Microsoft tools & technology: Accessibility features for 2022
By Robert Gibson, Ed.D., CPACC, Director of Learning Technologies, Emporia State University
Microsoft has been busy introducing a raft of new features and functionality to better support accessibility across its entire product platform. Many of these new features and tools will appear within the new Windows 11 operating system, while others have been gradually introduced across the product suite for the past several months. This strong corporate culture aimed at accessibility is unparalleled. Microsoft has adopted a corporate mission to make all its products as accessible to as many people as possible.
Some people may wonder why Microsoft has adopted such a proactive corporate strategy regarding accessibility and accessible products. The answer probably lies with Satya Nadella who succeeded Steve Ballmer in 2014 as CEO and John W. Thompson in 2021 as chairman. Although not widely known, Nadella’s son Zain suffered from Cerebral Palsy, was legally blind, and had spastic quadriplegia until his passing in March of 2022. Some people have ventured that this life changing event redefined the corporate mission at Microsoft (Thier, 2022).
Importance of Accessible Technology. Video courtesy of MSFTEnable.
This strong corporate culture and commitment to accessibility is evident throughout the entire product line. The company has gone to great lengths to work directly with the disabled community to ensure its products meet their needs. This involved hiring members of the community to lead development teams and advocate for better product accessibility.
A Commitment to Accessibility at Microsoft. Video courtesy of Microsoft
New accessibility features in Teams
There are four new “intelligent meeting” features arriving across Teams: Voice Focus, Eye Contact, Automatic Framing, and Portrait Background Blur. These new options ensure users always remain well-framed, reduce interference, and background noise, and eliminate clutter from the video feed (Khalili, 2022). This is particularly helpful for individuals with ADHD and neurodiversity disabilities. Also coming to Teams is user-selectable chat density – Comfy or Compact. This option is particularly useful to users with Dyslexia and other reading impairments.
Figure 1. User Selectable Chat Density in Teams
New accessibility features in Stream
Stream for SharePoint is an enterprise video solution that allows people to upload, view, and share videos securely. Using Stream you can share recordings of classes, meetings, presentations, training sessions, or other videos. The newest Stream includes Noise Suppression – located to the left of the Closed Captions icon - that helps both creators and viewers isolate speech from ambient noise, music, and other sounds making voice more intelligible. This feature first appeared in Apr 2022.
Figure 2. Stream Noise Suppression. Image courtesy of office365itpros
New accessibility features in Edge browser
Edge now includes a variety of new features to enhance the disabled user experience, including auto-generated ALT text for web images that uses Azure Intelligent Services to describe the image – including any text that appears within the image. This feature was first introduced in March 2022. Also, be sure to explore some exciting new Edge add-ins, including a WCAG Color Contrast Checker.
Automatic Image Description in Edge. Video courtesy of Microsoft
Also new in Edge is Read Aloud – a built-in text-to-speech tool. This feature is available from the top navigation menu – to the right of the address. This feature is helpful for blind and low-vision users.
Figure 3. Read Aloud in Edge
New accessibility features in Office
Office includes a variety of new features, including a new Accessibility Reminder; Search with Voice; Focus Mode; Check Accessibility While Working; a variety of new accessible Office templates; a new Accessibility Ribbon; and native screen reader support for Live Presentations. Still in development, the new Office Accessibility Reminder for Windows, MacIntosh, and Web places an additional tab in the ribbon. It contains a set of ready-made “nudges” that people with disabilities can use to notify document authors and contributors about accessibility issues. This feature first appeared in Nov 2021.
Accessibility Reminder. Video courtesy of Microsoft
The new Focus Mode for Office improves the viewing experience by hiding all the toolbars and menus, allowing the user to visually concentrate on the content of the document. This feature is very helpful for individuals with ADHD.
Figure 4. Focus Mode in Word
The new Check Accessibility While You Work identifies issues while the user works on documents and composes Email. If an accessibility issue is detected, such as poor color contrast, the user is alerted before the file or email is shared. This feature first appeared in March 2022.
Figure 5. Check Accessibility While You Work
The new Accessibility Ribbon in PowerPoint makes accessing accessibility features much easier and faster. Using this newest version, all accessibility tools and features are consolidated under one easy-to-access ribbon menu. This feature first appeared in Nov 2021.
Figure 6. Accessibility Ribbon for PowerPoint
New accessibility features in Windows 11
Windows 11 includes many new accessibility features and enhancements that represent a quantum leap over previous versions of Windows. These include a completely redesigned Accessibility Panel; new Windows Sounds that are designed for individuals with auditory impairments; new Color Filters for individuals with color blindness; support for eye-control devices; Voice-Navigation options; user-selectable Color Contrast Themes; and a set of new accessible fonts based on variants of the Microsoft fonts, Calibri and Sitka Small, which are intended to help readers with visual crowding. Visual crowding is sometimes associated with Dyslexia. Windows 11 also supports assistive technologies created by Microsoft partners, including popular screen readers, magnification programs, CART services, speech commands, and other experiences. In fact, a completely redesigned Accessibility experience was subjected to rigorous testing through the Department of Homeland Security’s Trusted Tester Program (Muchmore, 2022).
Windows sounds need to traverse the entire 250-8000 Hz range to be audible to people who are hard of hearing. Engineers found that the startup sound would be most helpful if it played when the lock screen was displayed so that blind users would know when to enter their login info. The new Windows startup sound lets everyone know their PC is ready at just the right time using a set of calm, informative sounds that can be heard by a broader set of users (Hernandez, 2021).
If a user has partial hearing loss or deafness in one ear, Windows 11 can also help you hear more from your computer. The new Mono Audio combines the left and right stereo audio channels common in modern music production so you can hear every detail.
Figure 7. Redesigned Accessibility Panel in Windows 11
Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH), language learners, and people in noisy or in quiet environments can enjoy redesigned Closed Caption themes that are now easier to read and customize.
Figure 8. New Caption Themes in Windows 11
Caption styles may be adjusted to preferences.
Figure 9. Adjustment Preferences for Caption Styles
Not only can captions style be customized, but they are now available across the entire Windows 11 operating system. New options allow the user to customize the location to suit their preference.
New customizable caption location in Windows 11. Video courtesy of Microsoft
New Color Filters in Windows 11 supports individuals with various Deuteranopia, Protanopia, and Tritanopia (color blindness) conditions. Since not all color blindness affects people the same way, individuals can select the best filter for their color combination impairment.
Figure 10. Color Filters in Windows 11
The new Natural Narrator voices leverages Azure’s state-of-the-art text-to-speech on device with Windows. Once set up, the new voices are always available (even without an internet connection), are instantly responsive, and can be trusted to respect users’ privacy because text to speech is processed on device without sending information to the cloud (Surer, 2022). This feature first appeared in Dec 2021.
Figure 11. Natural Narrator in Windows 11
Eye control in Windows 11 makes it easy and efficient to control Windows and apps with a variety of eye tracking enabled cameras and simple to use launch pad that gives your eyes the power to control anything on the screen. Eye tracking hardware is sold separately (Microsoft. 2022).
Figure 12. Eye Tracking Control Screen in Windows 11
New accessibility features in Xbox gaming
Gamers were also considered in the newest Microsoft updates. Xbox users can now enjoy closed captions, automatic transcriptions, a magnifier, and high contrast colors.
Figure 13. Xbox Accessibility Menu. Image courtesy of Microsoft
Microsoft continues to provide leading edge features and products for the accessibility community. Exciting new capabilities that leverage artificial intelligence services such as Azure and other Deep Learning technologies are sure to provide even more capabilities and functionality in future product updates. An example of this commitment is the new Microsoft Inclusive Lab which serves as a cutting-edge user-experience hub for new accessibility products and features.
Microsoft Inclusive Lab
Microsoft Inclusive Lab. Video courtesy of Microsoft
Hernandez, C. (2021). Making Windows 11 the most inclusively designed version of Windows yet. Microsoft Blogs. Retrieved from https://blogs.windows.com/windowsexperience/2021/10/04/making-windows-11-the-most-inclusively-designed-version-of-windows-yet/ June 2022.
Khalili, J. (2022). New Windows 11 features will take the pain out of your least favorite meetings. Techradar. Retrieved from: https://www.techradar.com/news/new-windows-11-features-will-take-the-pain-out-your-least-favorite-meetings June 2022.
Microsoft (2022). Accessibility features in Windows 11. Microsoft Blog. Retrieved from: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility/windows June 2022.
Muchmore, M. (2022). Microsoft aims to put accessibility first. PCMAG. Retrieved from https://www.pcmag.com/news/windows-11-accessibility-features June 2022.
Surer (2022). Microsoft announces new Windows 11 accessibility features. Bigtechwire. Retrieved from: https://www.bigtechwire.com/2022/05/11/microsoft-announce-new-windows-11-accessibility-features/ June 2022.
Thier, J. (2022). Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s son died at age 26. Here’s what he taught the leader about empathy. Fortune. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2022/03/02/microsoft-ceo-satya-nadellas-son-empathy-accessibility/ June 2022.
About the Author
Rob Gibson is currently the Director of Learning Technologies at Emporia State University. Robert also teaches several graduate courses in Instructional Design, Corporate eLearning, Universal Design for Learning, and Project Management for Instructional Designers.
Dr. Gibson has been a champion of emergent and accessible technologies that have the potential to shape education. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters and presents nationally at a variety of conferences. His research interests include Universal Design; OER; Artificial Intelligence; Open Pedagogy; virtual and mixed reality; interface design; online course quality assurance; instructional systems design; academic integrity; project management; and competency-based learning.
Rob has served on several product advisory boards and has been the recipient of outstanding online course awards. He holds certifications from Creative Commons, the Open Educational Network, and the International Association for Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) among others. He is a Quality Matters Master Reviewer and serves on the QM Academic Advisory Council.
He is also an EDUCAUSE institute faculty member and Subject Matter Expert, and formerly served on the Horizon Report Expert Panel.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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