How to Make Windows 8 More Accessible: Simplifying the New Experience

The release of Windows 8 late last month has garnered much criticism, with some even going as far as to call it “the next Windows Vista.” Across the world and in businesses, many are facing challenges coping with the numerous changes Microsoft has incorporated in this groundbreaking OS release, creating much unease among those who are attempting to switch from a previous version. I have been using Windows 8 for well over a year, testing it even before any major blindness screen reader provided support for its new features. My goal ever since the inception of the project has been to assist those who do find it difficult to adapt to the new environment. For perhaps the very first time in Microsoft’s history, much has been done to consolidate past and current accessibility features into a cohesive whole. This allows for the rise of a windows release which is not only better with assistive technologies, but also offers similar interface consistencies across multiple platforms. Technologies such as UI Automation, which were introduced with Windows 7, have finally matured to the point of having been incorporated into the basic design of newer Windows 8 applications. According to Daniel Hubbell, who works with Microsoft Accessibility and is the Chairman of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), “Microsoft has been making accessibility investments in Windows for nearly 20 years. Many of the improvements you see in Windows 8 are actually the result of much of that long-standing work.” Thus, for the end user, this translates to an experience in which elements are unified. My goal here is to provide you with information which might allow you to see the beauty of Windows 8. Change is never swallowed without pain, especially when both touchscreen and standard technologies are merged in one location. Tablet computing is on the rise, and there is no reason that those who are blind or visually impaired should find difficulties with using both these devices, along with computers. While I do not aim to provide an entire review of the product, I do hope that I will be able to clear much of the confusion surrounding these dual environments, simplifying them to a point where anyone can understand what is entailed within Microsoft’s future.

Installing and Configuring Windows 8

Let us begin our journey of Windows 8 accessibility by talking about one of the most basic experiences one can have: Installing or preparing a new Windows 8 computer. Although Windows 8 is radically different when it comes to the installation interface, not much has actually changed since Windows 7 with regards to the process. You might wonder if it is possible to upgrade without sighted assistance, and fortunately it is. Upgrading can be done through several ways, all of which involve running setup from within your current version of Windows. One major change which has occurred since Windows 7 has been the use of a “web” installer, which is essentially what most who purchase Windows from an online resource will use. The interface of this is very simple, and it will even enter your product key in for you, so you will not be asked for it during install. You are also presented with the choice of saving a DVD image of Windows 8 onto your computer, for those scenarios where you may want a bootable disk to use for setup. A note of warning, however: Microsoft does not offer a talking installer with Windows if one decides to start from the setup media. This is rather unfortunate, as most other Operating Systems, such as Mac OS or Linux, do provide a screen reader or magnifier for installation.

A custom or dual-boot install of Windows is still possible, though one must do this from within Windows as well. For these cases, the “keep nothing” option will place the current Windows, program files, and users folder into a windows.old directory on the hard drive, allowing you to later move any files over to Windows 8 or delete the old copy completely. If you wish to dual-boot, you can actually run a file after you have burnt a dvd image of Windows 8. It is located in the sources directory, called install.exe. Once you click on this file, you will be presented with the “classic”, older Windows 7 style installer. This will avoid you from having to use a sighted person to set up your computer for dual booting- making the process a painless one. When performing any clean installs, Make sure to have at least 20 gigabytes free on your hard disk or partition.

After installation has finished, which should only take 3-4 reboots, you will be presented with the “out of box” experience. Here, you can hit Windows+U to launch the Ease of Access center, or, if you are using a Microsoft tablet, you can hit the windows key and volume up and have speech for the remainder of setup. Choosing the color scheme in the first step is rather inaccessible, as the colors have numerical values (e.g. color set 13) rather than actual names. If you choose express install, you can skip a lot of the steps, such as location and other consensual agreements. You might find that narrator will not echo keyboard feedback when entering information, such as your e-mail address during a Microsoft account setup. After you have finished installation, also note that Narrator will “duck” the audio of your screen reader under its own speech. For this reason, I recommend that you either turn Narrator off, or change this behavior in the settings dialog of the Window. Finally in Windows 8, a handy keyboard shortcut exists which turns narrator off: Control+Windows+U. This will allow you to toggle the screen reader, similar to how VoiceOver or Chrome users can do so.

Windows 8 and Screen reader Compatibility: Which one works?

Now we get into the fundamental aspect of Windows 8, involving screen reader compatibility. As of this writing (November 2012), NVDA, JAWS, and Window-eyes all offer Windows 8-compatible screen readers, with Hal and supernova joining the crowd soon. As it stands, Windows 8 does not currently have any external third-party screen magnifiers which are usable, though Microsoft’s solution is decent enough and has also received a facelift. All of the access solutions which can be used on the platform have their advantages and disadvantages, so your usage of them will be different depending on which reader you own.

For those who are running one of the newer Arm tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface RT, I must note that you will not be able to install any screen readers do to the processor being different in these products. Instead, you will most likely have to rely on narrator. This sentence might have revolting thoughts in your mind, however I assure you that Narrator is now a much better screen reader, one which at least allows you access to Windows 8 apps, and the majority of the new interface. “There are some people who will still need to use a screen reader and Narrator was never designed to be a replacement in all situations. For example, Narrator does not support some of the advanced screen reading functions like scripting that some may require in a complex work environment when using specialized applications. Because on ARM devices you can only install apps from the Windows Store there is a certain level of predictability and control that will make Narrator more useful”, according to Hubbell. This implies that if you are on a regular PC or Intel tablet, you should install at least NVDA or another screen reader of choice to make optimal use of Windows 8. Narrator does include over 50 commands for reading, navigation, and web browsing, all of which use the caps-lock key in conjunction with other commands. In my experience, narrator does relatively well on web pages, allowing you to change the scope of focus with narrator +up and down arrows. When using the browser or reading a document, you can choose from headings, links, words, and item navigation, while in Windows explorer, only the item choice is available. This is very fluid, and offers a similar conceptual experience as the rotor in VoiceOver or zooming in Chrome Vox. Essentially, you change the scope of what you wish to say, jumping through your screen by certain elements. Some of the Narrator keyboard shortcuts seem a bit illogical, such as C for saying system time, or Q for moving to the end of a document. There also exist some more “advanced” features, such as table navigation with the function keys, and even the rewinding or fast forwarding of speech. Quick navigation such as moving by heading (Narrator +J), links, and tables also exist, so changing the view with the arrow keys is not always needed. The voice seems to have a tendency of lagging, with a .5 second delay in between responses. I also found that some web content, such as the Gmail Basic Inbox are not properly shown, unless one manually changes the view to item navigation and reads the page in that manner. Overall, though, Narrator does offer a first glimpse into how screen reading will work in Windows, or where it could progress. Although it is no direct competitor to any major corporation, for basic use such as on tablets or with Windows 8 apps, it can be very useful.

As it stands, NVDA is currently the only screen reader which natively supports basic touch gestures on Windows 8 besides Narrator. This includes exploring or flicking to move among items, and activating them with taps, along with some more advanced reading functions. Currently, JAWS or window-eyes do not support touchscreens.

Making The Windows 8 start screen easier to use

When you first launch your computer, you are placed on the new start screen. This completely replaces the start menu, and will be the place where all applications are installed. The start screen consists of tiles containing dynamic live content. For example, your news tile might always refresh with new information, or the people one will flash pictures of contacts you have synced through Facebook. This might be an inconvenience for some, as screen readers will chatter the information off every time it updates. You can turn “live updating” off for any tile by right clicking, or hitting shift+f10 to open the application menu. This might make it easier for you to navigate among information without being interrupted by updates from apps. The start screen contains groups, which all screen readers announce during navigation. You can organize the apps and programs here by using alt+shift and the left/right arrow to move them around left and right respectively. Collapsing groups could also be one way to make navigation less painless, which you can accomplish by using windows key plus + to expand, and minus to collapse. The downside of the start screen is that whenever you install a program, some of its icons (such as uninstallers) will be placed into its group, which can create a cluttered experience. From the right-click menu, you can “unpin” an icon, which will remove it. Should you wish to access all of your shortcuts, simply hit windows key+Z, and choose “switch to all apps” to have a list made in alphabetized order. All of these tips should improve your experience with the start screen, and do keep in mind that using the search box by typing in the name of something you wish to find is still possible, though you will have to tab to change the scope of your search. In many ways, the start screen brings a much simplified view to Windows, though with many icons, keyboard and touch navigation can be inconvenienced for those using screen readers.

Windows 8 apps: Unifying touch with keyboards

One major change which Windows 8 has brought forth is the creation of a new type of “program”, which are called apps. These could be thought of as web pages, however the key differentiator lies in the fact that they can still include menus and tab-key navigation. The beauty of this is that since apps are only purchasable from the Windows Store, the experience you get with regards to accessibility and function will be identical regardless of your use of a tablet or non-touch computer. On tablets, you can swipe from the bottom of the screen upwards to reveal a menu bar of commands which are app-specific, whereas on a desktop, windows +Z is the universal shortcut. When running a Windows 8 app such as news, you can also access a set of functions known as charms by swiping in from the right of your screen or hitting windows +C. These provide 5 functions: share, devices, settings, search, and start. In this instance, you could use the share charm to share a news article with a twitter app you downloaded, and the devices charm to print it. This is not as straight forward by design, as control +P will not work in metro apps for printing. You also can’t use charms in your regular Windows programs. Sadly, this also means that you can’t send content from a Windows program to a newer Windows 8 app. Such distinctions might be frustrating, and this is why I find that on desktops, Windows 8 apps are less useful. For the sake of convenience, keyboard shortcuts can activate charms also. These include Windows + W to search settings, q to search apps, K to open the devices charm, I for settings, and H for search. Apps actually have to provide the ability to share information via charms, and hopefully developers will strive to do so when designing for the Windows Store. This separated nature of Windows 8 is precisely why there is such a large gap between apps and programs on the same computer. Of course, on RT tablets, such issues do not exist, since these cannot run Intel programs.

There is also a new type of notification which apps can send, called toast notifications. Windows 8 also uses these by default for some actions, such as when you insert a USB drive, or there is a warning which needs your attention. If you wish to click on these notifications, you can hit windows key +V or shift+V to cycle between them one by one. For example, say that you receive a new message from the Messaging app, via a Facebook friend. This would pop up as a toast notification, and will be read out loud, along with a sound. You can then hit windows+V to open the notification window, which will allow you to click on it for replying or closing the popup. There is no “notification center”, as live tiles on your start screen also alert you if something new arrives, effectively making the start screen a central experience for checking any updated information.

The Dual setting experience: Sorting the panes

One final point I also wish to touch on is the experience of modifying settings on Windows 8. As with apps and programs, there exist two very different places where Settings can be located. The standard control panel can still be launched through the start screen’s search box, or by typing in a setting you want to change, tabbing to the category list, and hitting enter on settings. However, I suspect that many will try to use the Settings charm, accessible anywhere by hitting Windows Key + I. Unfortunately, this will bring you to a new type of control panel, called “PC Settings”, which contains a more consolidated form of major options you might want to change. These are grouped into categories: Control panel, personalization, PC info, and help. Once you click on a choice in the list, you can tab around to see options for that category. The settings charm is also app-sensitive. If you are in the mail app, using it will allow you to change options for accounts, create signatures, and add new accounts. In the weather app, you can clear search history, and change other standard settings. Whereas the control panel has the advantage of containing a lot of advanced settings, it’s new simplified form might allow you to customize basic options without digging through many choices.

Final thoughts and conclusion:

It is completely understandable why Windows 8 might seem as a confusing mess, one which tries to bring touch into computing but appears to fail. Yet still, a lot of the touch-centric experiences such as new apps are not a necessity on a regular computer. The only basic experience which both touch and non-touch users have to face is the start screen. In many ways, it could be seen as a redesign of the start menu, and searching it is still possible. Pure desktop users will not have to use charms, nor will they find many toast notifications. I believe that the existence of a dual settings screen could prove to be an advantage for those who are just getting started with a computer, rather than something confusing in the long run. Windows 8 appears to be the beginning of a major shift, and the interface is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Just as radical change came with Windows 95, the clear embracing of a simpler connected future is in line with what we are seeing today. On the surface, the adjustments may seem deep and confusing. However, once you understand how a few new features operate, Windows 8 can become a lot clearer and less daunting.

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