Making computers easier to use

Graham Clements
Microsoft Windows has a few features to help people with disabilities use computers. Speech recognition allows a user to tell a computer what to do. Narrator reads text aloud. Magnifier increases the screen size. Even the mouse pointer can be enlarged. Windows also has an onscreen keyboard. These accessibility features are free with Windows. Some are easy to use, while others take patience and time to learn.  
Posted by: 
Graham Clements on 15/04/2014
A woman using a headset microphone to talk to her computer
Headset microphone

A microphone is needed, preferably built into a headset.

Windows has a number of features aimed at making computers easier to use. In Windows 7 these features can be accessed from the Start menu. Click on All Programs, then Accessories and finally Ease of Access. These accessibility features are available on other versions of Windows.

Speech Recognition 

Speech Recognition (SR) allows a user to control a computer using their voice. SR can be used to navigate around a computer, including inserting web addresses into browsers. It can also be used to write documents. A microphone is needed, preferably built into a headset. They can cost as little as $15.

Windows 7 has an interactive SR tutorial. The tutorial covers the basic SR commands. For example, saying numbers will cause numbers to appear over most of the menu items on a screen. Saying one of those numbers is then equivalent to clicking on that numbered item. There are many SR commands to remember. Saying What can I Say? causes a list of commands to appear on the screen.

The tutorial had trouble understanding my mumbled next at the end of each window, so I resolved to avoid saying next in any future use of SR.

I used SR with my email client gmail. I found it easy to select emails to read, but had problems composing messages. Words that sounded like letters came up as just that letter. For example, it printed M instead of am. I then tried writing a document in Word using SR. For some reason SR worked better in Word, with am and other words that sounded like letters being correctly printed. So if problems persist with gmail, I can always dictate a message in Word and then cut and paste it into an email.


Narrator is a text to speech program. It reads aloud many of the windows that appear on screen. It reads menu items that the mouse points to, and the keys pressed while typing. It also reads documents on Wordpad and Notepad. But I could not get Narrator to read Word documents or my gmail emails. Narrator seemed to be very selective in what it read. For example, it read most of the windows for the SR tutorial, but not all of them. I found this selectiveness very frustrating.


Fortunately Word has its own text to speech function called Speak. To access Speak in Word 2010 click on the down arrow in the Quick Access toolbar. Then click on MORE COMMANDS and change POPULAR COMMANDS to ALL COMMANDS. Scroll down the list to SPEAK, highlight it, click ADD and then OK. An icon for SPEAK will then appear in the Quick Access toolbar.


Magnifier makes text larger in three ways:

  •  Full screen mode magnifies the entire screen
  •  Lens mode magnifies the area around the mouse pointer
  •  Docked mode shows the magnified text along the top of the screen. 

I found the docked mode easiest to use.

In the Ease of Access centre a user can enlarge and blacken the mouse pointer.  The cursor can similarly be made thicker and easier to see. My current larger and black mouse pointer is much more noticeable. 

Sticky Keys

Sticky Keys is helpful for those who have trouble pressing multiple keys at the same time. Once Sticky Keys is activated a user no longer needs to press combinations such as Ctrl, Alt, Del at the same time. The keys can be pressed one after the other and have the same effect.

Onscreen keyboard

Windows has an onscreen keyboard. Its keys are pressed by mouse clicks or by hovering the mouse pointer over the key. The keyboard also predicts words. Type in pr and choices such as problem and program will appear on keys at the top of the keyboard.

Used in combination

People with a vision impairment might find a combination of SR, Narrator and Magnifier useful. Those who have difficulty using a keyboard might find SR, the onscreen keyboard and Sticky Keys useful. But Narrator seems to have some frustrating limitations and SR will take patience to perfect.


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