DOES MICROSOFT’S NEWEST OPERATING SYSTEM HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO ASSIST PERSONS WITH PHYSICAL, SENSORY, AND LEARNING DISABILITIES?
BY JOSEPH J. LAZZARO
If you track changes in the computer industry, you may have noticed that Microsoft recently rolled out a new version of Windows. On October 25, 2001, Microsoft launched Windows XP, a near total rewrite of the Windows operating system. If you’re a computer user with a physical, sensory, or learning disability, this new release of Windows may also cause some uncertainty on your part.
If you use Windows for home, school, or work, you likely have many questions about XP. Will XP work with my adaptive equipment? Will my software programs be compatible? Does my PC have what it takes to run XP? Will my previous knowledge of Windows be transferrable? If you’re asking yourself any of these questions, then read on! We’ll describe some of the new and powerful features included in XP, and how these can be beneficial for users with disabilities. We’ll also discuss XP compatibility with adaptive equipment, what the system requirements are, and help you decide if you’re ready to take the leap to this new operating system.
If you’re like most computer users, the thought of learning yet another new piece of software is the last thing on your mind. You’ve grown comfortable with what you have, and have mastered your adaptive equipment, and the stable of software programs that you use to perform various tasks. You’re likely asking yourself a million questions. Among them, how long will it take me to learn XP, and will my previous knowledge of Windows apply?
The good news is that if you already know how to run one of the recent versions of Windows like 95, 98, or Millennium, you already know how to run XP. This is because Windows XP functions virtually the same as previous versions. You point and click to run applications, just like you’ve done in the past. And even if you can’t get used to the differences in XP, there is a mode to let you choose between the XP look and the classic look.
Another important question on the minds of users is will my current software programs run under XP? According to Microsoft, XP is compatible with older windows software, but you could encounter problems with some older legacy applications. Consult your software vendor to determine if your specific application is compatible with XP right out of the box, or if there is a patch available to make it more XP compliant. Also, be aware that XP includes a Compatibility Mode to make it more compliant with legacy software. Compatibility mode essentially tells your applications that it is an older version of Windows.
If You’re using adaptive equipment, either hardware or software, you’re probably wondering if upgrading to XP will cause incompatibility problems. The short answer is that if you’re upgrading to XP, you will likely have to also upgrade your adaptive software to keep running. This could involve purchasing an upgrade to your existing software or purchasing a new version altogether. If you’ve purchased a software maintenance agreement from the vendor, you may be entitled to an upgrade to XP automatically. If you’re uncertain, check with your adaptive vendor.
You may be wondering if vendors of adaptive technology are going to support XP. After speaking with numerous adaptive hardware and software suppliers, the major players in the adaptive technology arena. seem to be working hard getting XP versions of their products to market, and many of them should be on the store shelves by the time you read this. XP has become an accepted fact of life in the computer world. and the adaptive vendor community seems to be wasting no time leaping on the XP bandwagon. Check with your vendor to determine product pricing for their XP compatible offerings.
If you’re a user with a vision related disability, there are some issues relating to XP that you should be aware of. For users who are blind or visually impaired, the biggest hurdle with XP focuses on the user inter face. The new look of XP involves the Start Menu and Task Bar. XP shows you the Start Menu in a double column. The five most recently used programs are shown in the left column, and the rest of the Start Menu is displayed in the right. This new user interface arrangement does not seem to be an issue with the new generation of XP compliant screen readers and video magnification software packages currently on the market. But if you can’t get used to the new XP look, you can always turn on classic mode to change the appearance to a previous version of Windows.
If you’re using a screen magnification program, you may have some problems accessing XP Office applications. This is due to the fact that XP employs a new mechanism for drawing graphics that may have a negative impact on users who employ screen reader and screen magnifiers. This new technology is known as GDI+, and permits applications to draw both text and graphics to the screen. The problem with the new GDI+ is that it renders text as a bit mapped image, which cannot be accessed by screen readers. GDI+ also confuses screen magnification software for users with low vision.
GDI+ is used in Windows XP Home and Professional. as well as XP Office. At the present time, this may be a more significant problem for screen magnifiers, rather than screen readers. According to the screen reader developers I spoke with, they are working on the problem, and were blindsided by Microsoft on this issue. GDI+ could become a serious issue as more software developers use this new technology to draw screens. Microsoft is working on the problem after getting some significant feedback from the dis ability community.
If you’re a fan of keyboard shortcuts, then fear not. You’ll be glad to know that XP still supports all the keyboard shortcuts found in previous versions of Windows. Keyboard shortcuts are necessary for users who have difficulty pointing the mouse to objects on the screen, and are powerful adaptations for users who are blind or visually impaired, or for power users who simply don’t want to take their hands off the main keyboard. Keyboard shortcuts let you point to specific objects and controls, launch programs and documents, control applications, print, save, shut down, and more.
Below are several commonly used keyboard shortcuts:
One of the most important questions you may have about XP is “will my current PC have enough power to run it?” Microsoft recommends that you run XP on a computer with a 300-megahertz processor, 128 megabytes of memory, and 1.5 gigabytes of free hard disk space. XP also requires a CDROM or DVD drive, and an 800 by 600 super VGA video adapter and monitor.
While these recommended system requirements are sufficient to run the XP operating system itself. they may not be sufficient for users running adaptive equipment as part of the mix. If you’re using a speech synthesis or voice dictation program, you will need even more clock speed and memory. This is because these adaptive solutions require a significant portion of your computers resources in order to operate. Performance will increase if you run XP on systems equipped with a faster processor, larger memory, and additional hard disk space. Consult with your software vendor for the exact system requirements for their specific adaptive solution. Keep in mind that you can never have too much memory or processor speed!
If you’re like most users, you want to connect to the Internet for email, web browsing, and other tasks. XP supports many different types of hardware connections to the net including analog, cable, DSL, and wireless hookups. Obviously, the faster connection, the better. Consult your internet service provider for their connection plans and pricing structure.
XP HOME AND XP PROFESSIONAL: THE TWO FLAVORS OF XP
Windows XP comes in two basic versions: XP Home, and XP Professional. XP Home, as its name implies, is designed for household users. XP Home is well suited for those running a single stand-alone computer or a simple peer-to-peer network. On the other hand, XP Pro is intended for business applications, and users having more demanding computing requirements. XP Pro allows you to log onto both peer-to-peer and client server networks. XP Pro also has increased security, and lets you encrypt your files and folders. If you work from home, and have to log onto a remote network, then you should go with XP Pro, While the versions of XP differ in terms of client-server network access, both XP Home and XP Pro allow you to log onto the Internet without difficulty.
In terms of built-in adaptive technology, XP Home and Professional are exactly the same. Both versions of XP include Microsoft’s Narrator, Magnified On-Screen Keyboard, and Utility Manager. For users with disabilities, this makes the selection process a bit easier. You get the same accessibility features in both versions. Here’s a basic rundown of some of the more prominent accessibility features found in XP.
Narrator is a basic screen reader that provides speech output for blind computer users. Narrator follows the mouse cursor, and speaks objects as you move around the screen. You can use Narrator to control your computer, even if you can’t see the screen. Narrator can be used with word processing, database. spreadsheet, and other software applications. According to Microsoft, Narrator is a simplified speech package and is not intended to replace more powerful commercially available screen readers. Narrator is useful for users who cannot afford a more full-featured product, or for those users who don’t have access to their normally available adaptive equipment. You can quickly launch Narrator by hitting the WINDOWSKEY+U to launch Utility Manager. This will automatically start narrator and provide speech output, provided you have an installed sound card and speakers, Headphones can also be used.
Magnifier is a basic screen magnification software program that was designed to assist users who have limited vision. The program can provide up to nine times magnification, and lets you adjust contrast set tings, and select normal or inverse video. Magnifier works with word processing, web browsing, and other software programs. Magnifier can be customized, and the settings can then be saved to disk. As is the case with Narrator, magnifier is not intended to replace more powerful software magnification programs.
The On-Screen keyboard is an application designed for users who have difficulty typing on the physical keyboard or driving the mouse. The On-Screen key board displays a picture of the keyboard on the video monitor. This so called virtual keyboard can be programmed to highlight one key at a time, letting you select the highlighted key with an external adapted switch. This allows users with physical disabilities to operate the computer independently using a switch that has been customized to meet their specific needs.
The Utility Manager lets you control all the internal accessibility applications found in the operating system, and set the preferences for each utility. You can start Utility Manager by hitting the WINDOWSKEY+U or by going to the Start menu.
SOME NEW FEATURES
A s with any new software release, XP has boatloads of new features. In an article this size, it’s impossible to cover all of them in detail. We will, however, try to describe several of the more prominent features.
If you use a network or the Internet, XP has a built in network repair feature that will ultimately come in handy. If for any reason, you lose your connection to a local area network, or to the Internet, you can click on the Repair Network icon to get back up and running. This automatically rebuilds your connection and restores all your settings including your IP address. If you’re not familiar with network technology, this feature alone may be worth upgrading to XP.
As CD writers have become standard equipment on most computers purchased today, XP now includes direct support for CD burners. You can use this feature to drag and drop files onto your CD writer. This can be used for backing up important files, or for sharing large amounts of information with others. Thanks to XP, you no longer need to purchase a third-party product to perform this task.
We all know that technical support can keep you up and running when technical glitches rear their ugly head. When problems arise, wouldn’t it be great if someone could take over the controls to fix the problem? Well, it just so happens that XP has a method for getting technical support by remote control. The Remote Assistance feature allows a technician or another individual to take over control of your computer from a remote location, helping getting problems resolved more rapidly. Remote Assistance works across the Internet or a local area network, and the remote technician uses her keyboard, mouse, and monitor to operate your PC via this connection. The remote technician can control your keyboard and mouse, and can see everything displayed on your video monitor. Before you become alarmed, you should be aware that Remote Assistance can only become active with your permission and knowledge. You must grant clearance before anyone can take control of your computer.
In closing, XP represents a total rewrite of the Windows operating system. For better or worse, Windows XP is now a fact of life! You will likely encounter it at school or on the job, and so it is in your best interest to get up to speed with it. For users with disabilities, XP includes built-in support for per sons with sensory, physical, and learning disabilities.
XP also supports third-party adaptive technology through Active Accessibility, software that helps assistive technology communicate directly with the operating system. But if you’re a user with low vision, you may want to postpone upgrading to XP, due to the problems with screen magnification software. Microsoft is working on the problems and they are expected fix them. For more information about accessibility efforts at Microsoft, point your web browser to:
Joseph J. Lazzaro is project director for the Adaptive Technology Program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. He is also a freelance writer with three books on assistive technology.
His latest book, Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments, Second Edition, is available in both print and CDROM. He is also a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You can contact him by email at Lazzaro@TheWorld.Com.
Joseph J. Lazzaro