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New Office, Vista To Feature Improved Disability Access

An overhaul of how Microsoft deals with disability access technologies will take form in the next generation of the company's flagship programs.

Windows offers several ways for people with disabilities to tweak the software. There's a screen magnifier for the vision impaired, for example, and ways for people with limited dexterity to use the keyboard instead of the mouse.

But a few years ago when Microsoft researched how those technologies were being used, "most people didn't know about them," recalled Rob Sinclair, head of Microsoft's assistive technologies group.

That was particularly disappointing because the same research showed that accessibility-enhancing functions didn't just affect a small subset of users considered to be somehow "disabled." It turned out that 57 percent of computer users between 18 and 64 could benefit from some such feature, such as increasing text size or screen contrast to ease the job for tired eyes.

These realizations sparked an overhaul of how the world's largest software maker deals with disability access technologies, changes that will appear in the next generation of the company's flagship programs. Rival Apple Computer Inc. is also planning to upgrade the accessibility of its upcoming operating system for Macs.

The approach is partly motivated by the aging of the baby boomer generation. But it also is part of a rising trend in design: that improving disability access can make products easier for everyone for use.

Bill Gribbons, director of the Human Factors in Information Design program at Bentley College, cites the example of appliance makers that have been trying to make washers and dryers that don't require elderly users to bend over as much.

"When they do that for an older person, you know what, I like that dryer better as well," said Gribbons, who is 48.

Microsoft says this principle will be apparent in Office 2007, the next incarnation of the company's widely used package of "productivity" programs such as Word and Excel.

Partly because of complaints from users with disabilities about how many steps it took to do common activities such as changing fonts or copying and pasting text, Office 2007 will scrap the traditional "menu" layout that has been in place since the 1980s.

In its place will be a graphical "ribbon" that offers quick access to the most common functions a user might need in a given program. Icons and other "buttons" on the screen will be larger, making them easier to find and click. Rolling the mouse over certain icons will show a preview of what a selected action would do, eliminating the need to go through the more laborious process of activating and then undoing a function to test it out.

Jensen Harris, the Microsoft program manager for the new Office user interface, boasts that making text bold, for example, will now require moving the mouse across just five pixels --the tiny dots that make up a computer image -- of screen real estate. Currently that maneuver might traverse 700 pixels.

While these changes should help people who find the computer mouse physically challenging, the fixes are also designed to make life easier for everyone.

For example, Harris' team has made just about every function able to be triggered by moves on the keyboard besides the mouse, so some people can avoid it altogether. That also benefits heavy users who prefer doing everything from the keyboard for supreme efficiency, Harris noted.

These ideals will also mark Microsoft's upcoming operating system Vista, due in November for businesses and January for consumers.

For years, accessibility enhancements in Windows have been stashed behind a wheelchair icon in the software's "control panel." That was a big turnoff for many people who don't consider themselves disabled.

So Vista will combine the accessibility tweaks and some new ones, such as speech-to-text software and greater screen-magnification powers, in a prominent, more universal "ease of access" center on the desktop.

The center will be far more user-friendly: It will ask questions about users' physical capabilities and suggest certain settings as a result.

Say someone checks "yes" when asked whether she has "difficulty writing with a pen or pencil." Vista will suggest that she activate Windows' "sticky keys" setting, which is more forgiving to less-dexterous typists. Previously, a user would have to know that sticky keys existed and could help them, and then hunt for them behind the wheelchair icon.

Apple Computer also promises several access enhancements in the operating system it will release for Mac computers in 2007, code-named Leopard. Among them will be improvements to the Macs' screen-reading software, known as VoiceOver. The present operating system, Tiger, incorporated VoiceOver for the first time, sparing many visually impaired users from having to buy separate screen-reading software that can cost more than $1,000.

Such changes over the years have greatly helped Jerry Halatyn, a recording studio owner in New York who has been able to use music-production software even as his vision has been steadily eroded by a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa.

Halatyn, who has been an early tester of Apple software for the blind, thinks the computing industry overall has become better at helping users with disabilities.

Still, though, he suggests that software developers focus more on the ideal that Gribbons called "universal design" -- building programs from the start with an emphasis on multiple ways of interacting with them.

"Developers need to consider that addressing accessibility issues at the outset," Halatyn said, "is far more efficient and generally a better design than retroactively trying to go in and do the work."

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