Microsoft talks accessibility improvements coming to Windows and Office 365 in 2017

Ahead of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Microsoft has taken to its accessibility blog to highlight some of the ways it's planning to improve Windows 10 and Office in 2017 for disabled users. Overall, Microsoft has some big plans for improving accessibility features of its products in 2017, including braille support, new text to speech voices, and much more.

Here's a look at what's in the pipeline for Windows 10 and Narrator in the Creators Update. As Microsoft notes, some of these improvements are already in Insider builds, but some will be added in the new year:

  • Braille: Support for braille is coming! The Creators Update will include beta support for braille input and output. The beta will support braille displays from more than 35 manufacturers, using more than 40 languages and multiple braille variants, including grade 2 contracted braille.
  • Unassisted installation: Users will soon be able to install the Windows 10 Creators Update using Narrator throughout the installation process, including from within Windows RE/PE for setup & troubleshooting.
  • New way to launch Narrator: We have changed the quick keys used to launch Narrator to address feedback from many Windows 10 users. Users can now launch Narrator by clicking CTRL + WIN + ENTER. WIN + ENTER no longer launches Narrator. Users can still launch Narrator from Cortana or from the Settings Window.
  • New text to speech voices and capabilities: We are adding more than 10 new voices. In addition, there will be Narrator support for multilingual reading, so that Narrator seamlessly switches between languages when you have the corresponding voices installed.
  • Improved audio experiences: We implemented dynamic ducking, so Narrator will only reduce the volume of other applications like Groove or Pandora when it is speaking. The handshake between Narrator and Cortana is also improved, so Cortana won't transcribe what Narrator (or other screen readers) is speaking.
  • More general reliability and usability improvements: We added features to make it easier to understand the context of a control with which you are interacting and to make it possible to discover information about objects like the background color of a table cell. Narrator will remember and maintain your mode, e.g. scan mode, across applications. Narrator cursor positioning improvements include stopping and starting where you expect when reading in scan mode and when reading by line, paragraph and in continuous reading.
  • Easier web browsing with Edge: Narrator responsiveness is improved with Edge and several new features have been added, including the ability to jump directly to a form element like a check box, text field or button, and the ability to navigate by heading level.
  • Improvements across devices: It will be now be possible to use a controller to drive Narrator interactions on Xbox. The ability to adjust the pitch and speed of the Narrator voice on Xbox has also been added.

On top of the accessibility improvements to Windows 10 and Narrator, Microsoft also has some accessibility plans for Office 365 that should make it much easier to collaborate with others and create great content. Here's a look at what's coming in early 2017:

  • Built-in controls for authoring accessible content: We will be introducing more accessible templates to help you get started, making it easy to insert alternative text descriptions for images and meaningful display names for hyperlinks as well as making the accessibility checker available in more Office applications. Watch this short accessible authoring demonstration to learn more about these capabilities.
  • Built-in controls for personalizing reading experiences: Inspired by the profound impact the introduction of Learning Tools for OneNote has had in classrooms and are making these tools to promote concentration and comprehension available in more Office applications. Settings to read text aloud with simultaneous highlighting, increase text spacing and break words into syllables are already rolling out in Word for PCs to Office Insider and First Release program members and are coming next to Word Online and OneNote Online. Watch this short Learning Tools demonstration to learn more about these capabilities.
  • Support for creating professional, polished content with assistive technologies: Making it easy to use new cloud-powered, intelligent services in Office applications with assistive technologies such as screen readers and alternative keyboards. Services such as Designer in PowerPoint, Researcher and Editor in Word can reduce the effort you spend on tasks such as formatting, citing and proofing your work and let you focus on refining the ideas you'd like to communicate.

This follows what Microsoft says has been a good year for accessibility in Windows and Office. Indeed, the Anniversary Update alone packed a ton of accessibility improvements ranging from new Narrator languages and faster speech voices to specific app tweaks. For much more, be sure to check out Microsoft's accessibility website.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl