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Operating Systems

Use Windows' built-in accessibility tools to improve your productivity

Vista's Ease of Access and XP's Utility Manager tools offer alternative ways to interact with Windows.

Most of us rarely need to stray from the standard Windows interface. But there are times when it would help to get a close-up view of a graphic or some other file we're working on, or to listen to a long document or Web page rather than having to read it. Those are the times when Windows' built-in accessibility tools come in handy.

The screen reader, magnifier, and on-screen keyboard are designed primarily for people who have difficulty interacting with their computer using a typical display, keyboard, and mouse. Of course, anyone could benefit from time to time by hearing rather than seeing what's on the screen, blowing up their current display view, or controlling their PC via Windows' virtual keyboard.

To open the Utility Manager in Windows XP, press the Windows key and U. With "Magnifier is not running" highlighted in the top window, click Start to open a window at the top of the screen that shows a portion of the display at twice the magnification. You can resize the magnification window, or increase the magnification by choosing a number on the "Magnification level" drop-down menu (the maximum is "9").

Windows XP Utility Manager dialog box
Activate Windows XP's Magnifier utility via the Utility Manager. Microsoft

Highlight "Narrator is not running" and click Start to open the Microsoft Narrator dialog box. Like many specialized Windows utilities, Narrator leaves much to be desired. One freeware alternative is ReadPlease 2003, which lets you change the voice speed. Likewise, EzMagnifier is a free replacement for Windows' own magnifier utility that makes it easy to capture a bitmap of the magnified portion of the screen.

Switch to a high-contrast screen
Vista's Ease of Access applet puts a prettier interface on these options and adds one for switching your display to high-contrast mode. This makes the screen easier for some people to see. You can switch to this mode in XP and Vista by pressing the left Alt, left Shift, and Print Screen keys. Change your high-contrast settings in Vista by clicking Set up High Contrast > Choose a High Contrast color scheme and selecting one of the high-contrast options in the drop-down menu under "Color schemes."

Windows Vista's Appearance Settings dialog box
Choose one of the high-contrast options under "Color schemes" in Windows' Appearance Settings dialog box. Microsoft

In XP you can access these settings by clicking Settings after pressing the left Alt, left Shift, and Print Screen keys. With the Display tab selected in the Accessibility Options dialog box, check Use High Contrast and click Settings. Then select one of the high-contrast options in the drop-down menu under Color Scheme.

Next time: a closer look at Vista's built-in accessibility options.