Windows 2000 holds many accessibility shortcuts

John McCormick

If your office has no budget to modify its PC equipment for accessibility to disabled users, take a closer look at what you already have.

Some disabled users can adapt standard keyboards and monitors to their needs with Microsoft Windows 2000 at no extra cost.

For example, say a monitor is set to 1,024- by 768-pixel resolution. You can make the screen text more legible for someone with a visual impairment by resetting the graphics to 800-by-600 or 640-by-480 resolution. Also reset the user's Internet Explorer browser to display different fonts and font sizes.

There's even an instant way to change monitor settings. Turn high contrast on and off by pressing the left Shift-Alt-Prnt Scrn key combination. This enlarges all screen elements and turns most colors off, leaving white on black, or black on white. You can also make custom selections and revert to original settings.

For users with motor control problems, adjust the keyboard and mouse parameters in Win 2000. One of Microsoft Corp.'s innovations is to tie accessibility options to key combinations for easy on and off.

Win 2000, for example, will automatically switch to StickyKey mode when you tap Shift five times in a row. This aids users who can touch only one key at a time. If it doesn't work automatically, go to the StickyKeys settings in Accessibility Options and check the Use Shortcut box. StickyKeys will lock the Ctrl, Alt and Shift keys until you press a second key.

The FilterKeys utility adjusts the keyboard to ignore inadvertently repeated taps. It can lengthen the key-repeat delay up to two seconds or shut off the repeat entirely.

For hearing-impaired users'or those who lack a sound card'SoundSentry can cause any warning beeps or other sound clues to appear onscreen, with or without captions.

Pressing left Alt-Shift-Num Lock turns on MouseKeys, which lets the keys on the numeric pad control cursor movement while the arrow keys continue working normally.

Adaptive features such as MouseKeys will take getting used to, but after a little experimentation you will find lots of ways to make disabled users comfortable.

Here's a hint: Always keep MouseKeys up on the status bar, and you can adjust or readjust options just by clicking on it.

The challenge with MouseKeys is to get the cursor to move fast enough but not too fast. You can make it move faster by holding the key down longer. But the best method for most users is to press Shift or Ctrl to speed or slow cursor movement, respectively, while holding down the 2, 4, 6 or 8 on the number pad. By default, the 5 key controls the right mouse button.

The accelerator setting also controls how far the cursor moves when the Ctrl key is pressed.

The 1, 3, 7 and 9 keys move the cursor diagonally. The Del, Ins, / and * keys modify how the mouse buttons work. Current settings will appear graphically if you display the MouseKeys status on screen.

The cursor pad still operates normally, as does any mouse or touchpad that might be installed.

Win 2000 can be set to turn off all such accessibility features after a user-defined idle period. The value of having these utilities built into the operating system and accessible through hotkeys is that multiple PCs in an office can be configured for disabled users, but anyone can turn off the configurations in an instant, depending on what program is running.

After a recent column in which I criticized some government Web sites for illegibility [GCN, April 16, Page 26], I received an interesting e-mail from a consultant who designs Web pages for a government agency. He said my condemnation of frames was too harsh.

What I find wrong with frames is that blind users and those unfamiliar with Web technology can't navigate with them.

The consultant also said he had been told to put yellow text on a blue background but didn't know how to determine which tints would be best for color-blind users. I found a dozen references on the Internet, but he should do his own homework.

Design for color-deficient vision is a complex topic, but black on white and white on black still work fine. If you must get fancy, remember that about 8 percent of your visitors can't tell red and green apart.

To make your Web site truly accessible, you need input from designers and consultants who are disabled themselves. Their advice matters a lot more than having the latest Java applet on your site.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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