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Narrator mega-upgrade in Windows 10 October update: hands-on

The road to the Windows 10 October 2018 update has ben a hard one for Microsoft as it had to postpone its rollout due to a series of issues including the unintentional deletion of personal files. However, from an accessibity perspective, the update is great news as the built-in Narrator screen reader has received significant improvements, both in terms of features and usability. Happily, my computer survived the update before Microsoft pulled it, resulting in a great opportunity to get acquainted with the significantly improved screen reader.  

Keyboard shortcuts are now more familiar

When Narrator is started with the usual Windows + CTRL + Enter command, the first thing that now greets you is a message that the keyboard shortcuts have changed. 

Narrator keyboard shortcut message in high contrast black

While this will mean that existing Narrator users will have to learn a new set of shortcut keys, for users of more popular screen reader such as JAWS and NVDA – which is most blind users – the Narrator commands have become much more intuitive. This is a great move and streamlines the experience for people wanting to use Narrator whether as an ad-hoc or permanent screen reader solution

Narrator Quick Start Tutorial now included

When I realised that the Narrator commands I was used to no longer worked, I was initially a bit worried about the process of relearning everything. However, it turned out Microsoft had already considered this with the inclusion of a clever Quick Start tutorial wizard that breaks down the learning process to a few commands at a time. This is useful for everyone, but its especially useful for users new to screen readers. The tutorial wizard features about a dozen screens, each one providing a sandboxed environment to learn about some new commands and then try them out before progressing to the next section.  

Narrator Quick Start Welcome screen in high contrast black

The Quick Start screens are as follows:

  • Welcome: a screen that explains how the Quick Start guide works.
  • Explore your keyboard: this page provides an opportunity for input learning where you can try out a key and hear Narrator explain what it does.
  • Scan mode: explains how the arrow keys can be used to scan around the page.
  • Reading words and characters: explains how Narrator can read out individual words or characters for proofing and editing.

Narrator Headings QUick Start screen in high contrast black

  • Headings: provides a window with sample headings to move around using the ‘H’ key.
  • Landmarks: explains how landmarks can be useful to move between navigation, main content and search options.  
  • Entering text: explains how Scan Mode is disabled when editing text and provides an opportunity to try it out.  
  • Buttons: explains how Narrator can interact with checkboxes and other controls. 
  • The Narrator key: Explains the significance of the Narrator key which like other Windows screen readers can issue commands using either CAPS LOCK or Insert. 
  • Important Narrator commands: provides an overview of Narrator commands typically used in everyday tasks.
  • Try it out: provides an opportunity to try using the commands learnt through the Quick Start guide on a webpage.  
  • Navigating Apps: highlights some general keyboard commands that are not necessarily Narrator-specific but likely to be useful.
  • Guide summary: an overview of the key points covered in the guide.

The great thing about the Quick Start guide is that most of the screens not only explain what the functions are but provide you with an opportunity to try out the commands while remaining inside the tutorial wizard. This means that once a user is comfortable with the command they can go to the Next button and learn the new features. While other tutorials like the Android Talkback are effective in providing an opportunity to practice in an environment away from direct interaction until the user achieves the task, Narrator has the bonus of not moving to the next option until the user is ready to do so.  

In terms of improvements to Narrator itself, I’ve noticed that it seems to work much better in picking up landmarks along with a faster and easier web browsing experience. It may be the case that such features were in the older version but were difficult to access with the keyboard commands, but the updated Narrator is certainly a step above in ease and usability compared to Windows 10 prior to the October 2018 update.

Is it better than JAWS or NVDA?

The big question likely to be asked by many is whether Narrator has evolved to a point now where it can be used in place of a commercial screen reader such as JAWS or the excellent open-source screen reader of NVDA on Windows. In my opinion, Narrator has finally come of age and for many blind and low-vision users the combination of familiar keyboard commands and an excellent tutorial may be enough for casual everyday use. That said, users that rely on a screen reader for critical work such as researching or interaction with technical information will find Narrator lacking, and despite the improvements the update is unlikely to be any threat to the popularity of existing screen readers. Given that Narrator is already built into Windows and the keyboard commands will now be much more familiar, I’d recommend trying it out when your computer receives the October update but keep your usual screen reader handy as it’s likely you’ll need to return to it for heavy-duty computer use. Where I do think Narrator will be useful though is for people recently diagnosed with an eye condition as they can use the Quick Start guide to get familiar with a screen reader and the keyboard commands they learn are now largely transferrable to other screen readers.  

Additional information on the significantly updated Narrator can be found on the Microsoft Accessibility blog Windows 10 October update page.

Apple iOS 12 accessibility hands-on

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed the full feature set of the accessibility features in apple products running iOS. This is due in part to most of the updates being incremental rather than revolutionary, and this is not intended as a criticism: indeed, Apple pioneered the inclusion of a touch-enabled screen reader in everyday devices with the iPhone 3GS in 2009, so while other companies have been playing catch-up, Apple has been able to continue adding polish to its rich feature set of accessibility features which is ultimately a good thing.

That said, with the recent launch of Apple’s new range of iPhone X devices bringing an operating system update to iOS 12, it’s a great time to have a look at what’s on offer for people with disabilities that want to use the iPhone or iPad. For this test I used a recent model of the iPad mini which has now received its iOS 12 update.

Farewell iOS 11 – and thank goodness for that

Before going through the iOS 12 feature set, it’s worth reflecting on the infamy of iOS 11. To say that it was buggy would be an understatement of epic proportions, with one of its bugs even sneaking into an Apple commercial. This resulted in a notable cat-and-mouse game of Apple putting out patches, users finding new bugs and Apple sending out yet another patch. While most of the bugs were ironed out towards the end of its OS life, the long beta testing of iOS 12 has largely helped Apple avoid the mistakes this time around. As a result, it is strongly recommended that you upgrade your device to iOS 12 if it can do so, especially if you’re unsure as to which version of iOS 11 is installed on your device.

iOS 12-specific accessibility improvements

In addition to overall stability, there are notable improvements to performance and boot-up times. There are two specific things that are important in relation to accessibility. The first is the upcoming Siri shortcuts which are likely to help assign tasks which will make it easier to use the iPhone or iPad. For example, if you can say to Siri ‘what’s on the menu’ in a café, it could potentially open your favourite OCR app,  scan the menu and provide you with the result. This has the potential to be a powerful addition.

The second is already familiar to iPhone X users and that’s the new commands required to access the Home screen and perform functions without a physical Home button. Given the likelihood that Apple will move away from the Home button on iPad devices, it’s no surprise that iOS 12 has changed the shortcuts around for all devices going forward. If you use Voiceover, the new shortcuts are as follows;

  • Go to Home Screen: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the first sound.
  • Open App Switcher: swipe up from the bottom until you hear the second sound.
  • Open Control Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the first sound.
  • Open Notification Centre: swipe down from the top until you hear the second sound.
  • Cancel a gesture: slide your finger either to the left or to the right.

Accessibility feature categories

If you’re new to Apple iOS devices, the accessibility features can be found by going to Settings, then General, then Accessibility. To help make it easy to identify relevant features, Apple as categorised the features into sections titled Vision, Interaction, Hearing, Media and Learning. Let’s walk through what features are on offer.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 1

Vision settings

The Vision settings are all designed to assist people with a vision-related issue. This can range from people with no vision through to people that need some minor assistance such as making the text bigger the built-in features include:

  • VoiceOver: a screen reader designed to help people who are blind, or vision impaired to navigate the device primarily using swipe gestures. 
  • Zoom: a full-screen magnification tool that allows you to zoom into a part of the screen.
  • Magnifier: this feature allows you to use the camera to zoom on some text or an image in the real world and display it on the screen.
  • Display accommodations; this includes a variety of features which allows for an adjustment of the screen such as inverting the colours or applying colour filters.
  • Speech: allows for the adjustment of speech options. 
  • Large text: provides an option to make the text larger across the device.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 2

  • Bold text: makes the text bold, allowing for the text to be thicker and potentially easier to recognise characters.
  • Button shapes: this feature recreates the outline found around apps in previous versions of iOS.
  • Transparency: this allows the user to decide how ‘see-through’ elements in iOS can be viewed. Minimising transparency can make it easier to see text and screens.
  • Increase contrast: this feature can change the colour palette to help make elements contrast more effectively.
  • Reduce motion: this can help in reducing the effects that may cause distractions or difficulties in seeing actions.
  • Labels: this can provide additional information on functions.

Interaction settings

While the Vision settings represent most accessibility features, there are also several features designed to help support people with a mobility impairment. They include:

  • Switch control: provides support to people that use switch keys to perform multiple commands at once. 
  • Assistive touch: provides equivalent options for features such as single-tap and double-tap. 
  • Touch accommodations: provides options relating to the responsiveness of the screen when issuing commands. 

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 3

  • Shake to undo: as the name suggests, this allows the device to be shaken to undo the most recent input.
  • Call audio routing: this can force a call to always output in a way such as to the speaker or a Bluetooth device.

Hearing, Media and Learning settings

The final three sections contain some helpful features specifically around hearing and to support people with learning disabilities. The Media section also provides some options for captioning and audio description. The features include:

  • MFI hearing devices: this provides support for people that use hearing aids and other related technologies to connect with their iPhone or iPad.

iOS 12 accessibility features screenshot 4

  • Mono audio: this allows for the stereo effect to be removed so that all audio comes through both earphones. There is also a sliding scale to adjust the stereo mix.
  • Subtitles and captioning: this ensures that captions are visible on all video playback.
  • Audio descriptions: this makes video playback automatically select an audio descried soundtrack where applicable. 
  • Guided access: this keeps the interface simple within apps, particularly helpful for people with learning or cognitive disabilities.
  • Home button shortcut: allows the launch of an accessibility feature when the physical home button is triple-tapped.

Is iOS 12 worth the upgrade?

Whenever a new version of an operating system comes out, it’s important to consider if it is worth the upgrade. In this instance I would strongly encourage an upgrade from any earlier version of iOS on any device that supports it. VoiceOver users will need to adjust to the new gestures around the Home screen, but the improvements in stability and speed will certainly make it worth the effort.

iOS or Android?

In response to my recent article on Android 9.0 Pie accessibility, I’ve been asked by several people whether Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad are better from an accessibility standpoint, or whether its better to go with the latest Google Android smartphone or tablet. In short it depends on your disability and which ecosystem you prefer to use. In the case of people who are blind or vision impaired, the market is heavily weighted towards iOS despite the broader population choosing Android, so this would suggest that the wealth of vision-related features make Apple the preferred mobile operating system. However, both operating systems are well developed with accessibility features, so it may be worth trying devices from both platforms to see which one works best before purchasing.

Additional information on the accessibility features of iOS can be found in the Apple accessibility online resource.

Android 9.0 Pie accessibility hands-on

Last month Google released the latest version of its Android operating system, continuing its trend to naming its releases in alphabetical order and after desserts. This time we see Pie added to the list. While the accessibility features are more incremental when compared to Android 8.0 Oreo, users of earlier versions of Android such as KitKat, Marshmallow and Nougat should consider the upgrade.

Device used for testing

Before getting into all the specifics that can be found in Android 9.0 Pie, I should mention a little about the device I’m using for this review. While it would be great to use Pie on the latest Google Pixel range of smartphones, I’m conscious that most people are unlikely to rush out and buy the latest smartphone every time a new one comes out so instead I’ve looked at upgrading one of my old smartphones around the house to see if that process brings the same accessibility benefits. As such, for this review I’m using an old Motorola Moto G updated to Pie thanks to the development community. For this review I’m using Lineage OS with the usual Google applications installed. While there may be some additional accessibility features available in other models, this review will give you an overview as to the accessibility features consistent across different devices running Pie.

Android Accessibility Suite

One important recent change is that several accessibility features for Android are no longer on the Play Store as individual features. They are now bundled into a single app called the Android Accessibility Suite. Google explains the features as follows:

Android Accessibility Suite includes the following services

  • The TalkBack screen reader adds spoken, audible, and vibration feedback to your device.
  • Switch Access lets you control your device with a switch.
  • Select to Speak lets you select something on your screen and hear it read or described aloud.

The benefit of this download suite model is it allows Google to continually update these parts of the accessibility features and adds functionality to older versions of Android that may not have had all these features pre-installed.

Android 9.0 Pie accessibility features

There are a wealth of accessibility features contained in Android 9.0 Pie, continuing the trend of accessibility improvements with each new Android version. While there’s not as many substantial changes overall from Oreo, the feature set is quite impressive.

Android Pie accessibility features screenshot 1 of 3

Specific accessibility features include:

  • Volume key shortcut: this allows you to set your favourite accessibility feature to be quickly enabled or disabled by holding the two volume keys together. This can be very useful if you rely on an accessibility feature such as talkback but then want to hand your phone to someone such as a family member to take a photo, requiring the accessibility feature to be temporarily disabled.
  • TalkBack screen reader: this is the primary way that people who are blind or vision impaired can use their Android device. While TalkBakc has been available since Android 4.0, it’s feature set continues to grow.
  • Select To Speak: this is another feature that provides some quick text-to-speech functionality for people that just want something on the screen to be quickly read out. This is achieved by simply selecting the relevant text.
  • Switch Keys: this feature provides additional support for people with a mobility impairment by enabling a series of commands to be implemented via switch mechanisms.
  • Text-to-speech output: this allows you to adjust the screen reader’s voice, speed and language settings.

    Android Pie accessibility features screenshot 2 of 3

  • Font size: easily adjust the size of the font across the whole operating system.
  • Display size: this can scale elements in Android to make the display larger or smaller.
  • Magnification: this is a full-screen magnifier that allows you to zoom in and out of an area on the screen by triple-tapping on the screen.
  • Large mouse cursor: if you are using a mouse, you can adjust the size of the pointer
  • Remove animations: this removes the effects such as fading in or fading out windows to make the interface easier to use.
  • Dwell timing: this feature can automate certain processes such as activating a mouse click if the mouse hovers over an area for a certain period of time.
  • Power Button Ends Call: as the name suggests, pressing the power button when a phone call is taking place will end the call so there is no need to find the equivalent option on the screen.

    Android Pie accessibility features screenshot 3 of 3

  • Auto-rotate screen: this can force the device to always remain either in portrait or landscape orientation mode.
  • Touch and hold delay: prevents accidental bumping of the device by setting a certain amount of time for a touch on the screen to activate a feature.
  • Vibration: toggles the vibration feedback on or off
  • Mono audio: makes the same audio information come out of both sides of the headphones so that no information is missed if a person has a hearing impairment in one ear.
  • Captions: shows captions on the screen when available should a video be played.

In addition there are some experimental features relating to colour correction and high contrast text designed specifically for people with a colour vision disability.

Useful TalkBack features

In addition to all the features listed, there are two other things that are only in Oreo and Pie that are worth mentioning. Firstly, the audio in Oreo and Pie for accessibility features such as TalkBack can now be adjusted separately to the media volume which makes it much easier to control. Secondly, a phone call can be answered by using two fingers to swipe up the screen instead of having to find the ‘answer’ button.

These features, when combined with the Power Button Ends Call and the helpful TalkBack tips that explain things from time to time make the device much easier to use on a daily basis.

Overall if you have an Android smartphone that is running Android 7.0 Nougat or earlier, I’d strongly recommend investigating if your device can be upgraded. If your device manufacturer doesn’t have an upgrade, it may be worth searching online to see if the community have created their own upgraded version so you can get the latest accessibility features similar to what I’ve done with my old smartphone. If you are currently using Android 8.0 or 8.1 Oreo, there’s not as much on offer in Pie but it is encouraging to see Google continuing to improve accessibility in its products.

Microsoft Office Accessibility Checker – here’s how to use it

If you are subscribed to Microsoft Office 365, you may have noticed an alert appearing recently when launching an Office application such as Word or PowerPoint. The message is about a new update to the built-in document accessibility checker. In Microsoft’s What’s New In Office 365 page, the update is described as follows:

“One-click fixes for accessibility issues: The Accessibility Checker is better than ever with updated support for international standards and handy recommendations to make your documents more accessible.”

Screenshot of Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker update message

Given that many people aren’t aware that Microsoft have had an accessibility checker tucked away in Office for some time now, let alone how to use it, I thought it’d be a good time to pull together the common questions I’m asked about it.

What is the Accessibility Checker?

The Microsoft Accessibility Checker is a feature included in Microsoft Office that allows users to check the accessibility of their documents. When the check is used, it provides a list of potential accessibility issues with suggestions on how to address them. The user is then able to fix the issues to make the document more accessible to people with disabilities.

Which versions of Microsoft Office have the Checker?

The accessibility checker was first introduced in Office 2010.However the feature was difficult to find in earlier versions so many people did not know it was there. This has been improved with Office 365. The feature is currently available in the Windows and Mac versions of Office.

Which Office applications have the checker?

The checker is currently available in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more recently Outlook. This means you can check documents, spreadsheets, slides and e-mail for accessibility issues and follow the recommendations to fix them.

Does the accessibility checker conform with WCAG?

Given that Office is an authoring tool rather than a website, a more applicable standard would be its compliance to the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0. ATAG essentially looks at whether a tool can be used by a person with a disability, and whether that tool can produce accessible content based on WCAG. In both cases, the answer for Office on Windows is broadly yes, but people with disabilities have reported issues using Office on Mac, iOS and Android due to incompatibilities with assistive technologies. The Checker itself though is available on Office for Windows and Office for Mac. As such, Office for Mac still remains broadly compatible with the second part of ATAG 2.0.

While ATAG is the more applicable standard when discussing authoring tools, WCAG still plays an important role. As such, the accessibility requirements for document formats such as Word and PowerPoint will sound very familiar to people when compared with WCAG: images need alternative text, videos need captions, tables need headings and documents need to be structured correctly using styles – just to name a few. The accessibility checker is useful in that it can check a document for issues that are in common with WCAG along with additional advice related to Microsoft-specific features.

How can I use the accessibility checker?

If you are using the latest version of Microsoft Office, the Checker is now quite easy to find and easy to use. The instructions provided by Microsoft are as follows:

  1. On the ribbon, click the Review tab.
  2. Click Check Accessibility.
  3. Review your results. You’ll see a list of errors, warnings, and tips with how-to-fix recommendations for each.

If you are using an older version of Office such as 2010 or 2013, here’s how you can find and use the Checker in Word, Excel or PowerPoint:

  1. Click File > Info.
  2. Select the Check for Issues button. Tip: To the right of the Check for Issues button, under the Inspect heading, is a list of any potential issues.
  3. In the Check for Issues drop-down menu, select Check Accessibility.
  4. The Accessibility Checker task pane appears next to your content and shows the inspection results.
  5. To see information on why and how to fix an issue, under Inspection Results, select an issue. Results appear under Additional Information, and you’re directed to the inaccessible content in your file.

Is the latest Checker update important?

The recent update to the accessibility checker makes the interface much easier to cross-check and fix accessibility issues with your Word, Excel, PowerPoint or outlook document. However, the more important benefit to using the latest Office 365 version is that it is now able to provide guidance on more issues. If you are regularly providing documents to people with disabilities, it is strongly recommended that you update to Office 2016 or Office 365 with the latest updates to maximise the effectiveness of the Accessibility Checker.

Additional information on the accessibility features of Microsoft products can be found on the Microsoft Accessibility website.

Looking for guidance on WCAG 2.1? Check out the free CFA resource

The Centre For Accessibility, a joint initiative by DADAA, Media On Mars and myself, launched last week with a free online resource designed to support mainstream organisations with their digital access needs. To ensure the resource remains current and effective, the content has been updated to support both the WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 standards to the Level AA conformance target.

Screenshot of the Centre For Accessibility resource

The resource has been created based on the following categories:

The resource was funded in part by an ILC Linkage grant. Further information on the initiative can be found at the Centre For Accessibility website.