you want to save the current settings as the default for new users and at the log-on prompt. Logging onto Windows NT requires you to press Ctrl-Alt-Del, so if you need Sticky Keys to press that key combination, be sure to answer Yes.
If you have any problems interacting with Windows because of vision, hearing, or movement limitations, the Accessibility Options applet can be invaluable. But even if you're a speedy touch-typist with 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, familiarity with this applet can help you out of difficult situations.
This article is a reprint from PC Magazine.