I had lunch with a fellow fortysomething IT person the other day, and he complained that he had to change his screen resolution on his work monitor from 1280×1024 to 800×600. “My eyes don’t see as well as they used to,” he explained.

That launched a discussion of how best to support internal and external customers who have experienced a loss of vision, hearing, or speech. Here are some tips to help you support users who have special needs when it comes to using information technology.

Upgrade to Windows 2000
Windows 2000 does the best job so far by a Microsoft operating system of reaching out to users with deficits in vision or hearing. You and your users can explore those options by going to Start | Programs | Accessories | Accessibility. When you do, you’ll see the options listed in Figure A.

Figure A
Windows 2000 offers several tools that can make a PC more accessible for people with vision or hearing deficits.

When you launch the Accessibility Wizard, Windows 2000 walks you through the process of updating your settings. As you can see in Figure B, one of the first questions posed by the wizard lets you customize the system’s behaviors for a particular kind of deficit.

Figure B
The Accessibility Wizard lets you customize your system with just a few mouse clicks.

As you’d expect, the Magnifier tool lets you create a separate region that displays a magnified version of wherever the mouse moves on the rest of the desktop. The Narrator tool lets you decide when and how the system should “read” onscreen text and controls. The On-Screen Keyboard, shown in Figure C, assists users who are unable to operate a conventional keyboard.

Figure C
The On-Screen Keyboard tool lets users enter data using the mouse or other pointing devices.

For more details about how to customize your system using Windows 2000’s accessibility tools, please read Ron Kaufman’s “W2K Control Panel’s Accessibility features—Old friends are new again.” In addition, you’ll find detailed instructions on enhancing accessibility at Microsoft’s Accessibility Web site.

Your legal liabilities

If you work for or do business with the federal government, you have probably heard a lot about compliance with Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. If you’ve never heard of Section 508, get the scoop in TechRepublic contributor John McCormick’s June 2001 column, “Compliance with Section 508 deadline is days away.”

Using TTY and relay services
Perhaps the most common method for supporting hearing-impaired users is TDD, the abbreviation used to refer to the Telecommunication Device for the Deaf. A TDD is a machine that combines a telephone, a keypad, and a screen to display text. TTY, which stands for Text Telephone (or Teletypewriter for the Deaf), is synonymous with TDD; TTY is perhaps used more often because other people besides the deaf use TTY devices.

With TDD/TTY, people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired are able to use a telephone to communicate. As you’d expect, a TDD/TTY is required at both ends of the conversation in order to communicate, since users type messages back and forth to one another instead of talking and listening.

Even if you don’t have a TDD/TTY device, you can still communicate with users who do with a relay service. In general terms, when you call a relay service, it connects you with special operators who have TDD/TTY equipment. The special operators then communicate with the TDD/TTY user. As you’d expect, relay services promise confidentiality in all conversations.

If you’re interested in exploring relay service options, perhaps the best place to start is the Federal Relay Service (FRS) page, part of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service. There you’ll find links to pages explaining how FRS works, including where to purchase TTY hardware and software. You can also check out two of the largest commercial services, SprintRelay and AT&T’s Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS).

Support tips

Do you support users with special needs? To share your experiences and advice, post a note below or write to Jeff.