Microsoft’s Windows operating system has several built-in accessibility features designed to help with a wide range of needs, including users with visual impairments, mobility issues, and hearing difficulties. Students can use them to access online resources, communicate with their classmates, and complete assignments. They can make presentations with confidence, knowing that the technology is working with them, not against them.
Working professionals with disabilities can also take advantage of these tools and features to be more productive, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay on top of their work. They can navigate their devices with ease and complete tasks more quickly and efficiently.
How does Windows work with assistive technology apps?
Users with disabilities can download assistive technology apps from the Microsoft Store, such as OneStep Reader and the Read&Write extension for Microsoft Edge. Windows also supports third-party assistive technology apps, such as JAWS, NVDA, and ZoomText.
But the following assistive technology built into Windows will address the needs of most users.
Narrator is the screen reader that’s built into Windows. Like other screen readers, it reads what’s on-screen aloud so that users can interact with their devices without relying solely on their vision. But Narrator doesn't just read text. It also provides spoken descriptions of menus, buttons, and dialog boxes. So when you come across a dialog box with options to “Save” or “Cancel,” Narrator will read these options aloud.
If you struggle with seeing small text or images on your screens, Windows Magnifier allows you to zoom in on specific parts of the screen, making the content bigger and easier to see. You can select from a range of magnification levels to find the one that works best for you, whether you're reading a webpage and the text is too small or you're working on a detailed image in a photo editing program and need a closer look at a specific area.
Magnifier also comes with options to track the mouse pointer or keyboard focus as you navigate. So, when you move your mouse or use the keyboard, Magnifier will follow along, keeping the zoomed-in area centered around the pointer or focused element.
The latest versions of Windows come with a virtual keyboard that is displayed on the screen to help users who can’t use a physical keyboard. With this On-Screen Keyboard (OSK), you can type using a mouse or touch screen. And those with mobility challenges can use alternative input devices — such as sip-and-puff systems, head pointers, or eye-tracking systems — to interact with the on-screen keyboard.
As you type, the text prediction feature suggests words based on the entered characters to speed up the process. And just like with physical keyboards, OSK is compatible with various keyboard layouts — including QWERTY, Dvorak, and one-handed layouts — meaning you can use the one that best suits your needs.
The Windows speech recognition feature makes it possible for you to control your computer by using your voice. For example, you can say, “Open Microsoft Word,” to launch the application. And if you want to create a new document, just say, “New document,” and a blank file will open up.
Navigating menus is also very straightforward, using intuitive commands like “click file” or “click edit” to access the respective menus in a program.
Contrast and color settings
To make your screen more comfortable and easy to read, Windows includes high-contrast themes and adjustable color settings. You can select a theme with a black background and white text or vice versa to help make sure text stands out. You can also adjust text size, making it larger or smaller, and default colors for elements such as links.
Exploring Windows' Ease of Access settings
Ease of Access is like a control panel where you can find and manage all the built-in accessibility features in the Windows operating system discussed above. So, if you need tools like screen readers, magnifiers, or on-screen keyboards, you will find them all here.
To locate it in Windows 11, press the Windows key and type “Ease of Access” in the search bar. Select “Ease of Access” from the search results to open it and access settings and tools for various accessibility features, including:
- Narrator – Customize Narrator settings, like voice speed, pitch, and volume, and whether it starts automatically when you sign in.
- Magnifier – Adjust Magnifier settings, including zoom level and whether it follows the mouse pointer or keyboard focus.
- High Contrast – Select from a list of high-contrast themes, or create a custom theme to make text and images stand out.
- Text size and color – Change the size of text, icons, and other elements on the screen, and pick custom colors for text and backgrounds.
- Closed captions – Personalize the appearance of closed captions — like the font, size, color, and background — to make them easier to read.
- Visual notifications – Set up visual notifications for audio alerts and other events.
- Mono audio – If you have trouble hearing in one ear, enable mono audio to combine left and right audio channels into a single channel.
- On-screen keyboard – Choose your preferred on-screen keyboard layout and enable features like text prediction to speed up typing.
- Speech recognition – Configure settings to improve speech recognition accuracy, such as setting up a microphone and training your computer to better understand your voice.
- Mouse and touchpad – Adjust settings like pointer speed, size, and color, or enable features like Mouse Keys, which lets you control the pointer using your keyboard.
Choosing the right third-party assistive tools for your needs
For those who do need more than what Microsoft's built-in tools have to offer, there are many compatible third-party options to choose from.
Screen readers – While Windows has Narrator built in, other third-party screen readers like JAWS and NVDA offer additional features and customization options to meet the unique needs of people with visual impairments.
Voice recognition software – Voice recognition programs, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, provide advanced speech-to-text capabilities and more extensive voice command options.
Text-to-speech programs – If you find it hard to read the text on the screen, third-party text-to-speech applications like Read & Write and ClaroRead can convert it into spoken words for you. These tools offer a wider variety of voices, reading speeds, and other customizable settings.
Alternative input devices – For people with mobility issues, there are many third-party hardware devices, like specialized mice, keyboards, or eye-tracking systems, that can be used to control Windows in a way that is more comfortable for the user.
Our shared responsibility for accessibility
Assistive tools have been crucial in breaking down barriers and ensuring that technology is accessible to everyone. The efforts of companies like Microsoft, as well as third-party developers, cannot be understated in creating these tools that make a real difference in people's lives.
But it's not just up to them. Each of us has a role to play in promoting inclusivity and accessibility. So, let's keep pushing forward to help build a future where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential in the digital world.