A sight for poor eyes

Working in front of a monitor, day-in, day-out, can make your eyes deteriorate - or at least accelerate the process. And some of us didn't have the best eyesight to begin with.

But the good news is that Windows has plenty of workarounds. Without a PC, the everyday communication that we take for granted simply wouldn't be possible.

With alternative input devices - such as oversized keyboards, paddles and sticks - all users can process word documents and e-mails. And Windows' display options make reading text far easier.

Visual alerts can be substituted for audible ones, while speech-recognition can replace a keyboard for those who find typing difficult.

E-mail can be dictated, while IM (instant messaging) can be used to conduct real-time conversations.

However, you needn't be disabled to benefit from Windows' accessibility and customisation options. We each have our own desktop preferences, whether it's the amount of detail we wish to be displayed at once, or how we input and receive information.

If you share your computer with someone else, it's likely their preferred setup will differ from yours. Set up separate user accounts and each will have a Windows layout that's just right.

Vista promises enhanced tools that will make this easier and its Ease of Access Centre can be invoked from the moment the PC fires up. That said, most of us won't get our hands on Vista any time soon.

In the meantime, XP has had a fair stab at these tools. If you've yet to discover them, here's a rundown of how to make XP work your way.


1. To create user accounts go to Start-Control Panel-User Accounts. You'll need to be an XP Administrator to do so, but any number of users can be designated Administrator status. Select Add new user and follow the prompts. Now, when you start your PC, you should see a log-in screen.

2. To switch users, go to Start-Log off, then log on to another account. Once logged in, select Start-All Programs-Accessories-Accessibility to invoke the accessibility wizard and then choose settings such as larger window titles and menus to make general navigation easier.

3. Some fonts cause you to squint and are a strain to read. Windows ClearType makes text easier on the eye. To activate it, right-click anywhere onscreen and select Properties-Appearance-Effects. Tick Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts and select ClearType from the drop-down menu.

4. You may wish to select Use large icons in the Effects tab before hitting Apply to activate your settings. And you can choose Extra large icons in the Properties-Appearance dialogue. To set up your applications so that menu listings and filenames are larger, click on Use large window titles and menus in the Accessibility wizard.

5. When you're reading a book, a magnifying overlay sheet can help. XP has its own magnifier, which you'll find under Start-All Programs-Accessories. This doubles the size of items onscreen. Boost magnification as much as nine times and adjust the proportion of the screen via its Settings menu.

6. Windows contains a preset list of colour combinations to make it easier for colour-blind users to view information onscreen. Head to Control Panel and select Accessories-Accessibility Options, then click on Settings from under Display to bring up the choices available.

Tips & Tricks

MICROSOFT ENABLE Microsoft has a micro site devoted to all things enabling. This includes useful shortcuts for popular applications such as Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, as well as information about customising your setup. Enable even provides step-by-step guides on how to go about doing so (www.microsoft.com/enable ).

SPEAK AS YOU FIND Windows' own Narrator can give you a running commentary and will read out any information that appears in menus or dialogues. Narrator will give you a verbal report whenever you select an option or need to know which options are available to you. Go to Start-All Programs-Accessories-Narrator.

VIRTUAL KEYBOARD Windows contains a virtual keyboard which can be controlled with the mouse. Launch it from the Accessibility menu, then choose the Qwerty staggered key arrangement or swap to a "block" layout instead. You can even set Windows to recognise keystrokes as you hover over characters with the mouse. The Typing Mode pane can be found under Settings on the onscreen keyboard.

ALTERNATIVE KEYBOARD LAYOUTS To better suit your PC to your needs, try a more comfortable, forgiving keyboard and a mouse that you don't have to chase all over the desk. Optical mice with a suspended ball save your fingers from taking the strain; others can be programmed with shortcuts (www.microsoft.com and www.logitech.com/index.cfm/AU/EN).

TAKE IT AS READ Microsoft Word has a voice-recognition engine of its own that can be used to read typed documents, although it may not be installed by default. To access the voice-recognition tool go to Tools-Speech. Have your Windows CD-ROM to hand as you'll be prompted to insert it once your computer has established that the speech engine needs installing.

TAKE YOUR SETTINGS WITH YOU If you need to be able to use a PC in a specific way but don't always use the same computer, it makes sense to save your preferred settings and export them for use elsewhere. You can do this by following the prompts of the Accessibility wizard. Go to Start-All Programs-Accessories-Accessibility Wizard.