Microsoft has described Windows 11 as “the most accessible version of Windows yet,” with a suite of new features intended to make the operating system more usable — and useful — for people with disabilities.
Recently, we passed the one-year anniversary of Windows 11’s official release, and Microsoft has continued to roll out accessibility improvements. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the major enhancements included in the recent 2022 update.
Windows 11 includes live captions and voice access
Two of the most significant features aren’t exactly new, but they’re new for Windows users.
Windows 11 includes system-wide live captions, which works similarly to Google Android’s live caption feature. When the feature is enabled, the operating system automatically transcribes spoken content from any audio. While live captions aren’t always accurate, they can be useful for people with hearing disabilities (or for any user who needs to keep their sound turned off).
Another updated feature, voice access, enables users to control their computers without using a mouse or keyboard. Voice access also provides tools for dictating and editing text.
Neither feature relies on an active internet connection to work. While live captions and voice controls aren’t new technologies, they’re fully integrated in Windows 11, which should help the OS appeal to a wider range of users.
The new Windows 11 Focus mode accommodates people with attention disorders
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders worldwide, affecting about 6.1 million children in the United States alone. People with ADHD may have difficulty concentrating on a single task — especially when they’re forced to deal with notifications, pop-up windows, and other distractions.
“To help navigate this new way of working, we envisioned a new Focus experience with people with ADHD to help the ADHD community, and everyone, focus and do more,” wrote Jeff Petty and Carolina Hernandez, the leaders of Microsoft’s Windows Accessibility team.
Starting a Focus session prevents apps from flashing in the taskbar and turns off badge notifications on apps. A focus timer appears on the screen and reminds users to take breaks.
Windows 11 also introduces enhancements to Narrator, a built-in screen reader
Screen readers translate text to audio (or braille), and they’re commonly used by people with vision disabilities. Since Windows XP, Microsoft has provided Narrator, a basic screen reader, with every operating system — but the vast majority of screen reader users prefer third-party applications like NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) and JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech).
Why? For starters, Narrator doesn’t have a great reputation. In past versions of Windows, “Sam,” Microsoft’s text to speech (TTS) voice, routinely mispronounced common words, including the name of Microsoft’s search engine, Bing.
And even when Narrator pronounced words correctly, Sam didn’t provide users with a pleasant experience. In 2017, Jamie Pauls, writer for the American Foundation for the Blind, described Sam as sounding “as though he had just awakened from a deep sleep in order to perform his duties.”
Over time, Microsoft has improved Narrator’s pronunciation, but a 2021 survey from WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) found that only 0.5% of screen reader users chose Narrator as their primary desktop/laptop screen reader. That may change with Windows 11.
Changes to Narrator include:
- A greater variety of voices, which utilize new neural TTS models to mirror natural speech.
- The ability to switch between TTS voices to support different tasks.
- Support for over 110 languages and locales.
- Tweaks to the keyboard layout, which are intended to provide users with more natural control via hotkeys.
By embracing inclusive design, Microsoft is providing a better experience for everyone
Microsoft seems to have focused on accessibility as a core component of Windows 11. That’s an excellent approach: When products are designed to meet the needs and expectations of people with disabilities, they’re more useful, period.
According to Microsoft’s Windows blog, the new operating system was tested for usability and Trusted Tester conformance. But Windows 11 also includes features like high contrast themes, adjustable sound schemes, and customizable color combinations — features that aren’t strictly necessary for conformance, but which are extremely useful for real-life users.
When software developers focus on accessibility, everyone wins. To see whether your website or mobile app delivers a great experience to users with disabilities, send us a message or get started with a free website accessibility analysis.