Technology has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives, but not everyone has equal access to the devices that make it possible. Availability, disposable income and digital expertise all play a role, but another key cause is entirely avoidable.
Put simply, most tech products are designed for those who don’t face additional challenges in their everyday life. Have you ever considered how people with a visual impairment can comfortably use a laptop? What about navigating a tablet if you’re missing an upper limb?
Few companies consistently address these issues in a practical way, but recent developments suggest Microsoft is among those leading the way. Alongside a diverse hardware and software portfolio, the US tech giant recently released its first dedicated accessibility product for laptops, after making similar strides in gaming with the
Xbox Adaptive Controller.
What is the Surface Adaptive Kit?
The Surface Adaptive Kit is an inexpensive, effective way to make computers much easier to use. Using a few simple tools, it has the potential to transform the usability of a range of devices – including those not made by Microsoft.
In fact, the Adaptive Kit can be of benefit to anyone who regularly uses a PC. There are some near-universal problems that it helps solve.
You essentially get four products in one here: bump labels, keycap labels, port labels, and opener supports. It’s worth exploring each in more detail, to see where they could help you.
As the name suggests, bump labels consist of a small sticker with a raised outline. There are four to choose from (dot, circle, dash, and cross), each of which are available in four colours (green, red, blue, and grey). Sticking with a few key designs means you can easily remember what they represent, and they can easily be used on other tech such as headphones or small appliances.
But I followed Microsoft’s recommendations, using the + and – next to volume controls and dot to indicate the headphone jack. All three were particularly effective on the
Surface Laptop Studio, where the location of those buttons isn’t always obvious. But I found adding the red circle just above the power button most useful – the ability to quickly turn your device on without looking shouldn’t be underestimated.
Keycap labels are designed to be applied directly onto the keys themselves. I usually type without looking at the keyboard, but it did help me find the likes of underscore and forward slash more quickly. I found it improved the efficiency of my workflow, despite not having a specific accessibility need.
But for me, port labels are the Adaptive Kit’s most effective tool. These are both coloured and textured, with one small label for the port itself and another larger one to wrap around the relevant cable. Anyone who relies on multiple different cables will know the struggle of finding the right one, so this is a great organisational solution for everyone.
Opening a laptop can also prove difficult, so Microsoft has included two different types of opener support. The first has a classic large loop design, although the adhesive isn’t strong enough to open heavier devices like the Surface Laptop Studio. You’ll need a separate lanyard or wrist strap to use the other, which has been designed with the
Surface Pro 8‘s kickstand in mind.
The Surface Adaptive Kit prioritises accessibility in a way we don’t see from traditional laptop design. At just
US$14.99, it’s also affordable enough to use across all your devices.
Just one cog in the accessibility wheel
The Adaptive Kit is just “the first step on a journey” for Microsoft, according to Surface Senior Category manager John Crouch. It’s not clear if that means there’ll be more accessibility products in the future, but Crouch suggested it’s a learning experience for everyone at the company. “We want to hear from people who use it”, he added.
Judging by recent
Windows 11 announcements, Microsoft is already beginning to put feedback into practice. A Live Captions feature will soon be available across all apps, converting any audio into text – perfect for anything without subtitles. This works in tandem with Voice Access, which lets you fully navigate the device using just your voice.
But these are just two of a myriad of Accessibility options available within Settings. This gives you in-depth control over sizing, visual effects, colours and the narrator. It helps tailor the Windows 11 experience to suit you, although many of these features are also available on Windows 10.
Microsoft’s accessibility focus extends to hardware, with Surface PCs designed to be easy to use. Features such as a sturdy built-in kickstand on tablets and Windows Hello secure face unlock help everyone to use their devices more independently.
They certainly don’t provide all the solutions to people’s accessibility needs, but it’s a much more inclusive experience than using a regular laptop. It’s also encouraging to hear Microsoft’s commitment to listening to its users and adjusting future products accordingly. Hopefully we’ll see more initiatives like this from other companies in the future.
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