There are some improvements in accessibility where Windows 7 is concerned.
The Microsoft Windows operating system is due for release within weeks; among many people who will use this operating system this is very good news, particularly among persons in Information Technology.
The latest Windows operating system could bring benefits for persons with disabilities as well and considering the fact that there are millions of people with disabilities in America alone, the operating system is greatly anticipated.
Accessibility tools and Windows are nothing new, the operating system has been improving access for people who use it since the release of the Active Accessibility Software Development Kit for Windows 95 in 1997. Windows 98 found more advanced features introduced into the core of the operating system, such as the screen magnifier that many people with vision disabilities use. The Windows XP operating system added a simple, yet usable, text-to-speech utility known as, 'Narrator,' as well as an on-screen keyboard function. The current Windows Vista includes additional accessibility features such as an Ease of Access Center and native speech recognition.
There is still a ways to go where accessibility features and Microsoft Windows operating systems are concerned. People who use Windows still may find themselves needing to use third-party applications in order to make full use of the operating system, applications which assist them particularly in their place of work. Users who are blind may find that they require screen readers such as WindowsEyes, Jaws, or HAL, products that convert text into speech or provide audible descriptions of elements on their screen as they use the system. Many visually impaired users choose third party magnifiers such as MAGic, WinZoom or Lunar over the Windows magnifier. These products represent an additional cost for this group of people with disabilities, costs that are a burden for either the person directly or their employer.
The Windows 7 operating system presents an opportunity to reduce these costs in relation to using a computer for persons with disabilities, and Microsoft is aware of this fact. The company has made the claim that it regards accessibility as being equivalent to performance and reliability, things that people can judge their operating system by. Michael Bernstein, Development Lead on the User Interface Platform Team, has stated that his team, "wanted to make Windows 7 the most accessible operating system that Microsoft has ever produced."
So - to the question: Has Windows 7 made any real improvements in the area of accessibility for people with disabilities
There are a couple of major accessibility features in this version of the Windows operating system that have gone through a complete overhaul. The first is the Windows Magnifier, something that has always been a useful tool, yet many people with visual impairments found to be counter-intuitive. The Magnifier did indeed magnify the area around the pointer, as well as following the pointer around the desktop, but the magnified area of the display was fixed to the top of the person's screen. The Magnifier was good for reading text, although it could make it difficult to see just where the person was looking.
The Magnifier in Windows version 7 has two new and useful features. One of these features is a full-screen option that allows the person to zoom in and out of the desktop with the image scrolling as needed and a virtual lens where the display follows the person's pointer as it moves. The other feature involves the on-screen keyboard, which has been overhauled to make appear and function more like the soft keyboard that is in use by people who us tablet PC's. The on-screen keyboard is more attractive, fully re-sizable, and is better equipped to function for persons with mobility impairments. The on-screen keyboard offers users basic text prediction, as well as the option to select key either by hovering over them with the pointer, or through a one button scan-to system.
Windows version 7 brings other benefits to persons with disabilities as well, although they are not as obvious. Persons with mobility impairments many times rely on a variety of assistive technologies in order to make the operating system work for them. These technologies can include voice recognition applications, trackballs, track pads, or specialty mice that give the person the ability to move a pointer with, 'sip and puff,' or lip movements. Windows version 7 has enhanced the User Interface automation API that was introduced by Windows Vista that gave manufacturers of these devices more scope to drive Windows applications. With Windows 7, developers are able to work not only through the .NET framework, but through C++ code as well. What this means is that these developers can make their products both more powerful and flexible in the future.
There is also the matter of backward compatibility. Windows 7 has a focus on backward compatibility, particularly with the presentation of Windows XP mode. What this does in ensure that the full-range of existing AT hardware and applications would work with the new operating system. People with disabilities find this to be very important; many of us use third party solutions that require backward compatibility and are rather anxious about changing operating systems because of it. With the new Windows 7 operating system, these concerns are eased considerably.
Windows 7 also has native support for touch control, something that is equally important to persons with disabilities. Standard computer use via a keyboard and mouse can present a real barrier for people with physical disabilities, or who experience learning disabilities, as well as for those who simply have not prior experience using a computer. Use of a touch screen interface has the potential to remove such barriers. The ability to see what you touch and do is easier to understand.
There is still room for improvement of course, but Microsoft has made strides with their new Windows 7 operating system. By opening the door, so to speak, to developers through enabling the use of both .NET and C++ code input for developers in the system, development of further applications for people with disabilities is now a very real option. The features mentioned make the operating system more usable by people with disabilities than before. There are solid accessibility features built into the core of the Windows 7 operating system (www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7/) now, a very good thing for people with disabilities.