As an IT consultant scrambling for work during these trying times, you can’t afford to miss an opportunity for a new contract because you’re unfamiliar with a obscure aspect of the Windows operating system. For example, suppose you were to get a phone call from a potential client seeking assistance in employing the Accessibility features in Windows XP to prepare for a new hire with disabilities. Would you be able to confidently take on the contract?

If you spend some time investigating the Accessibility features that are available in Windows XP and learning how to configure them for users with a wide variety of disabilities, you’ll be able to answer “yes.” I’ll begin exploring the Windows XP Accessibility features that you can set up and configure for users with special needs.

First in a series

This is the first of several articles that will explore the use and application of the Accessibility features in Windows XP.

Accessibility overview
Microsoft has long been a proponent of making computers accessible to users with disabilities. In fact, the native Accessibility features have been a part of the Windows operating system since Windows 95. Of course, the Accessibility features have been expanded and improved since that time, and we now have a very good set of tools designed to aid users with hearing, vision, and mobility disabilities.

In the Windows 9x series of operating systems, these features were an optional component. In Windows XP, the Accessibility features are installed by default and can’t be removed from the operating system. You can be assured that you’ll be able to find and configure the Accessibility features on any XP system.

Accessibility features can be broken down into two pieces: a set of overall operating system enhancements and a set of applications. You can configure the overall operating system enhancements using the Accessibility Wizard or the Accessibility Options tool in the Control Panel. The set of applications—Magnifier, Narrator, and On-screen Keyboard—can be launched individually or controlled by using the Utility Manager.

User accounts and logon
When you configure a Windows XP system with the Accessibility features, you should first set up a user account for the disabled user and another account for other users. That way, if other people need to use the system for any reason, they can do so without disrupting any of the settings for the Accessibility features.

Of course, if the network is running on a Windows domain, you’ll need to use accounts set up in the domain. Another feature you’ll probably want to alter if the network is running on a Windows domain is the logon procedure.

In most domain scenarios, logging on to a system requires users to press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] before seeing the actual login dialog box. However, this complex set of keystrokes may be difficult, if not impossible, for some disabled users to perform. Windows XP allows you to bypass this keystroke combination by disabling the secure logon feature. Doing so configures the system to bypass the need to press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] and immediately displays the actual login dialog box. To disable the secure logon feature, access the User Accounts tool, choose the Advanced tab, and then clear the Require Users To Press Ctrl+Alt+Delete check box.

(Keep in mind that if secure logon is absolutely required, you can use the Utility Manager and the StickyKeys feature to perform the [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] keystroke combination before the operating system actually boots up.)

The Accessibility Wizard vs. the Accessibility Options
A mistake that many folks make when configuring a system to use the Accessibility features is bypassing the Accessibility Wizard and heading straight for the Accessibility Options tool. The Accessibility Wizard is designed to give you a quick and easy way to configure Windows XP’s Accessibility features; the Accessibility Options tool gives you a tabbed dialog box where you can individually configure each of the Accessibility features.

When you’re first setting up Accessibility features, I recommend that you begin with the Accessibility Wizard because it gives you more visually detailed information on exactly what you’re configuring and really makes the Accessibility features easier to understand. More importantly, the Accessibility Wizard gives you a few settings that simply aren’t available in the Control Panel’s Accessibility Options tool—a fact few people are aware of. Once you’ve set up the Accessibility features, you can then use the Accessibility Options tool to fine-tune your adjustments—in some cases, with options that aren’t available in the Accessibility Wizard. The two are really complementary.

Also keep in mind that Windows XP stores the settings for the Accessibility features in the Registry in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Accessibility key. Changes you make in the Accessibility Wizard aren’t reflected in the Accessibility Options tool and vice versa.

The Accessibility Wizard
Launch the Accessibility Wizard from the Start | All Programs | Accessories | Accessibility menu. On the introductory page, click the Next button. You’ll then see the Text Size page, shown in Figure A, where you can begin configuring the Accessibility features.

Figure A
The Text Size page allows you to configure the size of the text used in the basic XP user interface components.

As you can see, the Text Size page allows you to make the text that appears in the basic Windows XP user interface components easier to read for users with visual impairments. The first option is selected by default and will leave the text size at its default setting. Selecting the second option slightly increases the size of the text. Selecting the third option increases the size of the text dramatically and loads the Microsoft Magnifier.

The examples shown in the Text Size page are fairly accurate depictions of the size increases. To give you a better idea of the changes in text size, Figure B shows actual title bars for each of the three options.

Figure B
These example title bars show the text size for each of the three options.

As soon as you click Next, you’ll see the Display Settings page, shown in Figure C. This page lets you basically confirm the settings you chose on the previous page and enable others.

Figure C
The Display Settings page allows you to fine-tune the adjustments for the visually impaired.

The Change The Font Size option is selected if you chose to use large text. If the system is configured to use a high screen resolution, the Switch To A Lower Screen Resolution option will be available. If you chose to use Microsoft Magnifier, that option will be selected and you’ll see two additional dialog boxes plus the Magnifier window.

You may be curious about why this page provides an option for disabling the Personalized Menus feature. If you’ve used the Personalized Menus feature before, you know that the goal of this feature is to make the menu system more efficient by identifying and displaying only those menu items you use most often—other less used items are hidden from view but are still accessible from an additional drop-down menu.

Since the Personalized Menus feature constantly rearranges menu items, this feature can make menu navigation more difficult for challenged users. I recommend that you always select the Disable Personalized Menus check box.

When you click Next, you’ll see the Set Wizard Options page, shown in Figure D. This is where you’ll fine-tune the Accessibility features for users with specific disabilities.

Figure D
The Set Wizard Options page will allow you to fine-tune the Accessibility features for users with specific disabilities.

Selecting the first option will configure the wizard to walk you through a series of pages for setting options designed to make Windows XP easier for users with visual impairments. Selecting the second option will display settings for users with auditory impairments. Selecting the third option will provide a series of settings for users with physical impairments, and the fourth option will allow you to configure how the Accessibility features work from an administrative perspective. Of course, if you select more than one of these options, the wizard will walk you through all the appropriate settings.

Notes on Accessibility features

There’s really no “one-size-fits-all” type of configuration. To accommodate a variety of users, each of Windows XP’s Accessibility features gives you a wide range of adjustments so that each feature can be customized to the user’s specific disabilities. Therefore, as you’re configuring the Accessibility features, you really need to do so with the disabled user by your side. You can then be sure that each setting you make is tailored to the user’s abilities.