You’ve probably heard that Windows offers features to make the computer easier to use for people with disabilities. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll examine some of the Windows 2000 accessibility options. I’ll discuss those options that appear to be the most useful or unique. Many of these features are also available in Windows NT and Windows 98 under Control Panel’s Accessibility icon.

Utility Manager
Utility Manager makes some of the newest, and most helpful, utilities available on demand. You access Utility Manager by selecting Start | Programs | Accessories | Accessibility | Utility Manager. You can also activate Utility Manager by holding down the Windows logo key and pressing U. This tool allows you to control the startup status for Microsoft Magnifier, Microsoft Narrator, and the onscreen keyboard. (I’ll discuss these features later in this Daily Drill Down.) You can specify that you want the utilities to start automatically either when Windows starts or when Utility Manager opens.

Sound alternatives
Windows 2000 provides accessibility features for the hearing impaired. To customize the sound options, open Control Panel and double-click the Accessibility icon. When you do, you’ll see the Accessibility Options properties sheet. Navigate to the Sounds tab and you’ll see two check boxes:

  • SoundSentry—Allows the user to receive a visual cue when Windows makes a sound. Depending on the options you set, this cue may come in the form of a flashing active caption bar, a flashing active window, or even a flashing active desktop.
  • Use ShowSounds—Works like closed captioning on your television. It provides text feedback regarding the sounds that Windows plays.

Onscreen keyboard
Another accessibility option is the onscreen keyboard. As I mentioned earlier, you can access the onscreen keyboard through Utility Manager. You can also activate it by clicking Start | Accessories | Accessibilities | On Screen Keyboard.

This feature provides a graphical representation of a keyboard. It functions similarly to the graphical keyboard that’s found on many Windows CE devices. Users can select the style of keyboard (standard or enhanced) and the number of keys they want to use. They can also use the menu to select whether they want to click on a key or hover over it to simulate a keystroke.

Keyboard accessibility: StickyKeys, FilterKeys, and ToggleKeys
Some disabilities prevent people from being able to type well on a normal keyboard. Fortunately, Windows 2000, as well as NT and Windows 98, allows you to customize the keyboard’s layout and behavior. To customize the keyboard’s behavior options for those who have difficulty typing, open Control Panel and double-click the Accessibility icon. When you do, you’ll see the Accessibility Options properties sheet. Navigate to the Keyboard tab, which offers three options you can use to customize keyboard behavior.

The first of these features is activated by selecting the Use StickyKeys check box. The StickyKeys options are designed for users who have difficulty pressing more than one key at a time. By customizing these settings, you can prevent the user from ever having to hold down such keys as [Shift] or [Alt] while pressing another key.

By enabling the Use FilterKeys check box, you can slow down the keyboard repeat rate. You can also set Windows 2000 to ignore accidentally repeated keys or keys that are pressed for a split second.

The final option on the Keyboard tab is the Use ToggleKeys check box. The Use ToggleKeys option sets Windows 2000 to play a tone every time the Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, or Number Lock key is pressed.

Other keyboard options
Other keyboard accessibility options are available by double-clicking Control Panel’s Keyboard icon. The options found under the keyboard Control Panel applet allow you to change the repeat delay and repeat rate for keys that are held down.

Although not an accessibility option, another interesting feature found here is the ability to select a DVORAK keyboard layout. The DVORAK keyboard layout is an allegedly faster typing system than the standard layout (which is called QWERTY). It groups more commonly used keys within reach of the stronger fingers. You can add a DVORAK keyboard layout to Windows 2000 by going to the Input Locals tab and clicking the Add button. Select the United States DVORAK option (along with keyboard layouts for left- and right-handed users) from the Keyboard Layout/IME drop-down list. (Incidentally, setting the DVORAK keyboard layout is a great way to have a good laugh at a friend’s expense. When your friend tries to type, none of the letters on the keyboard will match the letters that are displayed on screen. Don’t forget to change it back or you may lose a friend.)

Mouse options
If you have someone in your office who has difficulty using a mouse (or if you have a computer with a broken mouse), you can take advantage of the MouseKeys feature. Setting MouseKeys allows you to control the mouse pointer with the keyboard’s arrow keys. To set this option, click the Mouse tab in the Accessibility Options properties sheet. Select the Use MouseKeys check box and click OK to enable this feature. Use the Settings button on the Mouse tab to customize MouseKeys.

Microsoft Narrator
The Microsoft Narrator program is available by selecting Start | Programs | Accessories | Accessibility | Narrator. You can also access it through Utility Manager. Narrator is a limited capacity text-to-speech program. You can set its options to make Narrator read the contents of the screen to you. You can also set Narrator to announce any events that appear on your screen. Finally, you can set Narrator to have the mouse pointer follow along on the screen as the program reads aloud.

Microsoft Magnifier
Windows 2000 includes Microsoft Magnifier, a tool that enlarges a portion of the screen to help the visually impaired (which includes most computer users in its ranks). You can access the Microsoft Magnifier through Utility Manager or by selecting Start | Programs | Accessories | Accessibility | Magnifier. By default, Magnifier leaves most of the screen normal size. A window is placed at the top of the screen that displays the area around the mouse pointer at double size. As you move the mouse, the enlarged area scrolls to follow the mouse.

Figure A
Here’s Microsoft Magnifier at work.

When you launch the Microsoft Magnifier program, you’ll see the Magnifier Settings dialog box. You can use this dialog box to increase the magnification level up to nine times the normal size. You can also use the various options to invert colors or use a high-contrast color scheme.

The Accessibility Wizard
There’s a shortcut to setting the options I’ve discussed. This shortcut involves using the Accessibility Wizard.

The Accessibility Wizard runs through the options screen by screen, letting you choose the options you want using this one application. Access the wizard by clicking Start | Programs | Accessories | Accessibility | Accessibility Wizard. Needless to say, using the Accessibility Wizard tends to be much simpler than manually configuring each option.

If you have people in your office with disabilities, it’s important to make their computer accessible to them. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve discussed some of the accessibility options within Windows 2000 (and Windows NT and 98).

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it’s impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)