Both Apple OS X and Microsoft Windows include absolutely free, built-in accessibility features. In this section we will show you how to summon the Windows Ease of Access Center, a suite of software and special settings that can assist users with visual impairments and those with hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments.
- Ease of Access Center
- Tips for Web Browsing
- Windows Magnifier Screen Magnification Program
- Windows Narrator Screen Reader
- Help with Windows Accessibility for Users with Visual Impairments
Ease of Access Center
Both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 include the Ease of Access Center. The simplest way to get started is by pressing and holding down the Windows Logo key (located at the bottom left of the keyboard between the Ctrl and Alt keys) while pressing the letter U. In Windows 8.1 when you release the keys, a screen with the following text will appear (Note: the Windows 7 Ease of Access Center includes all of the same options in a slightly different screen layout):
- Make your computer easier to use
- Quick access to common tools
You can use the tools in this section to help you get started. Windows can read and scan this list automatically. Press the SPACEBAR to select the highlighted tool of your choice:
- Always read this section aloud
- Always scan this section
- Start Magnifier Alt-G
- Start Narrator Alt-N
- Start On-Screen Keyboard Alt-K
- Set up High Contrast Alt-U
Not sure where to start? Get recommendations to make your computer easier to use Alt-R. Explore all settings. When you select these settings, they will automatically start each time you sign in.
- Use the computer without a display
- Optimize for blindness
- Make the computer easier to see
- Optimize visual display
- Use the computer without a mouse or keyboard
- Set up alternative input devices
- Make the mouse easier to use
- Make the keyboard easier to use
- Use text or visual alternatives for sound
- Make it easier to focus on tasks
- Make touch and tablets easier to use
Notice how several of the Ease of Access Center options list keyboard shortcuts you can use to activate them, such as Alt + G to start Magnifier, the built-in screen magnifier, and Alt + N to start the Narrator built-in screen reader. Press the Tab key to move item by item down the list. Press the Enter key to make a selection.
Launch Narrator or Magnifier Using the Windows Logo key
Here's an even quicker way to access Magnifier or Narrator on your Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 computer. Simply press the Windows Logo key, then type "Magnifier" or "Narrator," depending on which one you wish to open. Press the Enter key, and the program should begin running almost immediately.
In Windows 8.1 there is one additional way to start Narrator. Simply press the Windows Logo key + Enter once to turn Narrator on and a second time to turn it off.
Making Your Windows Computer Easier to See Without Using Magnifier: Tips for those with Low Vision
It may be that your vision is such that you don’t need to rely on the full power of the Magnifier program.
If this is the case, try accessing the Ease of Access center and selecting “Make your Computer Easier to See.” There, among other options, you can:
- Choose a built-in high contrast theme
- Toggle high-contrast mode off and on when you press Alt + Left Shift + Print Screen
- Change your desktop background image and color
- Change the size of text and icons
- Select a different mouse pointer
- Set the thickness of the blinking cursor
- Adjust the color and transparency of window borders
- Make the focus rectangle thicker
- Turn off all unnecessary animations
Tips for Web Browsing
If you are browsing the Web, there are a few additional settings that can help increase your enjoyment and productivity.
In most browsers, the F11 key will toggle you from normal view to full screen. The latter will hide all of those distracting menu bars and other icons. Also in the View menu of most browsers there is a Zoom option that will enlarge the currently displayed webpage.
Web developers like to use different sized fonts and a variety of colors to make their websites stand out. These constantly changing text sizes, hues, and intensities can make browsing more difficult than it needs to be for the Web surfer with a visual impairment.
If you are using a Windows computer with Internet Explorer as your browser, you can override these changes and create more visually accessible webpages, either on a one-time basis or for all future webpages.
Here’s how: In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools menu and select Internet Options. Use the Fonts and Colors options to make your desired changes. If you want to make these settings permanent, select Accessibility, where you will be given the chance to do the following:
- Ignore colors specified on webpages
- Ignore font styles specified on webpages
- Ignore font sizes specified on webpages
- Ignore default caption colors and fonts
Most of these options can also be found in the Firefox browser by going to the Tools menu, selecting Options, and then selecting Content.
Low Vision Computer Screen Access Using the Windows Magnifier Screen Magnification Program
As described previously, you can start Windows Magnifier either through the Ease of Access Center, where you can instruct Windows to start the program every time you turn on your computer, or by pressing the Windows Logo key, typing "Magnifier," then pressing Enter. There is another way to magnify the screen quickly without launching Magnifier itself. Simply press the Windows + Plus key combination to enlarge the screen, and Windows + Minus key to reduce screen size.
You can use Magnifier’s Zoom control, or the Windows + Plus key combination to enlarge your screen up to 16 times.
Windows Magnifier offers three different ways to enlarge the screen.
- Full screen: In full screen mode, the contents of the entire screen will be magnified. Naturally, this means not all of the information can be shown at once, so you may need to scroll around the screen considerably to be productive. With Magnifier running, press Ctrl + Alt + F to activate full screen mode.
- Lens mode: Lens mode is like holding a magnifying glass up to your computer display: a portion of the screen will be magnified; the rest will appear normally. The lens follows the mouse pointer or text cursor. You can also use the mouse to move the reading lens. With Magnifier running, press Ctrl + Alt + L to activate Lens mode.
- Docked view: In Docked view, a portion of your screen is “docked” to your display, and the information presented changes as you move about the screen. With Magnifier running, press Ctrl + Alt + D to activate Docked mode. The "docked" portion of the screen stays unmagnified.
Whenever you start Magnifier, the program’s toolbar appears briefly, then gets out of your way. You can summon it again by clicking the magnifying glass icon on your screen or the Magnifier icon on your computer’s taskbar.
Use the Options menu to set the percentage increment each press of the Zoom key increases or decreases the enlargement. You can also turn on color inversion to reverse colors on the screen. Reversing colors can make text easier to read.
A list of Magnifier hotkeys and other useful information is available from Microsoft.com.
Partial sight is unique to each individual. Consequently, there are no “best” settings—only the settings that are best for you. Experiment with the settings until they work for you. You may find that Windows Magnifier is the only computer access product you need. Or perhaps Magnifier combined with the screen reading features of Narrator will do the trick.
You may also discover that you need a bit more help. Happily, there are several third-party screen magnifier software programs available. We’ll discuss them in a later section.
You may also find it helpful to run both a screen magnifier and a screen reader simultaneously. Let's turn our attention to Windows Narrator in the next section.
Low Vision and Blind Computer Screen Access Using the Windows Narrator Screen Reader
As described previously, you can start Windows Narrator either through the Ease of Access Center, where you can instruct Windows to start the program every time you turn on your computer, or by pressing the Windows Logo key, typing "Narrator," then pressing Enter. Windows 8.1 users have an additional option: press the Windows + Enter keyboard shortcut to toggle Narrator on and off.
Narrator and other screen readers will speak dialogue boxes and error messages as they appear on your screen. They will also speak pertinent screen elements, such as new text, icons, and field names and data as they appear or become important to your computing session. For example, use the Left Arrow key to move one space to the left in your text and Narrator will echo the character that is now beneath the cursor. Use Control + Right Arrow to move one word to the right and you will hear that new word spoken aloud. Tab your way down a webpage link by link and you will hear the text associated with each link.
Narrator and other screen readers devote a lot of processing power to helping you keep up with an ever-changing computer screen. But they also offer a host of other keyboard shortcuts that enable you to reread a part of a screen, even an entire document.
Here is a partial list of screen elements you can review using Narrator keyboard shortcuts:
- Read the current character
- Read the current word
- Read the current line
- Read the current page
- Read the current document
Microsoft greatly enhanced the functionality of Narrator to help support Windows 8.1. Consequently, we will need to discuss the old and new versions of the Windows built-in screen reader separately.
Narrator for Windows 7
Narrator for Windows 7 includes a somewhat limited feature set. For many users, the Narrator for Windows 7 text-to-speech voice also leaves a lot to be desired. That said, Narrator was never meant to be a full-featured screen reader. As you will see in the next section, there are several companies that offer complete screen reader solutions. Narrator for Windows 7 is best used as an emergency screen reader to help you install your main screen reader, or to provide audible cues for Magnifier users when they move the mouse or wish to have an entire screen read out to them.
Here are several Narrator for Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts you may find useful.
- Insert + F3: Read the current character
- Insert + F4: Read the current word
- Insert + F5: Read the current line
- Insert + F7: Read the current page
- Insert + F8: Read the current document
A full list of Narrator for Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts and other helpful information is available from Microsoft.
Narrator for Windows 8.1
Narrator for Windows 8.1 features a pair of extremely high-quality text-to-speech voices—one male and one female—that are much easier to comprehend and listen to for extended periods of time than the voice provided in Windows 7. Narrator for Windows 8.1 also includes commands for touchscreen displays.
Nearly all of the keyboard shortcuts have been changed in this latest version of Narrator. Here is the Narrator for Windows 7 sample commands list from above, this time with their new Windows 8.1 keyboard shortcuts:
- Control + Caps Lock + Right Bracket (]): Read the current character
- Control + Caps Lock + P: Read the current word
- Control + Caps Lock + O: Read the current line
- Control + Caps lock + U: Read the current page
- Caps Lock + H.: Read the current document
A full list of Narrator for Windows 7 keyboard commands, touchscreen gestures, and other helpful information is available from Microsoft.
Getting Help with Windows Accessibility for Users with Visual Impairments
In this guide we have demonstrated how it is possible to continue using a Microsoft Windows computer, or to use one for the very first time, with either low or no vision. As you gain experience using a computer with a visual impairment you will doubtless have many questions and may occasionally need a bit of help or technical support. In this section we will list just a few of the many excellent resources available for assistance.
The Microsoft Accessibility Answer Desk
Microsoft offers free technical support for users of Windows accessibility products. Their technicians are knowledgeable about both accessibility and mainstream products, and are even able to log onto your computer, if necessary, to offer assistance in running a particular piece of software (even third-party software) with a screen reader or magnifier.
Microsoft’s Accessibility Answer Desk, 800-936-5900, is available in North America from 5 am to 9 pm Pacific during the week, and 6 am to 3 pm Pacific on the weekends. English Language only.
Your rehabilitation agency may be able to provide you with one-on-one computer access training. These sessions can either be provided at a training center, in person at your residence, or via phone or audio/video chat using Skype or other computer communications software.
Believe it or not, this video sharing site is a veritable treasure trove of information about running a Windows computer with accessibility. Search for “Windows Narrator,” “browsing the Web with a screen reader,” or other similar topics and you will be amazed by the quantity, quality, and “listenability” of the results.