Assistive Technology at and by Microsoft
I recently learned that Microsoft has an Inclusive Technology Lab. The website explains, "Our facility is for people with disabilities, not about people with disabilities." I was invited to participate in a design sprint that took place in the lab. This involved sitting down with a room full of colleagues who were all interested in the story of my interactions with technology. I shared the challenges I face, such as stiff fingers making it difficult to type and tremors causing phantom mouse clicks that mistakenly send messages to trash. They listened and asked great questions. It was therapeutic to dump not just pains and frustrations but share ideas and inspirations.
It also was an opportunity for me to connect with teams passionate about making technology more accessible. I was given a prototype of some Microsoft Adaptive Accessories. I used them in secret (at home) until they were publicly announced during the Ability Summit. If you aren't aware of this event, I highly recommend checking it out. Here is the opening keynote:
I also learned about a new built-in way to control Windows with my voice. Using a publicly available beta build of Windows 11 "Insider Edition," I configured a technology called Voice Access. I want to say this is similar to the old, built-in Speech Recognition, but that wouldn't do it justice. This is far more advanced, intelligent, flexible, and capable of understanding my voice dictation.
So, what do I think about these technologies? Let's start with Voice Access.
Voice Access has two main modes: a command mode that allows you to control your system and a dictation mode that converts speech to text. I am actually dictating much of this blog and have surprisingly few error corrections to make. In the few instances that the dictation is incorrect, there are also voice commands that make it easy to highlight incorrect words and fix them.
Voice Access gives me much needed rest from the strain typing has become. I can give my hands a break and manage email with my voice. Here is the transcript of an actual session:
"Press down." - scroll to next email
"Press options." - document key behaves like a right-click
"Click 'Saved Items.'"
When there are multiple places to click, the software will show numbers so that you can easily specify which item you actually want to click on. A quick way to manually click is to ask for a grid overlay. You pick a quadrant of a 3x3 cell grid by saying its number, and the cursor moves to the middle of that cell. The grid is redrawn within the cell, so it is smaller and allows you to zoom in to your target.
I'm very happy with this feature, but even if you aren't in the Insiders program, there is a capability available in general Windows 11 versions that I love just as much. Any time you have something open that receives text, you can hold down the Windows Key and press H to begin voice dictation. This dictation will apply automatic capitalization and punctuation for you. He is also smart enough to understand dictated punctuation marks. The software not only works well but does not take up too many resources on my system. It has opened up new possibilities for me as I can now dictate more quickly than I can type.
Microsoft Adaptive Mouse
I wrote about the challenges I have with typing in a previous post about assistive technology. The head tracker and foot pedals worked well but are impractical to take with me. In fact, I switched to using my right hand instead of my left hand for the mouse even though my left hand is the dominant one. Enter the Microsoft Adaptive Mouse. The mouse itself is a small, flat, square base with buttons and a wheel.
The real power comes from its extensibility. I was provided with a 3d-printed "tail".
The back of the mouse can be removed to allow connecting accessories. In my case, the tail is thick and stiff plastic. This forces me to press hard for a click to register. The result is that I've been able to switch back to my left hand. I've been using it for a few weeks now and have not had any issue with phantom clicks. It is a simple but very effective solution.
Microsoft Adaptive Hub and Button
The last item that I'd like to share with you is the button that works in conjunction with the hub. The hub is a small device that attaches via Bluetooth and/or USB and provides a way to switch between various profiles and attach industry standard accessibility "switches". One such accessory that is provided by Microsoft is the adaptive button. This is probably my favorite feature that was announced during the ability summit because the button has made my life incredibly easier.
Like the adaptive mouse, the button is designed to take on different attachments that customize the texture and firmness. There is even a joystick attachment. Pictured below is the base with two of the button options.
The button has eight inputs between up, down, left, right, and the diagonals. The purple cover I prefer emphasizes the four main functions while still allowing the diagonal presses.
What's so special about the button? It's the software that comes with it that really makes the difference. Each of the eight inputs can be mapped to a Windows action, keypress, or even a set of repeatable tasks known as a "macro." You can program context-specific actions, meaning it will behave differently based on what application you are in.
For example, my generic actions include tabbing between active applications using left and right presses, launching the web browser with the "up" press, and minimizing the desktop with the down press. The lower left and lower right diagonals move the active application between monitors. In Teams calls, I can press "up" to raise my hand, left to toggle video and right to toggle mute. The most powerful actions for me are in Outlook. When I want to reply to an email, I perform this series of steps:
Press left (mapped to "reply")
Press Windows Key + H to dictate the subject
Press right (kicks off a macro)
My opening text "Hi," is automatically entered into the mail
Voice dictation is launched automatically so I can begin dictating the email
Press right (continues the macro)
On the second press, my signature is added, and the email is ready
Review the email, then press right (finishes the macro)
Email is sent
It's been exciting to figure out which tasks I frequently repeat so that I can automate them with what I refer to as simply, "The button."
For many hardware and software projects, accessibility is an afterthought. In our Inclusive Technology Lab there is a large team focused on accessibility first. Everyone I spoke to there is passionate about building solutions and creating real impact. I believe this is a game changer and I'm grateful for the opportunity to provide feedback to those willing and eager to listen and test out products that will make life easier for millions of technology users who require a little extra assistance.