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Microsoft rolls out tools and improvements to make its stuff more accessible

Inclusion is good business

Microsoft offers an enormous portfolio of software and services, used by billions of people – a substantial proportion of the world's population. As a substantial number of people have accessibility needs, so too do Microsoft's customers. That's the impetus behind the software behemoth's Ability Summit – held this week for its 13th year.

Making Windows, Microsoft 365, developer tools, AI technologies, and other offerings easier for people with different needs to use has long been a priority for Microsoft. And it's an ongoing process.

Among the myriad new and updated products introduced at this year's event is Accessibility Assistant in Microsoft 365 – designed to make creating accessible and inclusive content easier within the standard workflow.

It builds on – and eventually will replace – what Redmond currently offers with Accessibility Checker. That's a tool to check Outlook email, Word documents, and other presentations to ensure they're easy to read and edit for people with disabilities.

Accessibility Assistant offers guidance within the workflow, addressing issues before they become problems. It offers real-time remediation, such as flagging if a color being used is difficult to see. Other capabilities will be added in the months to come.

Speaking of Microsoft … It's made the ChatGPT text-generating model available as a preview via its Azure OpenAI Service. We're told it's priced at $0.002 per 1,000 tokens, and billing for all ChatGPT usage begins March 13. This allows developers and others to plug the bot into their own applications and software.

This stuff is important, given the number of issues – from images without descriptions, videos without captions, and text that is hard to read – that pervade not only web pages but also office work, according to Aleš Holeček, corporate veep of Microsoft's Office Product Group.

"This creates barriers that keep our colleagues and coworkers from doing their jobs effectively, prevent students from getting the most out of their education, and hinder authors from reaching their broadest possible audience," according to Holeček.

Later this year Microsoft will offer 3D-printed attachments to Surface Pens to help people with limited mobility grip the writing tools – something that already is available in the vendor's Business and Classroom pens. In addition, Redmond rolled out 13 new African languages for Microsoft Translator, including Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo. In all, Microsoft Translator can run speech-to-text operations in 125 languages.

In Azure, the Seeing AI app for the visually impaired now has an Indoor Navigation feature to help people navigate through a building by giving audio cues about their surroundings. In LinkedIn, Microsoft is using its Azure Cognitive Services to add automatic alt-text descriptions and captioning to images on the platform. According to the software giant, more than 40 percent of LinkedIn posts include at least one image.

The Windows 11 team this week rolled out Preview Build 23403 for the operating system, which includes expanding the number of languages available for live captions for those with hearing issues.

Initially the captions were only provided in English, but now the languages available include Chinese – Simplified and Traditional – French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and other English dialects beyond American.

To make File Explorer more accessible, Microsoft is adding key shortcuts to the XAML context menu.

"An access key is a one-keystroke shortcut that allows a keyboard user to quickly execute a command in context menu," Microsoft wrote. "Each access key will correspond with a letter in the display name."

There also are improvements to the voice access technology, including a renovated in-app command help page and expanding the English dialects that are available to cover UK, Indian, and Australian.

In Teams, Microsoft announced Closed Captions for PowerPoint Live earlier this week. Users who are deaf or hard of hearing, have a language barrier, or are in a loud environment can turn on closed captions for any video that includes a closed captions file.

For developers, Dante Gagne, senior program manager at Microsoft, outlined how developers can use the Integrated Accessibility Checker in Visual Studio to scan for accessibility in desktop applications. Gagne noted it's the first tool in the IDE to help developers build accessible applications, though more are coming.

"The implications are far-reaching, because many countries have laws governing accessibility in applications for consumers, government, or educational use," Gagne wrote. "Accessibility is as important as privacy or security, to ensure your application is usable by all developers and complies with legal standards." ®

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