Windows Management and Maintenance : The Windows 7 Control Panel (part 7) - Ease of Access Center

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9. Ease of Access Center

The Windows 7 Ease of Access Center is similar to the Windows Vista version, and, unlike the Windows XP Accessibility Center it replaces, is designed to be easy enough to enable users with visual or hearing impairments to set up their own systems, not merely use a system that has already been customized by another user for easier operation. The Ease of Access Center is found in two Control Panel categories: Appearance and Personalization and Ease of Access, and is also listed in the Large Icons/Small Icons views.

After you open the Ease of Access Center (see Figure 12), Windows 7’s text-to-speech tool reads the top of the dialog box to the user and then highlights each of the tools (Magnifier, Narrator, On-Screen Keyboard, and High Contrast) in turn. To open a tool, all the user has to do is press the spacebar when the tool is highlighted.

Figure 12. The Ease of Access Center talks users through selecting common accessibility tools.

To use other Ease of Access settings, scroll down the list and select from the following:

  • Use the Computer Without a Display— Offers options including Narrator, Audio Description of videos, text-to-speech setup, disabling of unnecessary animations, and adjusting how long Windows dialog boxes stay open.

  • Make the Computer Easier to See— Specifies how to turn on High Contrast displays, enable Narrator and Audio Description, adjust text and icon sizes, turn on Magnifier, increase the thickness of the focus rectangle and blinking cursor, and disable background images and unnecessary animations.

  • Use the Computer Without a Mouse or Keyboard— Offers the On-Screen Keyboard and the Speech Recognition dialog box.

  • Make the Mouse Easier to Use— Adjusts the mouse cursor size and color, enables Mouse Keys, and enables hover to switch to a window option.

  • Make the Keyboard Easier to Use— Turns on the user’s choice of Mouse Keys, Sticky Keys, Toggle Keys, or Filter Keys.

  • Use Text or Visual Alternatives for Sounds— Configures Sound Sentry, which can flash the active caption bar, active window, or the desktop to notify a user of a warning; offers option to enable text captions for spoken dialog boxes when available.

  • Make It Easier to Focus on Tasks— Configures accessibility keyboard settings, Narrator, and removal of background images.

You can use many combinations of Ease of Access features to help make the computer use easier.

Ease of Access Keyboard Settings

The keyboard settings are intended to deal with such problems as accidentally repeating keys or pressing combinations of keys. These options fall into three categories: Sticky Keys, Filter Keys, and Toggle Keys.

Sticky Keys are settings that, in effect, stay “down” when you press them once. They are good for controlling the function of the Alt, Ctrl, and Shift Keys if you have trouble pressing two keys at the same time. To use them, set the Sticky Keys option on; then choose the suboptions as you see fit. For some users, the shortcut of pressing the Shift key five times is a good way to activate Sticky Keys. If you turn on this activation method, note that pressing the Shift key five times again turns off Sticky Keys. This trick isn’t explained clearly in the dialog boxes. Also, if you choose the Press Modifier Key Twice to Lock option, that means you press, for example, Shift twice to lock it. You can then press Shift twice again to unlock it.


Filter Keys, when activated, can make it seem that your keyboard has ceased working unless you are very deliberate with keypresses. You have to press a key and keep it down for several seconds for the key to register. If you activate this setting and want to turn it off, the easiest solution is to use the mouse to open the Control Panel (via the taskbar), run the Ease of Access applet, turn off Filter Keys, and click Apply or OK.

Filter Keys let you “filter” (remove) accidental repeated keystrokes if you have trouble pressing a key cleanly once and letting it up. This feature prevents you from typing multiple keystrokes. The shortcut key for turning on this feature works like the one for Sticky Keys; it’s a toggle. If you hold down the right Shift key for eight seconds, a Filter Keys dialog box appears. Click Yes to enable Filter Keys.

The Toggle Keys option, when turned on, sounds a high-pitched tone when Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, or Num Lock keys are activated and a low-pitched tone when they’re turned off again.

Each of these three keyboard features can be used independently or together. Note that a slowdown in performance occurs at the keyboard if sounds are used, because the sound is generated by playing a WAV file that briefly eats up your system resources. Processing of keypresses doesn’t commence until after the keyboard sound finishes, which can result in jerky performance.

When Sticky Keys or Filter Keys are turned on, a symbol appears in the notification area. The Sticky Keys feature is indicated by three small boxes with a fourth larger box above them, representative of the Ctrl, Alt, and Shift keys. The Filter Keys feature is represented by the stopwatch, which is representative of the different key timing that goes into effect when the option is enabled.

Ease of Access Sound Settings

The two Ease of Access sound settings—Sound Sentry and ShowSounds—are useful for those with hearing impairments, or for computer users working in a noisy environment, such as a factory floor or flight deck. Instead of playing a sound when an error message or other event that causes a sound occurs, some type of visual display appears onscreen.

With Sound Sentry, a portion of the normal Windows screen blinks. With ShowSounds turned on, a text caption or special icon will pop up over a window or dialog box when a sound is played. The information in the pop-up window will inform you of the sound played and whether the audio clue is a warning, error, and so on.

If you choose Sound Sentry, you have a choice of the visual warning to use. The options are offered in a pull-down list, which includes the Flash Active Caption Bar, Flash Active Windows, and Flash Desktop. Typically, you’ll want the window of the application or at least its title bar to flash. Don’t make the desktop flash because it won’t indicate which program is producing the warning.


Some programs are finicky about the sound options, especially ShowSounds. If they’re not programmed correctly, they don’t display a sound. Think of it like closed captioning for TV. Not all shows have it.

Ease of Access Display Settings

Special display settings increase the screen contrast by altering the display scheme. Using this applet actually is just an easy way to set the display color scheme and font selection for easier reading, just as you could do from the Personalization applet. The big plus of setting the contrast here is that you can quickly call it up with a shortcut key combination when you need it. Simply press Left+Alt, Left+Shift, Prnt Scrn, and the settings go into effect. I have found this feature useful for when my eyes are tired or in imperfect lighting situations. Figure 13 compares the normal appearance of the Ease of Access Center with Aero enabled to the High Contrast White version, which as a byproduct also sets the appearance of buttons and toolbars to Windows Classic.

Figure 13. Windows Aero (left) compared to High Contrast White (right).

A fourth option, Mouse Keys, enables users who have problems using a mouse to use the numeric keypad to emulate the mouse. Mouse Keys can be configured to run all the time, or only when needed by pressing the left Alt+Left Shift+Num Lock keys at the same time. Mouse Keys also offers options to accelerate the mouse pointer and adjust the mouse pointer speed. When Mouse Keys is active, it displays a mouse icon in the notification area.


You get to select which predefined color scheme (both Windows provided and ones you’ve created through the Display applet) will be used as the High Contrast scheme. It’s easier to observe the look of the schemes using the Personalization applet than in the Ease of Access Center applet. Do it there, and then decide which one you like best. Then come back to the Ease of Access dialog and make your choice.

Accessibility Mouse Settings

Using the Mouse Keys setting, you can control the mouse with the keypad if you have problems controlling your mouse’s movements. This feature can bail you out if your mouse dies for some reason, too, or if you simply don’t like using the mouse. You can execute many Windows and Windows application commands using the keyboard shortcut keys. But sometimes an application still responds only to mouse movements and clicks. Graphics programs are a case in point. When you use this Accessibility option, your arrow keys do double duty, acting like pointer control keys.

To use this option, simply turn on Mouse Keys from one of the dialog boxes that offer it and apply the change. Then, to activate the keys, press Left+Alt, Left+Shift, and Num Lock at the same time. The notification area should show a mouse icon. If the icon has a red line through it, Mouse Keys is disabled, so press the Num Lock key to enable it.

Now you can move the pointer around the screen using the arrow keys on the numeric keypad. If you’re using a laptop, you’ll have to consult its manual to determine how to activate the numeric keypad, or look for an Fn key and contrasting-color keyboard markings for the numeric keypad that take effect only when Fn+Num Lock is pressed first. The normal arrow keys won’t cut it.

Use the Pointer Speed sliders if you need to adjust the speed settings for the arrow keys. Turn on the Ctrl and Shift options for speeding up or slowing down the mouse, assuming you can press two keys simultaneously. This setting really speeds things up.

If you adjust the configuration on the Settings dialog box, you have to click OK and then click Apply before the changes register. Then, you can go back and adjust as necessary.

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