Free Computer Assistive Technology Already in Windows Computers
The Windows XP, Vista, and 7 operating systems all include a wide range of built-in accessibility features. These can be activated to make the monitor, keyboard, or mouse easier to use for many people. This article provides information on these features, including how to turn them on and use them in all three versions of Windows. Most of these features are also available in earlier Windows systems.
MouseKeys allows the keypad (the rectangle of number keys on the far right of most desktop keyboards) to be used to carry out all mouse commands. Separate keypads can also be purchased and added to laptops, or used by people who prefer to place the keypad on their left. Having MouseKeys active does not interfere with standard mouse use.
To access MouseKeys settings:
- XP: Accessibility control panel→Mouse tab
- Vista/7: Ease of Access control panel→Make the mouse easier to use
7: Moves cursor northwest
8: Moves cursor due north
9: Moves cursor northeast
4: Moves cursor due west
6: Moves cursor due east
1: Moves cursor southwest
2: Moves cursor due south
3: Moves cursor southeast
5: Emulates left mouse button
+: Emulates right mouse button
0: Emulates drag function. (Position cursor over desired icon, then click “0.” Use movement keys to drag icon. Use 5 key to turn drag function off.)
Click Items as Follows
Windows has a setting in the Folders control panel that eliminates most need for double clicking. This can be particularly helpful for new computer users who may be confused about when to single click and when to double click, as well as for people with slow reflexes or forefinger injuries.
To access Click Items as Follows settings
- XP, Vista, 7: Folder Options→General tab
Under the "Click items as follows" option, click on the "Single-click to open an item" radio button. Then click on either "Underline icon titles consistent with my browser" (recommended; in most cases, this means the titles will always appear underlined) or "Underline icon titles only when I point at them."
Mouse Control Panel
The Buttons tab in the Mouse control panel in XP, Vista, and 7 has options that make clicking functions easier to use. The Pointers, and Pointer Options tabs have options to make the pointer easier to see:
- Button Configuration -- Allows the function of the left and right button to be swapped, primarily for the benefit of people who use the mouse with their left hand.
- Double-Click Speed -- Allows the amount of time that can elapse between the first and second click to be adjusted; the slower the speed, the longer the user can pause between clicks and still have the double-click accepted.
- Click Lock -- Allows highlighting and other dragging functions to be accomplished without having to hold down the left mouse button. Clicking the left mouse button once "locks" it; after the dragging is completed, clicking it again releases it.
Allows any of the pointers (the arrow, the "text select" I-Bar, the resize arrows, etc.) to be modified for size and/or color contrast. Several "schemes" allow all pointers to be modified at the same time; e.g., a "Windows Black (extra large)" scheme will make all pointers significantly larger and darker.
Pointer Options Tab:
- Motion -- Modifies how fast the pointer moves. If someone has difficulty visually tracking the pointer, they can use this option to slow it down.
- Snap To -- When a dialog box comes up, this option automatically moves the pointer to the default button.
- Visibility -- This includes three options that may make the pointer easier to use for people with visual disabilties: Pointer Trails (which results in a trail of pointer images), Hide Pointer when Typing (which eliminates problems with large pointers blocking part of a document), and Show Location of Pointer (which puts a bulls-eye around the pointer when the Control key is pressed, making it easier to see).
Many mouse functions can be carried out more efficiently through use of keyboard shortcuts. Common shortcuts include the following:
||Brings up Start menu
||Copies highlighted text
||Cuts highlighted text
||Pastes highlighted text
||Moves focus to menu bar
|Left-right arrow keys
||Moves among menus
|Up-down arrow keys
||Moves among items in a menu
||Moves forward/back among items in a dialog box or links on a website
Sticky Keys/Filter Keys/Toggle Keys
- Sticky Keys -- Eliminates the need to press more than one key at a time. For example, with StickyKeys, you can perform a restart (Control-Alt-Delete) by pressing and releasing Control, pressing and releasing Alt, and pressing and releasing Delete.
- Filter Keys -- Slows down or turns off key repeats. This is helpful for people with hand tremors, cerebral palsy, etc., who often get unintended extra characters.
- Toggle Keys -- Provides an audio tone whenever the Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, or Num Lock key is pressed. This function was designed to alert blind users when they might have accidentally activated one of these keys, but can be helpful to anyone.
These three useful options can be turned on from the following locations:
- XP: Accessibility control panel→Keyboard tab
- Vista/7: Ease of Access control panel→Make the keyboard easier to use
Keyboard Control Panel
The Speed tab on the Keyboard control panel has two useful features:
- Character Repeat augments the Filter Keys function by allowing users to specify how much time should elapse between key repeats and how quickly keys should repeat.
- Cursor Blink Rate can make the cursor blink more quickly, which may make it more visible to people with low vision, or make the blinking slower or non-existent, which may be more comfortable for people with photosensitivity.
An on-screen keyboard shows the standard keyboard layout on the screen, where it can be accessed using the mouse. Options include clicking directly on the desired key, hovering over it for a set period of time to select a character, or clicking the mouse when the desired key is highlighted in a scanning pattern. In Windows 7, the built-in keyboard also has word prediction, so that users can select common words and save themselves from having to type every letter.
To turn on the keyboard:
- XP: Go to Start Menu→All Programs→Accessories→Accessibility→On-screen keyboard
- Vista/7: Go to Start Menu→Accessories→Ease of Access→Start On-screen keyboard
To set options for input mode:
- XP/Vista: From the Settings menu, choose Typing Mode
- 7: Click on the Options button and choose one of the options under "To Use the On-Screen Keyboard"
Windows Speech Recognition
Windows Vista and 7 include a simple speech recognition utility that allows users to dictate text into documents and speak mouse commands. It is not as powerful as commercial programs, and only supports one user per computer. Users must first go through a short voice training process.
To turn on speech recognition:
- Vista/7: Go to Start Menu→Accessories→Ease of Access→Windows speech recognition
System Display Settings
There are options for changing text size and color contrast (which affect most but not all parts of the computer system).
To select from about three dozen preset "skins," several of which provide high contrast and/or large print:
- Accessibility control panel→Display tab
To modify any element on a skin, or to create a skin from scratch:
- Display control panel→Appearance tab; click on the "Advanced" button
To select from eight preset skins, none of which provide large print:
- Ease of Access control panel→Make the Computer Easier to See link→Choose a high contrast color scheme
To modify any element on a skin, or to create a skin from scratch:
- Display control panel→Appearance tab; click on the "Advanced" button.
Windows 7 Options:
To select from six preset skins, none of which provide large print:
- Ease of Access control panel→Make the Computer Easier to See link→Choose a high contrast theme link→Scroll down to "Basic and High Contrast Themes" option
To make the text 125% or 150% larger:
- Ease of Access control panel→Make the Computer Easier to See link→Change the size of text and icons link
All three operating systems have a Magnifier utility that works like a virtual magnifying glass to enlarge text on part or (in 7) on all of the screen.
To turn on the Magnifier:
- XP: Go to Start Menu→All Programs→Accessories→Accessibility→Magnifier
- Vista/7: Go to Start Menu→Accessories→Ease of Access→Start Magnifier
Narrator is a very simple speech output program that can help blind users get started with Windows. However, it does not substitute for a full-featured screen reader.
To turn on Narrator:
- XP: Go to Start Menu→All Programs→Accessories→Accessibility→Narrator
- Vista/7: Go to Start Menu→Accessories→Ease of Access→Start Narrator
Using Built-In Computer AT in Public Computer Labs
Although built-in options can provide benefits to many users in public computer labs, there can be barriers to their implementation. Security software may be set to prevent any access to control panels and other Start menu features. Management software (which lets users choose which applications to run) may not allow access to these features.
This can best be addressed by talking to your information technology (IT) staff members to see what arrangements can be made. Compromises may include:
- Permitting access to built-in utilities on computers that have other assistive technology loaded
- Making built-in utilities available via the software interface that allows users to select other applications
- Having a staff member modify security permissions when users request access to built-in utilities
Information provided by the Accessible Technology Coalition (ATC).