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Author: Scott Hollier

Microsoft’s education push may disadvantage assistive technology users

Last week Microsoft announced that it will be focusing its efforts on the Education market by releasing a number of new products and a new edition of Windows 10 called Windows 10S. However, the way in which it is being implemented has raised concerns that people with disabilities will be unable to install their preferred third-party assistive technology software.

The move to focus on the education market is in response to Google and Apple’s efforts to dominate the classroom, with Google most notably capturing some market share due to its Chromebooks pricing and locked-down operating system which has allowed teachers to distribute them in the classroom without concern of students installing their own software or overly personalising the device.

The main concern for assistive technology users in Microsoft’s announcement revolves around the Windows 10S operating system. With the popularity of Chromebooks and its Google Chrome OS providing teachers with a lot of control over what goes on the laptop, Microsoft have created Windows 10S to prevent users from installing software that does not come directly from the Windows Store.

While the model may have merit in the context of classroom lessons, the concern is that there is currently very little assistive technology software available in the Windows Store. As such, it’s likely that students requiring assistive technology that is not built into Windows 10 will be unable to install it on a Windows 10S-based system. This may explain in part why Braille Support has only just been added to Windows 10 as without that native support, Braille displays would not have worked under Windows 10S.

While Windows 10 contains a wealth of accessibility features and its likely that a majority of people with disabilities would still be able to use Windows 10S using the built-in accessibility features, the decision to restrict installation of software to the Windows Store reduces the choice of software available. As such, some students with disabilities that require assistive technology software that is not included in Windows, it may be the case that they cannot participate with the rest of the class.

Additional information on Windows 10S can be found from the Microsoft website.

Google Maps & Apple Maps – two useful accessibility tips

Using real-time maps on our smartphones has become an essential feature when navigating to different locations. Whether you prefer Google Maps or Apple Maps, there are a number of accessibility features in both apps which have been added over the past six months or so, but I’ve noticed that many people aren’t aware of the features.  As such, here’s two particularly useful tips to provide you with some additional information.

Google Maps – find out if a location is wheelchair-accessible

In late 2016, Google quietly added a feature to its Maps app for people in the US which provides information as to whether a selected location is wheelchair-accessible.  The is not specifically owned or collected by Google and there are many gaps, but as the service expands its likely to provide enough information to determine if a venue you are intending to visit will be a viable option before leaving home. There’s no specific information as to the rollout dates for other countries but Google have indicated they plan to continue expanding the service.

Importantly though this does not address one of the common complaints of mapping software which is the fact that maps don’t effectively indicate the topographical nature of a location. As a result, wheelchair users should still be wary of unexpected steep slopes or inclines when arriving at a new location. That said, it’s encouraging to see accessibility-specific information being included and it’s likely that information for wheelchair users will only get better in time. For additional information on the feature, please refer to the YouTube video on the wheelchair location feature in Google Maps

Apple Maps – points of interest

It’s fair to say that when Apple Maps launched in 2012 it had a pretty rocky start. However, its improved considerably over the years and now includes a useful Point of Interest feature that is proving very helpful to people who are blind or vision impaired.

To access this feature, start Apple Maps and start navigating to your destination. To find out what points of interest are near your location as you travel along the route, swipe up on the menu bar to pull up an overlay which will display different categories. You can then go into the category you are looking for, such as food, and it will provide you with nearby options. This is very helpful as it enables people with vision-related disabilities to quickly find out what’s near them as they travel without interrupting the overall journey.  It is also possible to add a nearby point of interest to the journey plan. Additional information can be found in the Maps for iOS section of the Apple website.

W4A2017 after-dinner address now online

On 2 April 2017 I was given the great honour and privilege to deliver the William Loughborough After-Dinner address at the International Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference. If you weren’t able to attend and would like to watch it, the video is now on YouTube and I’ve put a link to it below.

Many thanks to the W4A Conference Committee for a great event. For more information on the conference  you can read my W4A2017 highlights post.

Windows 10 creators update – benefits & issues for blind & low vision users

The Windows 10 Creators update is now rolling out to computers and tablets.  While many blind and vision impaired users have welcomed the updates as discussed in my March post titled Microsoft’s improvements for blind and low vision users in the Windows 10 insider preview, there is also an issue relating to a change in the keyboard shortcut that starts the Narrator screen reader.

While the Creators update has lots of great features, its important to first deal with the elephant in the room – the inability to start Narrator after the Creators update has been installed. If you are used to using the ‘Windows key + Enter’ to toggle Narrator on and off, you’ll be surprised to discover that after the Creators update is installed, this keyboard combination no longer works.  Instead, you will now need to use the ‘Windows key + CTRL + Enter’. This change is not obvious and it’s surprisingly difficult to find out about it, even in Narrator’s help options, so it’s worth making a note of this new default keyboard command.

While some of the changes in the Creators update can be tricky, one of the best new features is the addition of Cortana and improved Narrator support when setting Windows 10 up for the first time. If you purchase a new computer with the Creators update installed, or reset your current computer after updating, you’ll be greeted with a series of setup screens whereby Cortana talks you through your options and also prompts you to turn on Narrator if you wish. I tried this myself and found the process to be very helpful as a person who is vision impaired, and I suspect it’ll be helpful for everyone. The ability to verbally reply to some of Cortana’s questions and have clear instructions when information is to be typed in made the whole process much easier.

As mentioned previously, other aspects of Windows 10 have been improved for accessibility with Braille support now added and a number of tweaks to Narrator.  I’ve also noticed significant improvements in how screen readers interact with Microsoft Edge. While launching Edge when using Narrator for the first time still asks if you want to switch the default on Internet Explorer, it’s encouraging to see the support for assistive technologies improving for the default web browser. While not strictly accessibility-related, the addition of 3D Paint is fun too.

Overall the update adds some useful accessibility features, particularly for people who are blind or vision impaired but just watch out for that change to the Narrator keyboard shortcut. Additional information on the Windows 10 Creators Update can be found at the Microsoft website.

Outrunning the Night can now be ordered by a library near you

I’m very excited to report that my recently published memoir ‘Outrunning the Night – a life journey of disability, determination and joy’ can now be ordered directly by Australian libraries.

ALS Library Services, who have around 50 team members working each day to bring the latest Australian and international publications to public libraries throughout the states and territories, have now added my book to their catalogue. As a result, Australian libraries can now order the paperback as part of their regular ordering processes. In addition, ALS Library Services will be featuring ‘Outrunning the Night’ in the near future as a local author from Western Australia.  

Many thanks to ALS Library Services for their support and to Sue Murray at VisAbility for organising this fantastic distribution opportunity.