My Own Accessibility Experience

“So, what happened to your blog?”

That’s a quest I got on Friday at the office from one of my associates. She asked why I had posted fewer and fewer posts per month until about a year ago, and then nearly nothing at all, save a few posts which were more general updates than insights or preaching in front of the fence with a bucket full of brushes. (Some of you will understand that reference in relationship to how I spend many days at the office.)

TL;DR, After recovering from an injury and returning to work, I knew that I would have to find ways to cope with the limitations on how I used the computer: I was lucky if I could type ten our fifteen words a minute, much slower than I could think, and somewhat slower than I could get the words out after a month of recovery. I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with the folks in our product groups and cross company accessibility team, as well as with some of our amazing people who use our technology to accomplish basic productivity tasks after suffering much more debilitating injuries. I knew the technology and applications existed. I had even purchased some of the software solutions to help out my youngest son when he had experienced challenges early on with typing on the computer, to dictate his work. But I hadn’t used them myself beyond the basic dogfooding we do on new product releases, given several of the core abilities are offered in Windows.

My hand-eye coordination hadn’t been as impacted as much as my speech, concentration and typing, so I was able to mouse around and use my Surface tablet and Sony all-in-one touchscreens without much on an issue. But I found that I needed to enlarge what I found on the screen to make it easier to see my work and to navigate around the desktop.

So, I decided to use some of our resources to determine what I could do out of the box with our products and services to get my job done. Being somewhat stubborn and independent, I decided to do this myself, leveraging what was available in our office, on our websites and from our partners.

Having worked in the Windows group, and with Rob Sinclair and his team on accessibility solutions, I knew that Windows 7, Windows 8 and Office 2013 (where I spend most of my day) had built-in capabilities and companion programs to make it easier to use the computer. And I am a big fan of folks like Jenny Lay Flurrie, Kelly Ford, (the late) Michael Kaplan and many others at Microsoft who are not only making great contributions at the office and in our industry, but are strong advocates and adamant voices for the customers we serve.

I’ve close to 20/20 vision, so I didn’t need to take advantage of Narrator, our bundled screen reader, which reads aloud the text on the screen. But I did use the Magnifier in Windows 7 to make it easier to see parts of the screen as I moved my mouse over a document. And I found I regularly used the zoom feature in Internet Explorer and Office 2013 to magnify the documents I worked on and pages I visited. I also optimized my display to change the options of displayed dialogue boxes and the attributes of the cursor, making them easier to see and notice on the large displays. Changing the desktop screen resolution and adding a second larger 40” screen to my all-in-one computer at home made it easier to view materials and work on things in the same familiar flow, but without the need to squint.

I also found myself using the keyboard more and more, rather than the mouse, through Mouse Keys to move the arrow via the arrow keys on my keyboard, and Sticky Keys to trigger multiple, simultaneous key presses to hold one modifier key down while remembering the combination to unlock Windows or log on. I also made it easier to use Windows by preventing the automagical arrangement of windows when moved close to the edge of a screen.

One of the biggest challenges for me was typing. I had tested and used some of the capabilities in Windows 7 and Windows 8 to use my voice to control the computer with basic commands and simple dictation. It takes a while and some training before you can start using Speech Recognition reliably. But after a while of becoming familiar with the basic commands, controlling the computer and moving around a document during dictation are relatively easy, but rudimentary in my experience.

Then I remembered the copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking I’d purchased for my son. There, I’d found the software to be very good at dictation and voice recognition (kudos to our robust set of third party developers!) over our own solution, particularly for parsing what I’d said and transcribing it automatically in Word our Outlook onto the screen. The user interface is intuitive and overall the application works quite well and is extremely fast and accurate – the key reasons I purchased version 11 (and happily upgraded to 11.5). Recognition also improves with use, and it transcribed what I said father than I could get the words out, and with great accuracy. The biggest challenge was remembering how to enter punctuation, note the end of sentences and overall formatting. One of the first public results was my blog post last July on dotless domains: Dragon handled the words like a champ with a minor amount of typing and editing. The same was true for my last two posts: although I liberally leveraged past posts and materials, I was able to edit and add to them with relative ease.

What I found myself using more and more were the Speech features on my Windows Phone. Almost by accident, I found not only could I use the large tiles on the phone to make a call, send a text or search for something on Bing, I could also initiate the action with my voice. So much easier than hunting and pecking for an app or the tile. It made it so much easier to initiate a phone call to my wife, get my voice mails, open my emails or send a text. But the real win for me was using my Windows Phone to dictate email messages instead of typing with my thumbs. I was impressed that even with my stammered speech, my Windows Phone correctly interpreted what I said with incredible accuracy. So much so that I used it to easily and effortlessly create documents in OneNote which would then be available the next time I got in front of any of my connected devices. Further I set my Windows Phone up so that it would read my incoming text messages aloud, saving to have to read them on screen… and a feature I wish I had for email, too. (I learned recently that is coming to Windows Phone.)

A year after my injury I still find myself using many of the features I found last summer while recuperating. I now type about forty to fifty words minute (still below my norm), and regularly use my Windows Phone for dictation, and Dragon on my Windows devices to dictate emails and documents. (That’s how I drafted much of this post today.) In all, I find that I’m more productive in many ways, plus it’s much faster and less tiring – one of the reason I save my focus for my work, and less on long blog posts and (thankfully, I’m sure many recipients think) emails. I find it easier to post on social media (Twitter publicly and Yammer internally) on walks or on the shuttle between meetings, using my phone to dictate comments in the Messaging or Outlook app which I then easily copy and paste into the social app. I also still have my standing desk (although I take more walking and seated breaks) with multiple large screens using IE and Office to magnify my work, all with a desktop screen resolution that’s more to my liking. For the tinnitus, I stream and play music from my Xbox Music account over headphones, and I use a headset or the integrated mic on my Surface Pro with speakers to sync with people over Lync.

I was fortunate enough to recover from the event generally unscathed. I’ve since moved the items around in my office, and I rarely place anything on top of my bookshelf anymore for fear of repeating my uncoordinated move of a year ago. And I have a deeper appreciation for the accessibility features and technology we build into our products at Microsoft and services that many rely upon.

I’ve read that seven out of ten people in the world will experience either permanent or temporary disability at some point in their life, and learned that we have a lot to live up to when it comes to Bill Gates’ vision “to create innovative technology that is accessible to everyone and that adapts to each person’s needs.” Having experienced and worked closely first hand on the requirements of the disabled over the last decade, I like to think that I have a good appreciation for the need, but my own personal experience was something more than I have seen and heard third hand through family members and friends. We have a great deal of work to do to make our devices and services more transparent and easy to use. I’m happy to know that our devices and services teams are dedicated and focused on knocking down the barriers for people with disabilities encounter and help them make the most of the tools we offer.

And I’ll get better about posting here, in addition to my updates on Twitter.

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2 replies on “My Own Accessibility Experience”

This was eye opening. How does the technology get in the way of or impede the user, considering the different limitations individuals find in everyday, off the shelf products? What needs to be done to make services more universally accessible?

Humbling.  Many do not understand the challenge of accessibility until faced with it themselves or through an acquaintance.

Accessibility of Microsoft products, assistive technology, keyboard shortcuts, disability types, demos, tutorials, news, resources for educators.

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