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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 4

Product Evaluation

How Accessible Is Windows XP?

Windows XP is the latest operating system from Microsoft Corporation, having been on the market since October 2001. If you purchase a new computer, it will come loaded with XP. In March, AccessWorld took a brief look at XP, but now it is time to examine this newest operating system in more detail.

Windows XP comes in two basic flavors: XP Home and XP Professional. This article evaluates XP Professional (hereafter XP Pro), which allows you to log on to both peer-to-peer and client-server networks and has increased security, letting you encrypt your files and folders. Microsoft touted Windows XP as the most accessible version of any of its operating systems to date. I found that, in general, XP Pro is about as usable as previous Windows versions. There are plenty of minor and serious inaccessibility issues that definitely need fixing, and you have to do a lot of configuring to make it work properly with a screen reader.

Since JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes are the two most popular Windows- based screen readers on the market, it is only logical that I chose to review XP using both these packages. But this review should not be confused with a review of JAWS for Windows or Window-Eyes. I am also not comparing JAWS for Windows to Window- Eyes in this review. Moreover, because Windows XP is such a large and comprehensive operating system, it is impossible to evaluate every feature in the space allotted. This review attempts to cover the features that typical users are likely to use in their daily interactions with their computers. These features include basic Windows navigation, the Start Menu, Task Bar, Notification Area, Desktop, menus, burning CDs, and how robust XP is in general using speech output.

One important point must be emphasized first: To use any version of the Windows operating system with any screen reader, including XP, you must have some basic troubleshooting skills because none of the many flavors of the Windows operating system is yet fully compatible with adaptive technology. Microsoft tried to address the problem with Active Accessibility (MSAA.) But MSAA is simply not robust enough to close all the accessibility holes and is not universally supported by the adaptive vendor community.

Benchmarks

I tested Windows XP Pro on a Dell computer equipped with an 800 MHZ processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a 40 gB hard drive. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster PCI sound card was also used for this review.

In general, I was able to perform many functional tasks with XP, but there were some glaring disappointments. I was able to navigate easily through the Start Menu, Task Bar, Notification Area, and Desktop, all of which seem to work much as they did before with some differences that I will explain later. I could easily locate programs using the Start Menu, launch them, and switch among them using keyboard shortcuts. A lot of things work just like they did before, but I was particularly discouraged by the lack of accessibility for some new features found in XP, such as Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance. Remote Desktop is a utility that allows you to connect to and control remote computers over a network or the Internet, and it just doesn't work yet with screen readers. Remote Assistance, which lets another person take control of your computer over a network or the Internet, also does not work with screen readers yet. I find it troubling that Microsoft has failed to make these important parts of XP accessible for users who are visually impaired, even after all the work that the disability community has done to educate the software giant.

Start Me Up

As is the case with previous versions of Windows, the Start Menu is the main menu of the XP operating system. The Start Menu has the same basic functionality under XP in that it is the menu that points to all your installed software and documents. The Start Menu under XP still performs the same function as it does in previous versions of Windows, and the hot key to activate the menu is still Control-Escape, but its appearance has been slightly altered. The main difference is that the Start Menu comes up in two columns when popped up with the Control-Escape key sequence. The left column shows you your most frequently used programs, and the right column is a complete list of all your installed applications and documents, just like the old familiar Start Menu.

Furthermore, the left column of the Start Menu has two discrete areas. The upper portion represents applications that are pinned to the Start Menu, similar to shortcuts on the Desktop. But instead of filling up your Desktop, they appear on the Start Menu in a list. The lower portion of the left column is a list of your most recently used programs. The default number of programs that this list contains is six, but this number can be modified. When navigating the Start menu, you can arrow down the left column and then automatically wrap to the top of the right column.

While I found this difference in functionality a bit confusing at first, I was able to adjust to it fairly quickly. But if you prefer the more traditional appearance, you can change back to the classic look under Start menu Properties. Doing so changes the appearance of XP to resemble Windows 9X.

Getting Down to Tasks

The Task Bar has long been an important object under the Windows operating system, and shows you the list of currently running programs. You can move through the Task Bar by using any arrow key. Arrows move you in the direction they're marked and move by one program at a time. Repeated strikes of any arrow key will eventually wrap back to your starting point. I was initially confused by this behavior, since arrowing on the Task Bar did not wrap in Windows 98, but I adjusted to the new scheme.

Same Old Desktop

The Desktop is still an object under Windows XP and is a list of programs and documents that you can launch. This has never been a user-friendly part of Windows because this list is not orderly. The Desktop does not behave like a list box that you can navigate by using your up and down arrow keys, similar to the Start Menu. Instead, you have to hunt around, using left, right, up, or down arrow keys, to move from one object to another. The Desktop appears only if you have set the view to the Windows Classic style. The Desktop is certainly way overdue for an overhaul!

System Tray

The Windows System Tray is now called the Notification Area, and this is a list of programs that are running in the background, similar to previous versions of Windows. Programs running in the Notification Area do not show up as icons in the Task Bar. You navigate to the Notification Area by using the Tab key. The Tab order sequence takes you from the Start Menu to the Task Bar to the Notification Area and finally to the Desktop. There are hotkey commands in JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes that take you directly to the Notification Area. Windows XP also uses pop-up programs in the Notification Area to alert you of tasks that need to be performed, such as when files are waiting to be written to the CD drive, if you have MSN Instant Messenger messages waiting, or if you haven't yet activated your copy of Windows with Microsoft. I finally was able to turn off these pop-up Notifications, but there doesn't seem to be a way to do so across the board.

Command Prompt and DOS Applications

Windows XP has a command line interpreter that lets you perform many familiar DOS-style commands. The command prompt lets you copy, delete, rename, and perform batch operations on files, similar to DOS mode under 9X or Windows Millennium. Keep in Mind that XP is similar to Windows NT in its lack of support for DOS programs and does not have a DOS box that can run most software. I found that using the command line was powerful and familiar, and it operated just like previous versions of Windows. You can, however, trick XP into running some legacy DOS programs by running the Command.com file stored in the Windows/System32 directory. I used the Run command off the Start menu to run the c:\windows\system32\command.com file. I was able to run Vocal-Eyes using a DECtalk Express synthesizer connected to a com port. I was also able to run WordPerfect 5.1 using this method. But you should be cautioned that these DOS applications are not supported or even widely publicized.

Writing CD-ROM Disks

Windows XP includes software that lets you burn your own CD-ROM disks, and this is one of my favorite features. You can use this software to backup important data files and for burning general-use CD-ROM disks. I found this feature easy to use using a screen reader. All you have to do is open up the directory with the files you want to burn, highlight the target files, open up My Computer, arrow down to the CD-ROM drive icon, and then paste the contents of the clipboard. The last step is to click on the File menu, and arrow down to "write files to CD." It's simple, easy to use, and speaks properly.

Last Words

In summary, Windows XP does not break any new ground in terms of accessibility. The installation process is not fully accessible for visually impaired people, and the system must be configured properly to speak correctly. The fact that my wife, Cindy, is a Microsoft-certified engineer instructor and was able to answer my many questions about XP provided a lot of valuable help. I found that I had to switch the XP look back to the Classic style to make it speak correctly and had to make lots of changes that were not well documented.

I found XP somewhat of a disappointment because many of the new and tasty features like Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance are not yet accessible. All in all, Windows XP is usable with a screen reader, but leaves you longing for something a bit better.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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