Your PC is packed full of features to make it more accessible to everyone. Discover how to make things easier.
mpenetrable dialog boxes and indecipherable error messages are just two ways in which Windows can feel inaccessible at times. But for many people, there are more fundamental obstacles to overcome in the form of disabilities. Both Windows XP and Vista feature a number of accessibility tools that are designed to make things easier for those with sight, sound or motor-related disabilities, but that doesn't mean they can't be used by other users looking to make things easier for themselves.
Both Vista and XP offer a similar set of accessibility tools, but they're scattered all over your system. Windows Vista makes more of an attempt to bring things into one convenient place with its Ease of Access Center, accessible through the Control Panel or the Start > All Programs > Accessories menu. Windows XP adopts a more haphazard approach - although it features an Accessibility Options Control Panel, several high-profile tools are missing from it. You'll find these - plus a wizard to set things up and a Utility Manager for controlling the major tools - by clicking Start and selecting All Programs > Accessories > Accessibility Options.
To disable ClearType in Vista, open the Personalization Control Panel and select Window Color and Appearance, click Open classic appearance properties... followed by Effects.
If you want to activate a window in Windows XP by rolling the mouse over it, install the TweakUI PowerToy and tick both options under X-Mouse.
The Folder Options Control Panel contains a number of useful tweaks for how Windows behaves - take the time to explore the General and View tabs.
Set up Accessibility Options
1. WINDOWS XP
XP provides a wizard-based approach - click Start > All Programs > Accessories > Accessibility > Accessibility Wizard. Work your way through the options - your choices determine which tools you're able to switch on and configure. Choose administrative options only if you share your computer.
2. SET UP VISTA
Windows Vista manages things from the Ease of Access Center - click Start > All Programs > Accessories > Ease of Access > Ease of Access Center to open it. A voice will start reading the available options; if you don't need the aural confirmation, untick Always read this section aloud.
3. USE THE WIZARD
The four basic options can be started by clicking them or - while the voice is speaking - by pressing the [Spacebar] when prompted. If you want to work your way through the various options on offer, click Get recommendations to make your computer easier to use to start a wizard.
The Ease of Access Center highlights four major tools in Vista. All four are also available in XP, but only three are found in the Accessibility Options folder. The fourth - High Contrast - is found on the Display tab of the Accessibility Options Control Panel.
The Narrator enables those with visual difficulties to have the text from dialog boxes, menu commands, typed characters and even selected text from supported applications read to them. It's hit-and-miss - it supports text passages in both Notepad and Wordpad, but not Microsoft Office - and the only difference between Vista and XP is the gender of the voice - Vista's female voice is called Anna, and XP's male voice is called Sam. Neither is particularly convincing, but they get the job done.
The Magnifier is for those who need to see a small portion of the screen up close. It sits at the top of the screen and follows the mouse or cursor around the screen, working like a magnifying glass for those who need help viewing smaller objects. You can tweak its settings so it'll zoom into as much as 16x, but you should switch off ClearType if you need to view objects at more than 2x magnification to keep things as clear as possible (see the quick tips box).
To listen to Narrator reading out a paragraph of selected text in Notepad or Wordpad, switch it on, select the text and press [Insert] + [F6].
Switch on ClearType in Windows XP
Anyone who's upgraded to Windows Vista will instantly notice how much smoother the text looks on-screen, boosting its clarity and readability. This ClearType functionality actually originated in Windows XP, but it's disabled by default in that version of Windows.
To switch it on, open the Display Properties Control Panel (right-click an empty area of the desktop and choose Properties). Switch to the Appearance tab and click the Effects button. Under "Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts", select ClearType from the drop-down menu and click OK twice. You'll see the difference within seconds.
If you really want to go to town with ClearType, download the ClearType Tuner Power Toy from here - this enables you to fine-tune the settings to your personal satisfaction. The PowerToy isn't compatible with Windows Vista, but you can fine-tune your settings using the online version - click here to do so.
Make the mouse and keyboard easier to use
When it comes to tweaking your mouse for easier control, there are two areas to check out. Vista users should first click Make my mouse easier to use in the Ease of Access Center to switch on MouseKeys to control the mouse using the numeric keypad. XP users will find this option on the Mouse tab of the Accessibility Options Control Panel. Vista also enables you to change the mouse pointer and makes it possible to activate windows by rolling the mouse over them as opposed to clicking on them.
XP users can change their mouse pointer in the Mouse Control Panel from the Pointers tab, but Vista users should also check out this Control Panel for more accessibility-friendly options. Switch on ClickLock on the Buttons tab to highlight or drag objects without holding the mouse button, for example, or switch to the Pointer Options tab to make the cursor more visible.
The Make my keyboard easier to use option in Vista apes what's found on the Keyboard tab of XP's Accessibility Options Control Panel. StickyKeys enables you to simply press the [Ctrl], [Shift], [Alt] or [Windows] keys once instead of holding them, while FilterKeys will aid those who often find themselves accidentally hitting the same key twice in quick succession. Finally, ToggleKeys plays a sound to warn you when you press one of the Lock keys. Vista also throws in an option to underline keyboard shortcuts and access keys; XP users will find this option buried away in the Display Properties Control Panel - click Effects on the Appearance tab to access it.
Bypass the keyboard
If you're unable to use the keyboard for whatever reason, both XP and Vista provide the On-screen Keyboard tool, which sits at the bottom of the screen and enables you to enter words using the mouse or even a single key or joystick button by selecting Settings > Typing Mode and picking Joystick or key to select. In this latter mode, the cursor cycles between rows of keys on your keyboard - press your button or chosen key to select the row, and then wait while the cursor moves between the keys on that row, pressing again to select the one you want when it's highlighted.
High Contrast mode provides greater clarity by changing Windows' theme to one featuring just a handful of basic colours and changing text so it's white on a black background - this can be surprisingly soothing if you're suffering from a headache but need to get something done in a hurry. Switch it on or off by holding the left [Alt] + [Shift] keys and then pressing [PrintScreen]. You can change the colour scheme in XP by clicking Settings on the Display tab of the Accessibility Options Control Panel; Vista users should click Set up High Contrast followed by Choose a High Contrast color scheme.
Other accessibility options
The Ease of Access Center also brings together a myriad of other utilities you might find useful for making your PC more accessible. These are grouped into seven sections, ranging from "Use the computer without a display" (designed for blind people) to "Use text or visual alternatives to sounds" should you suffer from poor hearing or even simply lack speakers.
Many of these options are also found in Windows XP - if you open the Accessibility Options Control Panel you'll find many grouped into five tabs: Keyboard, Sound, Display, Mouse and General. Many of these are aimed at making the keyboard and mouse easier to use as the box explains, but you'll also find most of the other options found in the Ease of Access Center in Vista hidden away here.
One of Vista's big plusses over XP in the accessibility stakes is its built-in support for speech recognition. However, there is third-party help should you want speech recognition in Windows XP. You can use the speech engine built into Office XP and 2003, or you can download it for free. We'll be featuring a tutorial on setting up and configuring speech recognition in both Windows XP and Vista shortly.
Make your browser more accessible
1. MAKE TEXT EASIER TO READ
Your browser should have some facility for either zooming into a page or increasing the text size, typically using the [Ctrl] + [+]/[-] key combo. Internet Explorer 7 and 8 users can zoom into the page with this, or increase the text size by selecting Pages > Text Size > Larger or Largest.
2. SWITCH ON CLEARTYPE
If you'd only like ClearType to be switched on for web browsing, do so from within IE7/8 instead of Windows so your web pages benefit without affecting the rest of Windows. Select Tools > Internet Options > Advanced tab and tick Always use ClearType for HTML under Multimedia.
3. BYPASS SITE DESIGN
If you don't like the way pages are displayed in Internet Explorer, define your own colours, fonts and language using the various buttons under Appearance - click Accessibility and tick the three boxes to force Internet Explorer to use your choices over the web site's own.