Microsoft makes improvements to Office Online Accessibility

There are no built-in screen readers for Windows operating systems and the screen reader software compatible had cost hundreds of dollars until a year ago when Ai Squared and GW Micro merged and partnered with Microsoft last year and started providing “people who are blind, visually impaired, or print disabled with a completely functional and free license AiSquared’s Window-Eyes screen reader. This offer is through Microsoft and is offered to any customer “who have a licensed version of Office 2010 or later the ability to download Window-Eyes, a screen reader for Windows PCs, free of charge.” Prior to offering this product free, Window Eyes cost almost $900.00.

The Window Eyes for Office initiative that provides this screen reader software for free to people allows screen readermillions of blind or visually impaired users to use a computer. Not only will this benefit the blind or visually impaired, it will help those with age-related vision conditions (such as Macular Degeneration) be able to continue to use a computer as their vision deteriorates and they become unable to use the screen or rely on magnification of the screen.

Over the years, there has been a big shift to cloud-based computing. With the evolvement of cloud-based computing that allows you to store and access your data from the Internet, instead of using your computer’s hard drive, people are able to access data and programs from any computer or mobile device. Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 is a subscription to cloud-based computing that allows you to create, edit and share Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook Publisher and OneNote. The advantage of using Office 365 is that you can use the products from different devices that don’t have Office, as opposed to Office software that is purchased and licensed for only one device. And now if someone subscribes to Office 365 they are able to take advantage of the free Window-Eyes offer that will work with the Office 365 products. This allows visually impaired or blind users the ability to access these products from any device instead of being limited to one desktop computer where Office is installed.

Here at INDATA we have been watching closely as Microsoft has begun to dedicate many resources to making their operating system and products accessible. They continue to work to improve accessibility for their users and have already made several improvements over this past year to the Office Online accessibility.

 Office Online enhancements include:

Location and formatting information:

This has improved how you move around in a document. If you enable Narrator (to enable press the Windows Key + Enter) you will hear formatting information announced verbally such as lists, tables, heading, et cetera.

Reading without moving the cursor through the document:

This will allow virtual reading of up to 3 pages in Word Online and OneNote Online. Virtual reading allows you to have the document read to you out loud without having to move your cursor. The shortcut for Narrator is called “Start Reading” and you can enable with the keyboard command of Caps Lock + M. Whenever you enable the Narrator it will start reading the rest of the document based on your current location.

Tell Me:

Tell Me is a time saving feature in Office online. There is a box that says, “Tell me what you want to do”. You can type what you want the app to do instead of having to navigate through menus and toolbars, which Microsoft calls the Ribbon. You can tell it to change your document to landscape from portrait or to insert a table. You can go directly to the Tell Me text box once in the document by using the keyboard shortcut of Ctrl + ‘ (apostrophe). Once you “tell” what it is you want done you simply press enter to make that change go into effect.

Online accessibility support:

Online accessibility support is a library of documentation that covers common tasks when using a keyboard and screen reader. This is now available for Word Online and OneNote Online. To access the accessibility help documents you press Alt + Shift + A.

These are a few of the improvements that Microsoft has been working on to improve accessibility of their products. It is clear that they are dedicated to making accessibility a priority and are dedicating resources to continually improve accessibility features.

Soon after the announcement about Window Eyes for Office, Wade Wingler, Director of Assistive Technology, at Easter Seals Crossroads was lucky enough to interview Dan Hubbel, Microsoft’s accessibility technical evangelist, to learn more about Microsoft’s accessibility initiatives. He indicated in the podcast “the industry is understanding how important accessibility is and continuing to put many resources towards the continued development of computer accessibility.” He talks about how they have even created a disability answer desk to support Microsoft user’s who have disabilities. He discusses that Microsoft recognized that they were not able to provide support to the Microsoft users using assistive technology such a screen readers or magnifiers and created this team to provide the much needed support. The disability answer desk provides 24 hour support via chat, phone or in store. You can reach them via telephone at 1-800-936-5900. Click here to listen to the interview with Dan Hubbell.

With all these exciting developments we are definitely keeping up with all the accessibility advancements Microsoft has and will make in the future. In fact, Easter Seals Crossroads is the only Microsoft Accessibility Resource Center (MARC) in the state of Indiana. As part of this program we provide training on accessibility components that are built into a Windows operating system. If you are a Windows user and are interested in training about the accessibility features built into your Windows operating system, click here to find out information such as who to contact to find out about training opportunities.

We will continue to watch all the exciting developments in the world of computer accessibility and bring that information to you through our blogs, social media (Facebook and Twitter) and podcasts. Make sure to subscribe to our blogs and podcasts and follow us on social media to keep current on all the latest assistive technology news.