If all goes according to plan, Microsoft will release it’s 2010 products some time next month.  There seems to be many exciting features that will be unveiled, some of which have already been out in public beta.  The introduction of web applications for the most popular office products is exciting to many, giving them the opportunity to work on documents in a much more powerful and collaborative way.  But to me, the most exciting features that will be available in the 2010 release are those dealing with accessibility!  I have been a user of Microsoft products since the year 2000 and those first days were very difficult.  Not only were the Microsoft products inaccessible, but the assistive technologies had not yet evolved to support their use.  Office 2003 began to include some accessibility, and the Screen Readers and other AT reformed their programming as well.  When Office 2007 was released, a few features particularly in reading Power Point files became less accessible.  I personally found the ribbon system in 2007 hard to use and understand, especially after I had grown so used to the structure and keystrokes of 2003.  In many ways, I found the earlier version more stable, user friendly and accessible.  All that said, I am very anxious to give 2010 a shot!

Most of the accessibility focus in Office 2010 has to do with document creation.  There will be an accessibility checker tool available to run when creating any type of Microsoft document.  Larry Waldman, a program manager on the Microsoft User Experience Team, provides an excellent overview of the Accessibility Checker and how to use it in documents.  From the description, it looks as though it will be customizable and work almost like the spell checker.  I will be anxious to see if this tool is accessible for people using Screen Readers and other AT.  I myself want the ability to create accessible documents.  Most automated tools that check for accessibility are not accessible to assistive technology.

Another feature that will be available in document creation is the ability to provide expansions for acronyms.  There is a fabulous article written by Karen McCall on the Microsoft MVP Award Program blog that details the use of this tool in Word 2010.  Document Authors will be able to create a list of acronyms and their expanded text, so that a reader who may not be familiar with the acronyms can easily find their meanings.  For example, I use AT a lot and I would be able to inform my readers that this stands for Assistive Technologies.  From her description of how to create these lists of acronyms and their meanings, it seems that this process will be accessible to me as a document author.

Another related product that will be updated this year to include more accessibility is SharePoint.  The team is making a great effort to develop this collaboration software with accessibility guidelines in mind.  The 2010 release promises improved accessibility in many areas!  You can read details about the new enhancements on the Microsoft SharePoint Team Blog post entitled, “Accessibility and SharePoint 2010.”

It looks like more and more corporations, businesses and individuals are bringing accessibility considerations on board when developing or enhancing their products!  Our efforts in awareness and education are paying off, but we still do indeed have a ways to go.  Accessibility should not just be an added on feature, but part of the standard in product creation and development.  For every developer that incorporates accessibility in their design, there are at least 10 who do not.  As a result, users have to research or use trial and error to find out which products are accessible to them.  While things are moving in the right dirrection, I would love to see a day when every website, software and hardware includes access for everyone!