Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system hit the market in late January, offering a renewed focus on functionality and convenience for users, including people with physical disabilities, according to the company.
In addition to the standard accessibility features like on-screen keyboards, sticky keys and text-to-speech capabilities, Vista has incorporated a new integrated speech-recognition system.
Depending upon whether you’re upgrading from Windows XP, or you’re loading the full version, you could spend anywhere from $100 to $400 on Vista.
Accessibility and functionality
Windows Vista’s Ease of Access Center features many of the same accessibility features offered in Windows XP; however, Vista has made it easier for people to locate the features in a one-stop-shop location.
The center, which replaces the accessibility wizard, accessibility control panel and utility manager in previous versions, provides a single location where users can quickly get to accessibility settings and tools. To try an accessibility tutorial, visit www.microsoft.com/enable/training/windowsvista.
The center also includes a new, optional questionnaire, and on the basis of your answers, Vista provides a personalized list of recommended accessibility settings and programs. The questions relate to eyesight, dexterity, hearing, speech and so on. The questionnaire helps remove from Vista the guesswork in selecting settings associated with Windows XP, Microsoft says.
“Based on your daily experiences, Windows can provide some options for improving accessibility,” explained Rob Sinclair, Microsoft’s director for the Accessible Technology Group (ATG).
Listen to my voice
Vista’s new integrated speech-recognition technology provides a hands-free computing experience, especially beneficial to people with ALS who are experiencing severe hand and arm weakness but can still speak. You can dictate documents and e-mails, navigate the Internet, and command applications and the operating system by simply “saying what you see.”
“Most of the accessibility features already exist in some capacity on Windows XP, so that’s not a compelling reason to upgrade, but the speech-recognition feature definitely is a fantastic reason to upgrade,” explained Sinclair, who used the speech-recognition program when he returned to work following shoulder surgery.
For example, you can control applications and complete tasks, such as formatting and saving documents; opening and switching between applications; and opening, copying and deleting files. You also can browse the Internet by speaking the names of links.
Sinclair suggests using a headset with a microphone to reduce interference and increase effectiveness. He also said that Vista’s state-of-the-art voice recognition accuracy is designed to improve as people use it, adapting to their speaking styles and vocabularies.
A five-minute speech recognition demonstration is at www.microsoft.com/enable/demos/windowsvista/speech.aspx.
Innovatively, Vista uses the words people speak as they work through the interactive tutorial to “train” the system; it “listens” to your voice while it teaches you how to use the system. The speech recognition tutorial is located at www.microsoft.com/enable/training/windowsvista/srtutorial.aspx.
While some people think that voice recognition software isn’t perfect and often makes mistakes, the designers of Vista believe they’ve found a better solution.
To correct mistakes, the system will fix incorrectly recognized words or phrases by prompting the user to select from a list of alternate words or phrases.
For example, if Vista recognizes your statement “Park the car over there” as “Park the dog over there,” you’d say “correct ‘dog.’” Then, you’d select from a list of the 10 likeliest alternate words. Once you say the number corresponding to the correct word and OK, the system inserts the word into the document.
“One of the most powerful features of the Vista speech- recognition system is its ability to correct in a very natural way,” Sinclair said.
“It keeps track of all your contexts, so when it displays a list of alternate options for words or phrases, it’s very accurate. And, you can do everything without ever using the mouse or keyboard.”
You also can give voice commands to the system when you’re not dictating text. For instance, if you’re playing a game like Solitaire, you can speak to select a card and tell the computer where to move it.
Is your PC Vista-ready?
Sinclair suggests that if you’re thinking about upgrading from Windows XP to Vista, the best place to start is the Windows Upgrade Advisor. You can download the free Upgrade Advisor software, and it scans your computer to see if it will run Vista.
(Editor's note: Following the launch of Windows 7, the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor was replaced with the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. The link above will take you to the new page.)
Before you run the Upgrade Advisor, be sure to plug in any USB devices or other devices such as printers, external hard drives or scanners that you regularly use.
And, if you’re planning to buy a new PC with Vista, Sinclair recommends that you “try before you buy” and visit a Microsoft Accessibility Resource Center. To find a location near you, visit www.microsoft.com/enable/centers/default.aspx.
If you’ve purchased a PC in the last two years, Microsoft says, chances are good that you can run Vista. Here’s what you’ll minimally need: an 800 MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM and a 20 GB hard drive with 15 GB of free space.
And, if you use your AAC device in conjunction with your Windows-based computer or Windows software, Sinclair advises that you contact the AT vendor to verify whether your device’s software is compatible with Vista. Microsoft also has a link on its Web site listing the AT vendors that offer Vista-compatible products.
“It’s important to check,” Sinclair said. “My understanding is that nearly all of those products are transitioning to Vista without any trouble at all. In general, the kind of features that AAC devices use in Windows weren’t radically altered in a way that would cause compatibility problems.”
For more information, visit www.microsoft.com/windowsvista.