Microsoft Previews Office Accessibility Enhancements

By Pedro Hernandez  |  Posted 2016-08-27 Print this article Print

New features include improved Editor functionality that assists users with dyslexia, a high-contrast mode in Excel and an expanded Accessibility Checker.

Microsoft is working on new features that make it easier for people with dyslexia and the visually impaired get work done in its Office productivity software suite.

Among the new capabilities that the software giant is releasing this quarter across its Office ecosystem is an improved Editor tool for Word. Announced last month, Editor tackles writing flaws like wordiness, redundancy and other issues that typically slip by the software's existing spelling and grammar tools and diminish the quality of one's writing.

According to John Jendrezak, accessibility lead and partner director of program management of Microsoft Office Engineering, early users with dyslexia are already reporting an improvement in writing with Word. The company has more tweaks in the works, he added.

"More Editor enhancements are coming in the next few months for Word on PCs—all inspired by the needs of people with dyslexia and beneficial for everybody. In particular, Editor will make it easier to choose between suggested spellings for a misspelled word. Synonyms or definitions will be shown alongside suggestions and it will be possible to have both read aloud," wrote Jendrezak in a blog post.

In Excel Online, users with visual impairments will be able to interact with their spreadsheets with less eyestrain on Windows PCs with high-contrast mode enabled. The browser-based software now boasts more visible cell-selection outlines and charts that adhere to a high-contrast theme's colors, among other improvements.

SharePoint Online has been updated to work better with Narrator, Windows 10's built-in screen reader. The SharePoint home page features headings that aid navigation and new "search as you type" capabilities that integrate search results into the screen reader experience. SharePoint Document Libraries now can audibly report on actions like file uploads and task confirmations using Narrator.

Narrator isn't the sole focus of Microsoft's efforts to improve Office text-to-speech capabilities. In May, the company announced that it was also working on enhancing how its Office 365 apps for iOS and Android work with the assistive technologies found in those mobile operating systems, namely VoiceOver and TalkBack.

Microsoft's Accessibility Checker for Office, under the Check for Issues option in Office apps (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) for Windows, has made its way to the Mac and the Sway app. The company plans to extend the feature to the web-based versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as Outlook for Windows and Mac, announced Jendrezak.

Earlier this year, Microsoft made new executive appointments in a renewed accessibility push that affects it entire product and services slate.

On Jan. 20, the company announced it had named Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chair of the Disability Employee Resource Group at Microsoft, as its new chief accessibility officer. She replaced Rob Sinclair, who went on to head the Microsoft Windows and Devices Group's accessibility initiatives. Lay-Flurrie reports to Susan Hauser, corporate vice president of Microsoft's new Business and Corporate Responsibility unit, also established in January.


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