Why Windows 8 Might Not Be Ready for Visually Impaired Users

Windows 8 for the BlindMicrosoft has come a long way in terms of making its operating system more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Unfortunately, a lot of this effort is counteracted by the new type of app being supported by the operating system. How keyboard shortcut friendly are these new touch-oriented apps? Is Windows 8 less friendly than Windows 7?

Many non-sighted users don’t own a mouse or a touchpad. The idea of using a tablet to interact with content is still a hard pill to swallow for many visually impaired users. There are tools that can help bridge the gap, such as JAWS (a screen reading application) and hardware Braille readers. Unfortunately, many of the apps being made for Windows 8 are rather unfriendly to users who don’t wish to touch their screens or use a mouse. Many of these apps don’t even have keyboard shortcuts to them at all, which isn’t something that’s apparent when you read the app’s description in the Windows App Store.

This may not be a fault of the OS itself, but of early app developers who are so eager to build something that takes advantage of Windows 8’s tablet face that they might forget the rather large audience of folks who still prefer to keep their interactions to the keyboard. That tactile feedback and ability to remember where specific functions are on the keyboard is paramount to navigating any complex software platform for the visually impaired.

In order to access the Ease of Access Center, you need but to press windows+u anywhere inside of Windows. This will give you access to a number of useful accessibility features including Narrator, which is perhaps the most significant built-in tool for the visually impaired. It reads the names of Metro apps to you as you browse through the Start screen, and lets you know exactly which part of the screen you’re interacting with at a given time.

High contrast is another feature that can help the visually impaired. All of the same tools from Windows 7 are present in Windows 8. Microsoft hasn’t strayed too far away from its philosophy of supporting users that may not have all the advantages of being able to actively interact with every input device or quickly see and read objects on the screen. Unfortunately, this accessibility philosophy isn’t as prevalent in this new generation of apps.

Mardon Erbland from BetaNews noted in a recent article that multimedia playback is presently chaotic for the visually impaired. The new default media players aren’t directly accessible by keyboard shortcut, and navigating them without a mouse is nearly impossible. In this case, it would appear that Microsoft missed the mark. You can make the old Windows Media Player the default media player once again, but for users who don’t know the new apps have taken over this feature, it can be a real chore to figure out.

In short, Microsoft has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants Windows 8 to become the desktop operating system of choice for those who don’t have touchscreens, trackpads, and mice readily available to them. The company has come a long way to meet the middle ground in the past, but this is just one example of how integrating two very different operating environments into a single platform can cause pain points among its users.

Photo: Bob Familiar

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Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.