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Since computers are such empowering devices, both Microsoft and Apple have made a commitment to create products that allow computers to be accessible to everyone. They have both gone beyond the requirements of the U.S. federal government’s accessibility statute to offer help to those with disabilities.

Most computer users don’t even know that these aides exist, but they are built right into the operating systems, browsers, and some programs. Everyone should be aware of their existence and of course, those looking for a little help with their vision, hearing, or dexterity should investigate them fully.

While previous versions of Windows and Mac operating systems have had built-in accessibility options, the latest versions – Windows XP and Mac OS X include some impressive new technology aimed at helping people with disabilities use the computer. Most of these features will be useful to those with vision, hearing, and dexterity difficulties, but there are also resources for people with language, speech, and learning impairments.

To see the full range of accessibility features in Windows, visit the Microsoft Accessibility Web Site. Microsoft also has excellent   Step by Step Tutorials that walk you through the accessibility features in each of their major products including Windows 98 through Windows XP, Word, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. Thoughtfully, these lessons can even be printed. More help is also available at the Microsoft Accessibility Support Center.

Microsoft’s accessibility options are many and varied. There are screen magnifiers, keyboard adjustments, mouse modifications, and lots of extras. You can use StickyKeys which allow you to press one key for key combinations. There are ToggleKeys which allow you to hear tones when pressing certain keys. To improve the screen visibility there are a variety of colors and high contrast color combinations. Narrator is a good text to speech program that can help people with low vision. It can read text and can even read the letters as you type them.

All of these options are available by clicking on Start, the (All) Programs. When the list of programs appears, choose Accessories, then Accessibility. Windows even has an Accessibility Wizard to walk you though the installation of these options.

To get more information on the options that are built-into OS X, surf over to Apple’s Accessibility Web Site. You will find that OS X has a spoken interface, built-in magnification, talking alerts, and display adjustments similar to those found in the Microsoft products. Mac also has keyboard, mouse, and screen adjustments that can accommodate those with vision, hearing, and dexterity disabilities. Apple calls their accessibility options Universal Access. They can be activated by accessing the System Preferences in the Apple menu.

Apple has become a leader in options for the disabled. The spoken interface in Mac OS X is wonderful. It is fully integrated, easy to learn, and quite powerful. Even voices and speech rates can be adjusted. Apple also has included the ability to produce closed captioning into their Quick Time videos.  Their iChat videoconferencing is clear enough to be able to communicate sign language over the Internet.

If you or someone you know can use these accessibility options, be sure to investigate them fully. The Microsoft and Apple Web sites also contain information on third-party programs and aids like touch screens, alternative input devices, and typing aides.

I’m glad you read to the bottom of this article. Now you all know about the amazing features built into our everyday programs to help those who need a little extra assistance.