13 frequently asked questions about how a computer can benefit people living with Multiple Sclerosis

Older woman sitting in a wheelchair taking a selfie against a backdrop of a lakeMultiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. MS is a lifelong condition, usually diagnosed when people are in their 20s and 30, and can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including eyesight problems, fatigue, balance problems, altered sensations and cognitive issues.

There is a wide range of disease modifying treatments but currently no cure.

In the UK roughly 100 people per week receive a diagnosis of MS or 5,000 per year, according to the MS Trust. This includes Jack Osborne and the UK comedian Jim Sweeney.

How can using a computer benefit someone with MS?

The number of people in the UK with MS is increasing, as people living with the condition are living longer. It's possible to adapt your technology for the symptoms associated with MS. For example, if your eyesight is impaired you can increase the size of the font for a range of devices, and operating systems.

Our Helpline regularly takes calls from people living with MS. Based on those calls here are some common Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on how to adapt your technology if you're living with MS.

Question 1. I’m living with MS. My condition means that I experience muscle spasms, and weakness. This can make it difficult for me to use a conventional keyboard and mouse. Are there are alternatives that can help?

There are a number of hardware and software adaptions that can help people living with MS. For example, you may also want to look at one of the many adapted keyboards that are available. For those happy to use a pointing device as opposed to a keyboard you can use an on-screen keyboard.

If you decide that you want to try and minimise your use of the keyboard, and if your voice is good you could look at using Voice Recognition.  It is built into all current Mac and Windows computers and is also found on Android, iOS and Windows phones and tablets.

It might take a little bit of patience to get used to but can be a very effective way of working without using the keyboard. 

There are also a number of alternative pointing devices on the market and once again you can change the settings to suit your needs.

You can often get keyboards and pointing devices on a sale or return basis before you commit to buying one. 

Turn on filter keys to reduce the impact of MS tremors

People living with MS may experience tremors. This may mean that you might have lots of unwanted, extra characters. Follow our easy to follow instructions to turn on Filter Keys on so that even if you find it really hard to take your hand away from the keyboard you won't end up with lots of unwanted letters.

On Apple keyboards this function is called slow keys. You can find out how to adapt your keyboard settings in our free online tool My Computer My Way. 

Adapt your mouse if you're living with MS

Picture of a white computer mouseIf you’re struggling with the mouse there are many alternatives to the standard mouse. There are also software adjustments you can make if you're struggling with your mouse.

For example, you might find it useful to slow the mouse down. You will find details of how to slow down your mouse for a variety of operating systems in My Computer My Way.

Some people struggle to click the mouse button, or they end up clicking the mouse button too many times.  

You can slow the double click speed down if you feel that would help you.  

Alternative keyboards for people living with MS

Letters on a computer keyboardYou could source an alternative keyboard that requires a lighter touch then a standard keyboard.

There are keyboards that are made out of rubber which have a different feel to them, and you don’t get that “clicking action” that you do with standard keyboards.

We talk about hardware alternatives in our recent blog on arthritis, which gives you a good overview of avaiable technology. 

We’d always reccommend trying hardware out before you buy it. There are a number of retailers who will sell you equipment on a sale or return basis, so you can try it out and then if it doesn’t really help you, you can always return it and get a refund.

If you buy online you're covered by Distance Selling Regulations.  

Question 2. My eyesight isn't as good as it was. How can I make it easier for me to see the screen?

If you struggle to see the screen you can make the text easier to see, either by increasing the text size or changing the colours used on screen. Where it's hard to see the different colours on your computer you can customise them to your own particular needs.  If you need to magnify the screen then software is built in to the system.      

Question 3. I'm experiencing blurred and occasional double vision as a result of my MS, which can make it difficult for me to use my computer especially websites, which have small text. Is there anything I can do to improve this? 

The first thing to check is if the resolution of your display is set at the optimum level for you. Our My Computer My Way information will help you to do this.  We also have an overview of technology that can help if you are visually-impaired on our web site. 

On certain browsers such as Chrome, for example, there there are plugins such as Natural Reader which can read text from web pages out to you.

Question 4. My speech is occasionally affected by my MS, particularly during an MS relapse. Is there any technology that can help me?

There is a lot of technology available which can help with this, from dedicated communication devices, apps for smartphone and tablet and software packages for desktop and laptop computers. We’d always suggest that you have a chat to your Speech and Language Therapist if you have one, as they can make useful suggestions. If you want to have an overview of available technology, you might want to look at the info on the MS Society website on Managing Speech issues.

Voice recognition does work for people have a speech difficulty, and as technology gets better so it means that more people can benefit from this way of inputting information.  Our advice is that people with conditions where the voice changes during the day should always create a couple of voice profiles. One for the morning, where the voice might be at it's clearest and a voice profile for the afternoon where the voice might not be quite as clear.

Question 5. I’ve been diagnosed with MS. I’m concerned about becoming isolated and want to invest in technology that can help me. I want something that’s portable, and that I can type on but am unsure whether to buy a laptop or tablet PC. What would you recommend?

A laptop and a desktop computer positioned on a deskThere is a plethora of devices to choose from, which means there's plnty of choice but makes it hard to recommend just one, especially for a condition such as MS where everyone's experience of living with it is different, and will change over time. However, you should consider external factors including weight, and battery duration. 

Screen size might also be another factor to consider. 

Read our blog on how to choose a computer for your accessibility needs

If you use any external hardware such as a keyboard or rollerballs, you do need to check to see if you can connect this to your new devices. As a general rule, if you have a tablet, you might find it harder to plug external hardware into it, then if you have buy a laptop or desktop.

However if you use Bluetooth enabled products you’ll be glad to know that every laptop and tablet will have Bluetooth connectivity. 

Tablets and laptops can both be configured to make them easier to use.

For FREE, tailored 1-2-1 support on assitive technology and how to adapt your tech you can book a home visit from one of our network of disclosure checked volunteers.

Question 6: I’m a student and have MS. I’m worried that related cognitive impairments will impact my ability to study.

Picture of a girl looking at a laptop with a pencil clenched between her teethStudying means taking in lots of information, and making sense of it. Technology can be a big help. 

For example, if you struggle to make notes manually and you have a smartphone or ipad you can voice dictate a note. So say for example you had to create a note to tell you about a change to your lecture room you could do this simply and easily using built in technology such as Siri Then it would put a note into your diary so you turned up at the right place. 

Read our blog on note taking hacks for students

Google Keep is a form of electronic post-it note. It has a couple of really nifty functions. If you need to be reminded of a task you’ve got to do when you are at a certain place you can add a location reminder. You can also share your Google Keep files with other people so you can work collaboratively on projects or to share the weekly shopping list!

Mindmaps are a great way of making sense of a lot of different resources and being able to organise a piece of work. They can also help reduce stress that you feel.  Mindmapping software is often available online and free for the basic version. 

Under-graduates might want to take advantage of the Disabled Students Allowance scheme where you can get an assessment of your needs and equipment can be provided for your studies.

If you are at a further education college or at school there will be support to help you too. Please contact your institution for further details.

Question 7. I'm fairly confident about changing settings on my computer. How do I customise my mobile device?

Technology is certainly a lot more mobile these days and all phones and tablets have accessibility options built in. Use My Computer My Way to identify your system and work out how to set up your mobile device to suit your needs.

Question 8: I've heard a lot about Smart Home Technology. Could this work for me?

An amazon Echo device on top of a stack of notebooksAbilityNet is very excited about this new technology. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home devices can be configured with many different skills to help you out. 

Whilst there are no MS skills available at the moment, there are a lot of useful other ones available. These include the ability to set reminders on Alexa enabled devices. You can ask Google Home devices to run routines too.

Discover 34,322 reasons to skill up your Alexa device

Lights, doors and heating can all be linked to your smart home devices allowing you to be more independent. If you struggle to use the telephone you can even make calls between Echo devices or you can use Google Home to make calls between the device and landlines, or mobiles.   

Question 9: I used to enjoy reading. However I get fatigue now and can't seem to focus on reading. Can technology help me out?

Text to speech is an easy way of having information read out to you. This means that you don't need to be in front of the computer screen to have documents read out to you.  Aditionally if you have a smarthome device you can have books read out to you! 

Question 10: My MS causes me to have anxiety and other mental health issues.  Could technology help me out?

Mental health is important for everyone, and even more so for people with chronic conditios.  We've recently looked at lots of different apps that can help people who have mental health issues.

Question 11: I use voice recognition on my laptop. Can I use it on my mobile?

Using your mobile device with your voice is fairly straightforward. We've got some useful information on our website. An example is that you can ask your device to send an email to a specific person or you can ask your mobile phone to call a specific contact.  You  can also link your mobile phone up to your smart home device which we mentioned earlier.

Question 12: I've heard about home shopping for groceries. Is it hard to set up? Can you suggest where I can go and get support to set it up?

Lots of different people use home shopping services. You certainly don't have to have a disability to use home shopping. People lead busy lives now and prefer to shop online. If you need support from one of our volunteers to help you get it set up on your system, please feel free to call us!

Question 13: I have to take lots of medication to control my MS.  Could technology help me out?

There are lots and lots of apps that can help you manage your medication.  It is really difficult to say one is better then another. However here's a report comparing a few apps.

Need more help?

There are plenty of other options that may be relevant to you. If you need more help just call our Helpline on 0800 269 545.

Case Study

Chung emailed us because his sister, Liu has MS and she likes to keep in touch with her friends and family all all over the world, using social networking sites. We suggested how she could tweak her mobile device to make it easier for her to stay in touch with her friends wherever she is. We even arranged for a volunteer to go out and support her.

How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help disabled people and older people.

Call our free Helpline. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will discuss any kind of computer problem and do their best to come up with a solution. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545.

Arrange a home visit. We have a network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers who can help if you have technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.

We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.

My Computer My Way. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.