Windows: accessibility obstacles

I got a new laptop at work last week, so naturally it came with Windows 10. Some of the software my group uses requires Windows; I'm currently still on Win 7 on my old machine. (And haven't gotten updates since last November. Eventually IT would have noticed. But even aside from that, the machine is five years old and starting to become unreliable.) The migration has been...challenging, with some accessibility regressions I don't know how to fix.

On Win 7 I defined a custom theme which had the following important properties:

  • Window background is not bright white but a light tan: bright white backgrounds hurt my eyes a lot, especially over a sustained period. This is set at the OS level, so all applications get it by default.

  • Font size for menus, window titles, and assorted other UI elements is increased so I can actually read them.

  • Colors for the title bars of active and inactive windows are very different so I can easily spot which window is currently active.

On Windows 10 I can do none of those. In their themes I can set a "color" and an "accent color". The color is used as the background color for the start bar (well, whatever they call that now) and, if you check a box, all window title bars (active and inactive). I think the accent color is used for highlighting. Alternatively, I can apply a "tint" to everything, but (a) that would mess up graphics somewhat and (b) I can only choose one of a few baked-in colors, none of which is a good choice for me. If I'm going to go the "tint" route, I should attack it via monitor settings.

There is a "high contrast" option, but high contrast is exactly what I don't want so I gave it only a passing glance at first. (The choices there are white or bright yellow on black or the reverse of those. Ow.) Then a helpful Microsoftian who saw my plaintive tweet (thanks!) pointed out that in high-contrast mode you can change foreground and background colors (not at all obvious in the UI!), so I tried that as a way to change the background color. Unfortunately, high-contrast mode changes some other things that make it harder for me to see things (regardless of what colors you use). For example, it removes color from all the icons that sit on the task bar. I'm used to identifying some of those by "small blob of green", "blue squarish thing", and so on. It made other changes I found difficult too; don't remember what exactly.

Somebody else, either on Twitter or Super User, told me that the color setting for the window background is actually in the registry so I could brute-force it that way. Aha! So I did that, and... some applications honor it and some do not. Windows the OS seems to not. But hey, progress! While I was in there I couldn't help noticing that there were also registry entries for things like active-window color, menu font size, and more, so I exported all my settings from Win 7, loaded them into the registry on Win 10, and...saw no change, even after rebooting. Those registry settings are there, but apparently most of them are ignored? Or overridden somewhere else?

On the font-size front, there seems to be no help for me. All application menus and the Outlook navigation pane use a font that is too small for me to see without leaning in. Note that I have a pretty high-end monitor and prescription computer glasses that work just fine for me on Win 7. I got them to fix the ergonomics problem of having to lean in too close to the monitor. But I can't increase that font size on Win 10.

The answer from Microsoft's help and forums seems to be: increase the "text size" setting at the OS level. I currently have it at 125%, same as I did on Win 7. Oh, if only it were just text size! When I bumped it to 150% I discovered that that setting does a lot more; it's effectively zoom for the whole desktop. So, for example, I would have to make browser windows proportionally even more humongous to avoid the ill effects of "responsive design" that assumes wide windows and perfect vision. I'd have to make Emacs and shells that much wider to support 80-character lines. I'd have to make the file browser that much wider to still see the details view on listings. And so on. It's the equivalent of lowering the resolution on my monitor. I'm not sure the documentation IDE I use (Madcap Flare) will even fit on the screen at that zoom level; it certainly wouldn't let me see at least a little rendered output or the contents of a shell at the same time. No. That Does Not Work.

(Get a bigger monitor? I'm kind of at the limits of my vision now. If I have to move my head back and forth to read a line of text in an application, on a web page, or in an editor, that's going to be both inefficient and terrible ergonomics.)

This has all been terribly frustrating. From my perspective Microsoft removed accessibility controls that I relied on. (From their perspective they redesigned everything to take advantage of the benefits of Metro, I imagine.) It feels very "one size fits most, and the few don't matter", an attitude I previously only experienced with Apple. (Yeah, I can't control these things on my Mac either, but on my Mac, at home, I mainly use Emacs and browsers, and I can customize those directly.) In principle I could switch over to Linux and run some stuff in a Windows VM, but in practice I would be on my own for making that work and the last person in my group who tried that found the performance of Flare in a VM to be unsatisfactory. And if I'm going to have to manage everything myself with no help from IT (for not being the standard image), I might as well install a rogue Win 7 and carry on. But I'd probably get in trouble for that.

I realize that my problems are specialized and finicky, but if anyone reading this has input on any part of it, please share.

Update: I found System Font Size Changer, which let me set font sizes independently if needed for menus, title bars, message boxes, and a few other things. And it worked! Outlook uses one of them (not sure which) for the navigation pane, so I can even see the names of my folders and stuff now! Alas, the color-changer application by the same person didn't have much of an effect. At the end of Wednesday I installed f.lux to see if that can help me, after discovering just how much Madcap Flare does not honor settings in Win 10. I can't work with that tool without some fix for my color problems. It hurts too much.