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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 December 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 12

Access Issues

Looking at the New Microsoft Accessibility Answer Desk

If you had technical issues with Windows or MS Office you didn't call Microsoft, you reached out to Dell, HP, or one of the many other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that built and sold you the computer. PCs have been rapidly becoming more similar to each other and with company profits shrinking almost daily, these days OEM technical support simply isn't what it used to be.

With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft decided it was in their best interest to provide more customer support and they started with their new Answer Desk, through which consumers can get full in-warrantee service for Microsoft products and a complimentary 15-minute consultation for out-of-warrantee issues.

As part of this support restructuring, Microsoft also took a fresh look at their accessibility initiatives. "In Windows 8 we added a lot of new functionality to Narrator and the other services in the Ease of Access Center," says Denise Rundle, General Manager, Microsoft Advertising and Consumer Services. "Unfortunately, our research showed that many individuals who could benefit from these improvements weren't aware they existed, or [of] how to use them to their fullest potential."

Microsoft has accepted the lion's share of the responsibility for this lack of awareness. "Our support specialists weren't always as knowledgeable as they needed to be when it came to the special needs of people with disabilities, and the accessibility resources we have to offer," Rundle says. "About two years ago we began looking for some outside training. We couldn't find anything that was appropriate for our call centers, so we developed it in house."

Today, all Microsoft support specialists are given training in disability awareness, etiquette, and sensitivity. "When someone self-identifies as having disabilities, we want our support specialists to be able to ask the right questions and not trip up over language and wind up saying something stupid or offensive," Rundle told me, and I had to smile because just hours before I had experienced that very problem when I called a support line for a different company.

"You need to press the green button near the top," the support technician instructed me, and when I explained that I was blind and using a screen reader he replied, "OK, I understand. So then let's start out by going to the top and pressing the green button." In his defense, this second time he did speak extra slowly and clearly.

According to Rundle, this in-house training was phase one of a two-part accessibility initiative. "We needed to not only recognize the technology requirements of people with disabilities, our support workers also needed to be able to help people learn how to use Microsoft's accessibility features, and help long-time users solve issues that are causing them problems."

In August of 2012 the accessibility team commenced a pilot project with the goal of offering personalized, one-on-one assistance to individuals with disabilities using Microsoft's accessibility features. "The response exceeded our expectations," says Rundle. In February of 2013 the Accessibility Answer Desk was made available to the public throughout North America.

My Triple Test Run

According to Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Senior Director, Accessibility Customer Experiences, "We took the cream of the crop of our Windows and Office support technicians and gave them several months of accessibility training." I decided to see for myself, so over a two-week period I called the Accessibility Answer Desk three times with three different issues that affected my ability to use my PCs. Here's what happened.

Sounding Off

One of my computers is an old notebook I have connected to an external keyboard and USB sound card. Window-Eyes worked fine on this setup, but for some reason none of my Windows system sounds were playing. I tried setting the system sounds to use the external USB card and the notebook's internal speaker by turn: no luck.

After explaining the problem to the accessibility support worker he asked me a few questions that did not begin with "Have you tried turning the computer off and back on again?" He asked me to try playing some streaming video, and when there was no audio for this, either, he set to work.

After leading me through the steps to initiate a support.me remote session the technician took control of my PC. The very first thing he did was create a Windows Restore point. I was impressed and more than a little grateful. The last time I had had trouble with a sound card was when I updated a Dell computer from Windows Vista to Windows 7 and the sound card refused to work. After paying through the nose for out-of-warrantee support and three hours on the phone with a technician, he had fouled up my system so hopelessly, I finally pulled the plug on the session, demanded my money back, and used it to buy a USB sound card, which worked perfectly.

Window-Eyes and Vocalizer Karen Standard kept me apprised as the technician poked around various system settings, winding up in the Control Panel. After a few more seconds the streaming video began playing audio through my notebook's speakers, and when I asked the technician if he could move the audio to the sound card, which has higher-fidelity stereo speakers, he obliged quickly.

Throughout the ten-minute session the technician neither talked down to me nor tried to go over my head with a lot of high-tech jargon. When I asked what the problem had been, he took me step by step through what he had done. I had Window-Eyes set to use the USB sound card, and I had also set the system sounds to use that device. But there were three devices in my sound card list, the notebook's speakers, the USB sound card, and the notebook's headset jack. Even though I had set Windows to play system sounds through the USB sound card, the headphone jack was the default device. Windows wants very badly to play system sounds through the default device, and once the technician had changed that one setting all was well again.

We'll score that one a big "oops" for me and a definite "way to go" for Microsoft.

No Swiping

Narrator for Windows 8 includes an extensive set of touch screen command gestures. For example, a one-finger swipe left or right moves one screen element to the left or right in that direction. To select the screen element, character, word, link, etc., you swipe either up or down with one finger. I was practicing these gestures when at one point the swipe up and down gestures stopped working and began giving me strange results. Time to call Microsoft.

Again the support technician was welcoming and friendly, but when I explained my problem she stated unequivocally, "Narrator doesn't have any touch commands." I suggested that it actually did, and when the technician did not offer to check I decided it was time to end this call and try again.

A different technician solved my problem almost instantly. Narrator has two navigation modes, normal and advanced, and I had inadvertently toggled this setting to advanced by pressing Caps lock + A. When I toggled back to normal mode the up and down swipe gestures functioned again as advertised.

The rep also told me that in Windows 8.1, which I have subsequently installed, this function has been moved so I am not likely to make this mistake again. We'll score this one "fat fingers" on my part, and "mixed results" for Microsoft.

An Outlook Issue

Finally, I decided to consult the Accessibility Answer Desk on a long-standing problem I have had with Outlook 2010. Occasionally, after deleting an e-mail, or pressing Enter to open one, my speech would lock up for up to a minute. Other times Outlook would close and then restart all on its own. I used to attribute most of these problems to the fact that, in my previous job, I had to keep thousands of e-mails with very large attachments readily available in various accounts, resulting in Outlook .PST data files that often exceeded 12 gigabytes. I no longer need to keep these e-mails on hand, so I pruned my mailboxes back to a more reasonable few hundred messages per account. The problems persist, however, and GW Micro can offer little help since these problems only happen occasionally and they cannot duplicate them in house.

I decided to give the Accessibility Answer Desk a try. I explained the problem and outlined the steps I had taken to try to solve it. When I mentioned the previous size of my .PST data files the Answer Desk representative suggested that even though I had reduced their size, there may still be some leftover settings that were problematic and causing my troubles.

The tech suggested I create a new Outlook identity, reestablish my e-mail accounts and then delete the original identity. This was something no one had ever suggested before, and it was definitely worth a try. The tech offered to do this for me, so I sat back, followed along as he took control of my computer, and a half-hour later the deed was done.

I cannot report this solved the problem, but I am now more convinced than ever my Outlook fits and restarts are a screen reader issue, not an Outlook bug. I was encouraged to call back if the change of identities did not help, but for now let's score this one "still frustrated," on my part, and for Microsoft, "a commendable effort."

Summing Up

For now Microsoft's accessibility support team is focused on assisting with Windows and MS Office, but they plan to add additional Microsoft consumer products in the near future. They also hope to begin serving other areas outside of North America. In the meantime, if users have problems with products other than Windows or MS Office the Accessibility Answer Desk reps can consult and collaborate with support reps from other product teams to guide you through their use with accessibility services and help solve setup and configuration problems.

I was also told by Lay-Flurrie that the accessibility customers' reps have all received orientation training in the most popular screen readers. This does not mean they are ready to help you create a Window-Eyes hyperactive window, or debug a Jaws script. What it does mean, I suspect, is that callers are a lot less likely to get caught in that all-too-familiar situation where the screen reader vendor insists your problem is with the third party application, while the application support rep assures you that your screen reader that he doesn't know anything about must be interfering with the application's ability to do its job.

Microsoft's Accessibility Answer Desk appears to be casting a very wide net when it comes to defining accessibility issues. Along with the sorts of issues I described above, they will apparently also assist users of accessibility services--even third-party access software users--with tasks as varied as setting up an Outlook.com e-mail account, changing default Word fonts and margin settings, learning to control a Windows PC with speech, and setting up virtual keyboards, head mice and other non-traditional input devices.

Apple has offered a similar accessibility resource for the past few years. They learned early that true accessibility involves more than simply supplying the tools--you also have to educate users and offer support when needed. It's heartening to see Microsoft has finally "seen the light," so to speak, and I look forward to other major players tossing their hats into the ring.

Contact Information

Microsoft's Accessibility Answer Desk is available in North America from 5am to 9pm PST during the week, and 6am to 3pm on the weekends. English language only.
Phone: 800-936-5900
Web contact form
Online chat will be supported in the near future.

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