At the speed of speech

Plugged In

September 14, 2006|By The Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- A brain injury at 16 made tying her shoes a challenge for Logan Olson, let alone the demands of publishing a magazine.

Olson is on the computer constantly, typing out ideas, researching seasonal fashions and corresponding with writers and advertisers to assemble the coming premiere issue of a lifestyle magazine for young women with disabilities.

But the loss of fine-motor skills means her fingers can't keep pace with her mind.

Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Vista operating system has speech-recognition technology that could make her work a lot easier. Given the chance to use the software during a recent visit to Microsoft, Olson, 21, got the program to recognize some of her words after only a brief setup and despite her speech impairment.

"It would make a huge impact on Logan to take everything that's in her thoughts and get it on paper," said Laurie Olson, her mother and business partner in Logan Magazine, during a phone interview from their Spokane, Wash., home.

Added Logan: "It would be a big help for both of us, and my dad - anybody who needs it."

The speech-recognition system, which allows dictation and voice control of computer functions, is one of dozens of features in Vista to make it easier to use for people with disabilities.

And, as Logan Olson suggested, Microsoft aims to expand use of such features as screen magnifiers and high-contrast text displays to a wider audience, including baby boomers.

"We started off doing this work for people specifically with disabilities," said Rob Sinclair, director of the company's Accessible Technologies Group. "Now we're seeing that doing that same work actually benefits everyone."

Some 57 percent of U.S. computer users between 18 and 64 were likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology, according to a 2003 Forrester Research study commissioned by Microsoft.

Demographic trends are swelling the ranks of those who could benefit most. Older people reported more impairments, and nearly 19 percent of the U.S. labor force will be 55 or older by 2010.

"The aging labor force is likely to mean greater pressure from businesses to help keep their aging employees as productive as possible throughout their careers," the Forrester study noted.

Microsoft's accessibility efforts make sense in that context, said Alan Knue, program operations manager at the University of Washington Center for Technology and Disability Studies.

"Because so many people are entering that age where they need additional support, particularly for reading and hearing, it is becoming more important to approach assistive technology in a different way," he said.

The redesign of the accessibility features in Windows Vista - due out for businesses in November and consumers in January - started with how they're presented to users.

In Windows XP, on the market since 2001, "Accessibility Options" are found under a green wheelchair icon in the computer's Control Panel. That kept many who don't consider themselves disabled from finding things that could make their system easier and more comfortable to use, Sinclair and his team found.

One woman in a focus group thought that clicking on the icon would help people in wheelchairs lower or raise their keyboards or dial 911, said Annuska Perkins, who designed usability studies for the Accessible Technologies Group.

"People were saying, `Well, that's not for me. That's for somebody who is parking in a handicapped spot,'" Perkins said.

In Vista, the features are found in an "Ease of Access" center, and the explicit wheelchair icon has been replaced with stylized arrows and dashes, still in the basic shape of a wheelchair.

That's one of several balances Microsoft is trying to strike between introducing features to a wider audience and making sure existing users can find everything.

A quick-launch section allows users who know what they're looking for to turn on a screen narrator, on-screen keyboard or other tools.

Another section lists accessibility settings for a comprehensive catalog of what's available.

Microsoft tries to makes use of "everyday terminology" throughout the Ease of Access center, Sinclair said.

"We're saying, `Make the computer easier to see.' It's not saying, `Change your resolution and screen-coordinate system,'" he said.

That approach extends to a feature that recommends accessibility settings based on a user's answers to a five-page questionnaire. Users select from a series of statements such as "Images and text on TV are difficult to see" or "Pens and pencils are difficult to use."

The system lets people with disabilities describe themselves through statements such as "I do not use a keyboard."

Microsoft's approach follows an established practice in accessible technology, said UW's Knue. The accessible-technology community "stays away from any of the obvious disability labels," he said. "We try to talk more about functionality."

Sinclair recently had firsthand experience using the speech-recognition system while recovering from shoulder surgery.

"It worked well enough for me to get my job done," he said.

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