How to choose a computer for your accessibility needs

One of the most common questions I'm asked via our free AbiltiyNet Helpline is what computer should I buy?

It's not a simple one to answer.

Often, people who call us are older or have specialist needs relating to a disability. They may be visually-impaired or have hearing loss, or be living with restricted mobility. 

The key to choosing a computer lies in exploring the individual's needs and there's no one size fits all.

AbilityNet has always believed in a digital world that's accessible to all.

However, 20 years ago when AbilityNet was born you needed specialist equipment for accessibility needs. Since then many accessibilty features have become standard. 

So, the good news is there'll be a computer to meet your needs.  

While I can't make inividual recommendations within this blog, I can talk you through the main things to consider in choosing the right device for you.

Desktop or laptop computer?

An Apple desktop computer with a laptop in front of itOne of the first considerations is desktop or laptop computer? Your choice depends largely on what you want to do with it, but may also depend on your specific accessibility needs. 

A desktop computer is a fixed computer that, as its name suggests, resides on top of a desk. Benefits of having a fixed, desktop computer are that you'll be able to arrange the desk around it to suit any specific ergonomic needs

Most desktop computers will come with a full-sized keyboard as standard, which may be better for those with mobility issues, such as stiffness in your hands for example. 

You can also connect adaptive technology such as larger keyboards, rollerballs or alternative mice.

Often you'll need to buy a monitor separately. That means you can choose a larger screen, which will be helpful if you have vision issues. 

You can however buy both Apple and Windows all in one machines, which can save space. 

We'll address the pros and cons of Apple versus Windows Operating systems later in this article.

A desktop will allow you to browse the web, send and recieve email and also create word processing files and create posters and spreadsheets.

Expect to pay as little as £300 right up to over £1000. If space is an issue you can also buy Mini PC's which are very small and can fit under a desk or table.  

Should I consider buying a laptop?

A young girl smiling sitting on a sofa and using a laptopLaptops are an increasingly popular choice. You should consider buying a laptop if you want to use it in or around your home, but will also be using it away from your home on a regular basis.

The increasing prevalence of public WiFi means you'll be able to connect to the internet from most locations with ease. Do keep an eye on how heavy it is if you're going to be carrying it for long periods of time.

A laptop is often a good choice for people studying in higher education, too.

If you are visually impaired, it might be useful to try and buy one that has a large screen as this will make it easier to see the screen.

For when you are using your computer at a desk you might want to invest in a laptop stand, which will raise your laptop up. As with a desktop computer, you can also invest in a separate keyboard and mouse to use with your laptop.

Again a laptop would cost from £300 to well over a thouand pounds and they will be able to handle most tasks with ease.      

Windows or Apple Operating System?

A screen shot of the My Computer My Way toolThe majority of these computers will be Windows based computers, but increasingly people are working with Apple computers too. Both operating systems can be tailored to meet your individual needs, and there is a variety of computer adjustments you can make.

For example, you can control your computer using voice commands if it uses Apple's macOS or the Windows operating system. You can also make your computer talk to you using tools withn the operating systems including MacOS, Windows and ChromeOS. 

Other adjustments you can make from within the OSes include making text larger on-screen, adjusting the colour of your screen or even using a computer one-handed.

Both operating systems work well. If you are creative and do a lot of photo-editing or art work, you may find that the Mac has more comprehensive software than is available on the Windows platform. 

The choice of operating system often comes down to personal preference, or if you are already more familiar with one than the other. 

Should I consider a tablet PC?

Windows Surface Canvas with a stylus beside itThe popularity of the Apple iPad has led to an explosion in the use of tablet PCs. There are also Windows versions available and Microsoft's Surface is also a popular device, or you can choose an Android version.

The advantages of tablets is that they are ultra-portable.

There's a wide choice of apps available across the operating systems and many of these are free-of-charge. 

You can watch movies, write documents and emails and take photos on a tablet computer. If you use one of these on a regular basis, you might need to consider getting an external keyboard for it. 

You will be able to find lots of different tablet stands online so you can work more effectively. 

If you need to do so you can use a mouse with a tablet, but you do need to use it via a special interface. As with computers you can also control a tablet with your voice

The boundaries between laptops and tablets are blurring and you can now buy a 2 in 1 laptop which has a touch screen, so you can use the touch screen on it's own as a tablet computer.

How much should I spend?

Price is a key consideration. As I have already mentioned, computers can cost anywhere between £300 and £1,000 or more. Before you buy, set yourself and overall budget and then assess your specific needs. 

While all operating systems include more functionality you may need specialist software, which comes at additional cost. Blind users, for example, may need specialist screen reader software, which will add extra cost. You could also check the hardware requirements needed to run these tools. 

Likewise, if you think you'll need a specialist keyboard or mouse you'll need to factor this in.

Our Finding Funding factsheet can help if your budget is tight, while students may be eligible for Disabled Students' Allowances

Several companies specialise in second hand or refurbished computers and these can often represent good value for money. It's worth pointing out that if you work with photographs, or do video editing you might need to think about buying some extra memory as your computer will be faster with it.

More support from AbilityNet

AbilityNet Freephone Helpline

Please call our freephone line to speak to a member of staff about assistive technology: Freephone: 0800 269 545 during office hours. Outside office hours you can drop us an email enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Free IT Support at Home

AbilityNet's ITCanHelp volunteers provide free IT support to older people and people with disabilities of any age. Our volunteers can support remotely or visit you in your home, anywhere in the UK. They are all disclosure-checked and can help with all sorts of IT challenges, from installing your first PC to removing computer viruses and solving other technical issues.

You can request a home visit by: