July 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 4

Access Issues

How Accessible is Microsoft Office 2000?

If you use a computer, chances are pretty good that you use one or more of the applications that are included in Microsoft's Office suite. Blind users suffered substantial losses in productivity when Office 97 was launched amid much fanfare. Screen readers have improved since then, and Microsoft has announced accessibility enhancements designed to make Office 2000 easier to use for people who are blind or visually impaired . So is Office any better?

Surely you remember the fun you had with Office 97. It was possible to read text in Microsoft Word 97. However, underlined text was invisible to screen readers, and menus and dialog boxes were silent. The unanimous outcry from blind users, organizations of and for the blind, and screen reader manufacturers culminated in threats from the state of Massachusetts to not buy Microsoft Office if the program did not improve dramatically.

Microsoft enhanced its accessibility team and developed Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), programming enhancements designed to improve access to applications. For a user to benefit from MSAA, it is necessary for it to be incorporated into both the application and the screen reader. Screen reader manufacturers that incorporated MSAA were able to begin to function in Office 97 menus and some dialog boxes. However, since Microsoft had not completely implemented MSAA in Office 97, many controls, including most of those used in Access 97, still did not work with speech. The developers of Office 2000 promised to expand the use of MSAA into Access 2000 and into many of Office's nooks and crannies where screen reader users previously could not go without tricks that only the experts among us know. Screen readers that use MSAA as their major way of obtaining information from Office applications include: Window-Eyes from GW Micro, Window Bridge from Syntha-Voice, and WinVision from Arctic Technologies. (For more about MSAA, see "Taking the Mystery Out of Microsoft Active Accessibility" in this issue.)

A Different Approach

JAWS for Windows from Henter-Joyce uses MSAA only in Office menus and takes a different approach elsewhere. Henter-Joyce chose to use Microsoft's Document Object Model (DOM). The DOM is typically used to allow one application to control another—to allow Word to print labels from names and addresses stored in Access, for example. Jaws uses the DOM to get more complete information than MSAA can supply in many cases—to read the cell address, value, and format in Excel, for instance. Using the DOM involves a lot of time and programming. You can think of it as almost having to write a separate screen reader for each application. Querying the DOM requires more computing power than does MSAA, as well.

Time and Money

No matter which method they choose, screen reader manufacturers must spend a huge amount of time making their products work with Office. Office applications are among the most popular on the market and, naturally, the number one priority is to get your product to work best with the most popular programs. But, since those programs use nonstandard controls, almost none of the work done by screen reader manufacturers can be used in non-Office applications. Also, this work is serious programming that must be done by someone thoroughly familiar with that screen reader's internal workings, whereas an advanced user can develop a configuration file for another program that uses standard controls.

Working with MSAA

So a user whose screen reader is using MSAA in Office should get the information at least as fast as they do in applications that don't have something assisting the screen reader, right? Those of you who use screen readers that use MSAA extensively know that is not the case. It probably sometimes seemed as if you could have gone to the water cooler and back before your screen reader announced whether a checkbox was checked or unchecked. That kind of problem is the result of the screen reader waiting for MSAA to convey that information from Office's nonstandard controls. Of course, that situation is better than not knowing the current state of the control or even that there was a control there at all. But using the current version of MSAA in Office makes you feel as if there is another force present, in addition to you, your screen reader, and the application you are using. And that is because there is.

Improvements in Office 2000

Once MSAA brought speech to Office 97, users discovered other problems. One involved text disappearing, applications being sluggish, and strange sounds coming from the computer. It was the Office Assistant, an animated paperclip that could be helpful in answering questions for sighted users, but can also be a real screen reader stopper.

Usher, This Man Is Annoying Me!

In Office 2000, there is an option to turn the Office Assistant off on the Help menu. It is no longer necessary to chase him around the screen using your screen reader's mouse commands. Then, once he is off, he stays hidden unless you actually choose the menu option to have him reappear.

The Help system is much improved and easier to use in Office 2000. Help is HTML based, so your screen reader can take advantage of the same features that work so well in Internet Explorer 5.0. You can Tab through items and select the one you want by hitting the Enter key. You can then hit your screen reader's feature that reads to the end of the document or use the arrow keys. So, knowing your screen reader's Internet Explorer commands is the key to finding information in Office 2000's Help.

Office 2000 still uses nonstandard controls. However, it is now more difficult to find controls that do not function properly. For example, the Go to dialog in Excel 97 was unusable with several screen readers, but it functions in Excel 2000. When you Tab around in a dialog box, such as Word 2000's Page setup or Font dialogs, buttons, combo boxes, and radio buttons are read. The current status of check boxes (whether checked or unchecked) is announced.

If you hit the Control or Alt keys in the spell checker in Office 97, all the buttons—Ignore, Replace, and Skip—disappeared and you had to select Undo to bring them back. In Office 2000, you can use screen reader commands that include Control, Insert, or Alt without interrupting the spell checker.

Office 2000 has a new clipboard toolbar. It allows you to copy or cut up to 12 items to the clipboard. (Who decided on 12?) It then informs you that if you add another item to the clipboard, you will overwrite the first item added. This clipboard toolbar also hides some of the text on the screen. You can turn toolbars off in the View menu, as well as navigate to toolbars with keyboard commands.

A Database By Any Other Name

Perhaps the most dramatic improvement in the Office suite was in Access. In Access 97, a great many controls were nonstandard, and few used MSAA to compensate. Most screen readers worked badly with Access 97, and some did not work at all and were not even able to detect the presence of much of the text on the screen. With Access 2000, Microsoft added MSAA to many dialogs and other key parts of the program, making those parts usable. Keyboard access to features previously available only via the mouse was also added. One noteworthy improvement is in the clearly documented way in which a keyboard user is now able to establish a relationship between two tables, a task almost impossible to do previously, even with the best screen readers.

Inappropriate Office Behavior

Office 2000 includes features designed to make the average computer user's experience more intuitive. Unfortunately, some of these features can silently alter a screen reader user's documents and leave you wondering just who is in charge. For example, Word does automatic formatting, for your convenience, that changes documents without warning you aurally. So, if you start making a list of items separated with blank lines, Word will silently number those items. Then, when you discover the numbers and try to remove them, the cursor will skip over them. The Search command will allow you to find and delete them.

You cannot work very long in Office 2000 without encountering a wizard. Whether it is the Import wizard in Access or the Pivot table wizard in Excel, it will appear and claim to be ready to help you complete the task at hand. Wizards are often confusing because it is not always clear just from listening what text is a prompt. The ideal wizard would be one that clearly tells you what options are available and does not engage in extraneous banter.

The Autocorrect function corrects what it decides are spelling and grammar mistakes in your documents. (Try typing Arctic Technologies and they'll seem to move to the North Pole.) You can turn this feature off in the menus. You can also turn sounds on, and Office will play a sound when it corrects you. You can download Office sounds at <http://www.officeupdate.com/2000/downloadDetails/sounds.htm?s=/downloadCatalog/dldWord.asp>.

In Word, the left-to-right positioning of the cursor is not shown on the status line. A sighted user can look at a column of text and say: "Okay, that's lined up correctly." However, your screen reader can't tell you the same information by reading the status line.

The Conclusion Wizard

Microsoft has followed through on its promises to make Office 2000 much more accessible than Office 97. The Office 2000 development team took a leadership role and worked with screen reader manufacturers and sought feedback from consumers and trainers at conventions and private meetings. The largest improvement was in Access, which went from inaccessible to somewhat usable. Henter-Joyce has done extensive work in Excel, and JAWS for Windows works better than other screen readers with that program. Word has become a much more comfortable environment in which to work.

Now that access to Office programs has improved, users must do their part. Open Excel and experiment with entering and reviewing some data. There are now screen reader configuration files for PowerPoint. Experiment with developing a very basic presentation. When we ask screen reader manufacturers why their products don't work better with Excel, Access, or PowerPoint, they say that only a few users request better performance in those applications. So let's give them reasons to continue to improve their products' performance with Microsoft Office and other applications.

Manufacturer's Comments

"Regarding future plans of Office, we will continue to listen to our users and accessibility aid vendors to help improve our product. We are also working closely with the Active Accessibility team as they define MSAA 2.0, designed to address the need for support within the document area."

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