Technology Microsoft promises to make life easier despite your handicaps. Karan Deep Singh reports

B ought a new laptop? There is something about your system you might not be aware of. If your new computer system has a pre-installed version of Microsoft Windows 7, it can actually talk to you. Not only this, if you are using spectacles for reading and you accidentally break or misplace them, you can use the magnifying tool to work on your computer with ease. On the click of a button, your Windows operating system can activate an on-screen keyboard which can be used with a pointer device like a mouse. In case you are not comfortable with the sensitivity of your pointer devices, you can also alter specific settings to suit your needs. Although accessibility features are specifically designed keeping in mind the needs of the disabled, including physically challenged, visually impaired, hearing impaired along with multiple and cognitive disabilities, these settings can also be used in case you are unable to use your computer the usual way for some reason.

James J. Thurston, Senior Strategist for Global Policy and Standards, Microsoft who was in Delhi to spread awareness about accessibility in Microsoft products recalls how one of his colleagues started using the speech recognition function when he accidentally hurt himself in the shoulder.

Thurston says, “Right from Microsoft Windows 95, we actually started building accessibility features into our products and we continued to improve the accessibility of our products. Not just of Windows but of all our products. We look at accessibility as important as privacy or security of the user using that technology. When we were developing Windows Vista, and though its predecessor Windows XP had some accessibility features, with Windows Vista we decided to overhaul our whole approach to accessibility in our products and we did that because we undertook three years of market research specifically on people with disabilities.”

Asked about the findings of the research, Thurston explains, “One of the things that we realised both in the case of Vista and Windows 7 was that a lot of people did not associate themselves with disability. In XP and previous versions of Windows, you sort of had to select something like ‘I have a disability' button, but with Vista we changed that to Ease of Access Center so that anyone who just wants to interact with their computer in a more easy way could use these functions. A lot of people were not using the functionality because they didn't see themselves as having a disability. But what we realised in the market research was that almost everyone experiences some level of disability, be it with age. It showed that 57 percent of adults in the age group of 18 to 54 found some benefit from accessibility functions,” he adds.

Questioned whether these products also cater to the special needs of people suffering from multiple disabilities, Thurston says the functionality that they build into the products might not necessarily reach the most severe disorders. He says this is where assistive technologies that other companies are developing come into the picture.

Thurston agrees that it is “a big challenge” to take this technology to grass roots. One of the things the company is looking at are other companies which are developing assistive technology products and that there are standards that define what assistive technologies should do. Moreover, he says that the company with cooperation from government agencies and NGOs plans to not just help them in developing new assistive technology products but to deploy them.

Further adding that the Corporation's endeavour is to work with as many external partners as possible, Gauri Arora, Lead- Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft, says that they are partnering with various NGOs to build awareness. “Most of the NGOs are aware of these programmes and they can simply go online on our specific websites and download such softwares. There are some NGOs which are running schools as well. So, they all have the ability to download our applications including those who might not be specifically dealing with disabilities.”