AbilityNet Factsheet - July 2021

Vision impairment and Computing

This factsheet covers how assistive technology can help people with vision impairment. Many features are standard within computers, tablets, and smartphones.
You can also use standalone products with devices to make them easier to use for people with a visual impairment or who are blind.
Our factsheet outlines assistive technology for visually impaired and blind computing users to help empower them to access the digital world. Access to these technologies is empowering for people at home, at work and in education and can increase independence and self-esteem.
The factsheet covers software and hardware adjustments for visually impaired and blind computing users.

Last updated: July 2021

Contents include

1. How many people in the UK are experiencing sight loss?

Almost 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss (1 in 30). Of these, 360,000 are registered with their local authority as blind or partially sighted. They have experienced some degree of irreversible sight loss, which glasses or contact lenses cannot correct. (Source: NHS)

The number of people with sight loss is set to increase dramatically, growing to 2.7m by 2030 and could double to 4m by 2050 due to an ageing population and the growing incidence of long-term conditions that cause sight loss, including obesity and diabetes.

2. Assistive technology for visual impairments and sight loss

Increasingly, assistive technology comes as standard with the devices you have on your desk or in your pocket.

Tech giants including Apple, Google and Microsoft are working hard to make devices accessible to all. So, you can adjust desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones to make them more accessible if you have sight loss and visual impairments.

In addition, you can buy add-on hardware and software to make devices easier to use.

3. Assistive technology in tablets and smartphones

Intelligent personal assistants – like Siri and the Google Assistant – are a key feature of all modern tablets and smartphones. You can simply ‘ask’ the assistants to carry out tasks including answering queries, sending messages and emails, adding events to your calendar, taking notes and setting reminders.

iOS (Apple) devices include a screen reader called VoiceOver, and a magnifier called Zoom; the latest versions of Android contain a reader called TalkBack.


Combined with the million-plus apps now available for iOS, Android and other mobile devices, such innovations are helping to transform education, work, and leisure opportunities for people with a visual impairment.

Many blind or partially-sighted people now use their smartphone more than any other computing device – with it offering a relatively low-cost and completely mobile solution to many of their requirements.

4. Standalone screen readers for blind or low vision computer users

New computers, and most smartphones, have a screen reader: Narrator, for Windows, and VoiceOver for Apple Mac (also on iPad and iPhone). There’s also a range of specialist screen readers available for people who are blind:

JAWS (Job Access With Speech)

A popular, inexpensive screen reader providing text-to-speech and Braille output for a wide range of computer applications on Windows computers, including the most popular - Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, Firefox and PDF documents. JAWS is also fully compatible with MAGic screen magnification software. Suppliers of JAWS include Adapt-IT, Keytools, RNIB, and Sight and Sound Technology.

NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access)

 A FREE alternative to JAWS. Hear the text on screen being read or have it converted into Braille on a compatible display. Users report that while it works extremely well with web browsers, it can be more problematic dealing with Office applications.

5. Screen magnification for low vision users

For those with low vision, investing in a larger screen is worth considering. There are also ways of magnifying on-screen information within operating systems and programmes.

How to adjust a web browser for low vision

You can adjust your web browser in several ways: zoom in and make text bigger (select View from the main menu). Popular browsers also allow you to adjust colour settings or to turn on a Reader mode and remove visual clutter.

Operating system accessibility options

People with low vision will benefit from the ‘Accessibility’ options in Windows and macOS to increase the display size of text, menus, folders, icons, and the mouse pointer. The high resolution will mean that even zoomed-in, the screen's contents should remain sharp and clear.

Many people with impaired vision can see some colour combinations (such as white text on a black background) better than others. Different colour options are available in most programmes. The majority of computer, tablet and smartphone operating systems have a wide range of pre-defined colour schemes to choose from, or you can create your own.

Zooming in

Zooming increases the size of whatever is displayed in the document window, and many programmes include easy-to-use options to achieve.

  • On a Windows computer: Press the “Ctrl” key, use the wheel on your mouse, or slide two fingers together down the mousepad to zoom in and out.
  • On an Apple computer: Place two fingers on the trackpad and opening out (like a pinch in reverse).

However, there are other options if these shortcuts are not practical for you. Zooming in does not affect the size in which the document is printed out.

6. Specialist screen magnification programmes

Specialist magnification software programmes enlarge and enhance everything on your computer screen. As the size of the enlargement increases, the amount of the original screen image being displayed reduces – but you can use the mouse (or cursor) to select where you want to focus. Many programmes also include options for enhancing and customising screen colours and pointers.

Specialist software options for Windows computers are ZoomText Magnifier Reader, Dolphin Supernova Magnifier and Screen Reader.

Compatible keyboards are also available for Dolphin. These include dedicated function keys for operating the programmes’ most used features. Dolphin Supernova also provides full Braille support for blind users and is compatible with the latest Braille displays.

Specialist solutions for Mac users are ZoomText Mac and MagniLink iMax.

Suppliers of integrated magnification and reading software include Adapt-IT; Hands Free Computing; Inclusive Technology; Professional Vision Services; RNIB; and Sight and Sound Technology.

7. Adaptive hardware for people with low vision or who are blind

For those with vision impairment, alternative keyboards can be a big help. There are several different options:

High visibility keyboards

The letters on a standard computer keyboard are small and can be hard to see. A simple alternative option is to purchase a high contrast keyboard or modify the keys on your existing keyboard by covering them with high contrast stickers. These use larger letters and come in upper- and lower-case sets.

Larger keys

People with impaired vision who are learning to type often find it difficult to locate keys accurately on a standard-sized keyboard. It can be much easier for many to use a high-visibility keyboard with a smaller number of larger keys – such as the BigKeys, Jumbo, XL or KeyMonster keyboards.

TechSilver lists seven of the best keyboards for visual impairment.

Specialist keyboards

Some keyboards have been designed specifically to work with specialist software programmes to assist people with visual impairment.

These include Dolphin Large Print, The Jumbo Keyboard from Inclusive Technology, which features large print, high contrast keys – many of which give quick access to the associated software's most useful features.

Chording keyboards

Chording keyboards like the CyKey are another important option, especially for people with more limited dexterity. This is because they only require you to press a few keys in combination (like a chord on the piano) to generate letters. 

8. Braille Displays

Another option for blind users is a Braille display. Although these can be very expensive, they serve a dual function. Utilising just a few keys, Braille displays allow you to enter data and control your computer and to read documents, web pages and email using Braille.

9. Touch-typing skills for inputting data

Using a keyboard is often faster than using a mouse, and for people with little or no vision, it can be the most practical way to input data and interact with a device. In addition, working with keyboard shortcuts or ‘hotkeys’ is an effective and efficient method for anyone to control a computer (more about hotkeys at My Computer My Way).

Learning to touch type

There are many software programmes available aimed at helping people with sight loss learn how to touch type.


Dedicated reading machines will read out printed documents using a synthetic voice. They use a scanner or a camera with optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert printed materials into electronic text that can, in turn, be either displayed on a screen, or read out by a screen reader, or both.

10. Reading machines for printed materials

There are three main types of reading machines:

  • Standalone devices – combine a camera/scanner, OCR software, screen reader and/or monitor in a single device. They are easy (but not very flexible) to use and can be very expensive.
  • Computer-based devices – connect a camera/scanner and OCR software to your computer, allowing you to take advantage of your existing screen display options, as well as utilising screen reading.
  • Portable devices –are lightweight and easy to use on the move.

Suppliers include Adapt-it; Enabling Technology; Humanware; Sight and Sound Technology; and VisionAid.

Many apps run on standard smartphones and tablets that will provide very similar functionality to the above specialist options and are much cheaper if you already own a smartphone or tablet (see below for more details).

11. Video magnifiers

Video magnifiers (or closed-circuit televisions – CCTVs) connect a high definition camera to a monitor display. This allows you to magnify different types of printed documents or handwritten text to a high level.

You can read and navigate your document by moving it around on the table below the camera.

There are three different types of video magnifiers:

  • Desktop video magnifiers – have the highest degree of magnification and often allow you to adjust the text and background display colours.
  • Portable video magnifiers – can either be standalone devices or connect to a laptop computer, utilising software on the laptop to control the display, use OCR, or capture and store images of printed text. Some magnifiers enable distance viewing – for example, presentations.
  • Pocket video magnifiers – are small enough to use on the go for reading a wide range of everyday materials, including documents, letters, bills, menus, timetables and instructions etc. Typical features include the ability to take a snapshot of something that can subsequently be magnified, rather than having to hover with the magnifier in place.

The distinction between reading machines and video magnifiers has significantly reduced in recent years, with many video magnifiers now also including the option to hear documents and read aloud.

Suppliers include Adapt-it; Enabling Technology; Humanware; RNIB; Sight and Sound Technology; and VisionAid.

Please note that many apps run on standard smartphones that will provide similar functionality to the above specialist options. These apps make use of the camera on the phone to scan the page and will use text-to-speech to read it out. For example, Microsoft’s “Seeing AI” is a free app that provides useful features for blind or low-vision users, including a text reader.

It can also identify objects in pictures and recognise handwriting. Currently, Seeing AI is only available on Apple’s iPhones and iPads.

12. Notetakers

Notetakers are small computers designed for use by the visually impaired. They can either have a standard or Braille keyboard, with information being either read out, displayed in Braille or both.

Braille notetakers are portable devices, including email and internet capabilities, a calendar, and an address book. They can usually be connected to a computer or a printer for transferring information, and some can print to a Braille embosser. Notetakers also enjoy a shorter start-up time and a much longer battery life than conventional computers. They are, however, significantly more expensive in most cases and far more limited in the apps and functions they can include.

Suppliers include Humanware, Sight and Sound Technology, and VisionAid.

13. Useful apps for people with low vision or who are blind

It is only possible here to point to a few of the apps available from the App Store (for iOS devices) and/or Google Play (for Android devices). For more comprehensive information and reviews about specialist apps for the iPad and iPhone, visit the AppleVis website for blind and low-vision users at www.applevis.com

Blind and partially sighted people have found the following apps to be particularly useful:

Seeing AI

A free app (iOS only) provides features such as face and object recognition, international currency identification, text and handwriting recognition and a barcode scanner for product identification.

Be My Eyes

Connects blind or low-vision users with sighted volunteers who can give visual assistance with tasks such as product identification. Be My Eyes has also partnered with Lloyds Banking Group and Microsoft to provide trusted, specialist support in these areas.

KNFB Reader

Provides fast and easy access to any type of printed text, including letters, receipts, menus, books and many other documents, with high-quality speech or Braille output.

Talking Goggles

Can recognise almost any image and text in seconds and speak out what it finds, including logos, signs, landmarks, products, artwork and text.

Evi

Draws on a vast database to answer everyday questions about books, music, films, history, people, places and much more. You can ask your questions by talking and get a vocal response.

iBrailler Notes

Offers an easy way for iPad users to type Braille notes and perform basic word processing on a touchscreen (for iOS only).

Google Maps

Helps you find your way to your destination by giving turn-by-turn spoken directions

AccessNote

A powerful and efficient notetaker that takes advantage of the built-in accessibility of Apple devices by working with VoiceOver (iOS only).

Vokul

A personal assistant that provides complete voice control for dictating text, messages and emails, connecting to social media, listening to music, and calling contacts in your address book (for iOS devices)

Synapptic

An all-in-one software package for people who are blind or partially sighted. It runs on Android tablets and smartphones and has been specifically designed to be very easy to use.

Synapptic’s simple menu structure and intuitive design mean most new users can learn how to use its wealth of features in just a few minutes. Utilising text-to-speech and voice control includes sending and receiving texts and emails, making calls, browsing the web, taking photos, scanning and reading, making notes and voice memos, listening to music, and talking books, and watch YouTube and catch-up TV.

Users can customise the software to suit their particular needs and preferences, selecting from a wide range of viewing and listening options. It can be purchased ready installed on a tablet or smartphone or as a standalone product for installing on your own Android device.

Suppliers include RNIB; and Synapptic.

Guide Connect

A software package made by Dolphin Software and will run on several devices, including desktops, laptops and even TV’s.  Like Synaptic, the interface is straightforward to get to grips with, and this software has been designed to be as intuitive to use as possible. You can easily send and receive emails, browse the web, read newspapers and listen to radio stations. If you have access to a scanner, you can also have your mail read out to you! Users can even decide to access the system via remote control, which may be a really simple way to control their technology.

Suppliers: Dolphin, RNIB

In Your Pocket

In Your Pocket is the simplest way for blind and partially sighted people to access the RNIB Library and RNIB Newsagent services, as well as make phone calls. In Your Pocket is updated with new capabilities every month and now includes the Be My Eyes vision assistant. The “In Your Pocket” device is a subscription device that the RNIB provides.

Supplier: RNIB

Kapsys

 A french-based company that offers an all in one package (Smart Vision 2) includes an Android smartphone with a straightforward and intuitive interface.

Supplier: Sight and Sound Technology

14. Guidance for employers and employees

It's important to recognise that there are adaptations your employer should make if you're working and experiencing sight loss. Training can also help people adjust to using technology if they have low vision or are blind. 

What should employers do?

Under the Equality Act, employers have a duty to ensure that employees with a disability (including visual impairment) can perform effectively.

To meet the requirements of the Equality Act, employers may need to make ‘reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled members of staff have equal access to everything involved in doing and keeping their job as any non-disabled colleague. Employers who fail to meet their responsibilities under the Act may be vulnerable to discrimination claims and could be taken to an employment tribunal.

Any adjustments required do not necessarily need to cost a lot of money and depend partly on the size and nature of the organisation. For blind or partially sighted employees, reasonable adjustments could include:

• adapting the workplace

• introducing some changes to the work organisation

• providing personal training and support

• making use of relevant assistive technologies.

Advances in technology mean that anyone who is losing, or who has already lost, their sight can now overcome many of the barriers previously faced and continue to be a highly productive employee. Government schemes like ‘Access to Work’ can also help meet some of the additional employment costs.

Training for employees and students with sight loss

Students, employees and other users will only realise the full potential of some of the solutions outlined in this factsheet if they receive adequate training and have sufficient opportunity to become familiar and proficient with the products.

Training is most effective when it is spread over time and geared towards the individual, focusing on their particular tasks, abilities and challenges. Periodic training helps users to practice and consolidate new skills between sessions.

A wide range of private and voluntary organisations offer computer training services (some training costs). In addition, many specialist suppliers and software producers provide online guidance and tutorials about how to get the most from their products. There is also a wealth of free training resources available online, including on YouTube.

Useful tutorials, guides and reviews about assistive technology for people with sight loss are available from:

15. Useful contacts

RNIB

The RNIB is a UK-wide charity providing practical advice and emotional support to help blind and partially sighted people live independently, whether you need help with technology or ways to continue reading or advising on staying at work. The RNIB also has an online store (see ‘Specialist suppliers’ below) selling a wide range of assistive products. Visit www.rnib.org.uk

TAVIP (Technology Association of Visually Impaired people)

TAVIP (Technology Association of Visually Impaired people) - formerly BCAB (British Computer Association for the Blind) is a lively, self-help community of blind and partially sighted computer users of all skill levels, ages and interests. Visit https://www.tavip.org.uk/

Royal National College for the Blind (RNC)

The RNC is a specialist residential college of further education for people with a visual impairment. Visit www.rnc.ac.UK

16. Specialist suppliers – contact details

Adapt-IT

Suppliers of assistive technology and computer adaptations for special needs, mobility issues, visual impairment, learning difficulties and RSI.

www.adapt-it.co.uk

sales@adapt-it.co.uk

0208 736 0542

Bellaire Electronics

Manufacturers and suppliers of the Cykey chording keyboard.
www.cykey.co.uk
chris@bellaire.co.uk
01271 324759

Enabling Technology

Suppliers of assistive technology solutions for people of all ages with a learning, physical or visual impairment.
www.enablingtechnology.com
info@enablingtechnology.com
01785 243 111

Hands Free Computing

Suppliers and trainers for a wide range of assistive technologies.
www.hands-free.co.uk
enquiries@hands-free.co.uk
0845 899 0880

Humanware

Manufacturers of products designed to enhance the lives of people with low vision.
www.humanware.com
info@humanware.com
01933 415800

Inclusive Technology

Suppliers of assistive technology for people with a physical disability, sensory impairment or learning difficulty.
www.inclusive.co.uk/hardware
inclusive@inclusive.co.uk
01457 819790

Keytools

Suppliers of assistive technology and ergonomic products to users with varying requirements, including physical or visual impairment.
www.keytools.co.uk/products/
keytools@hypertec.co.uk
0844 879 2282

Optelec (part of Vispero)

Low vision solutions for people with macular degeneration and other eye conditions.
lowvisionshop.co.uk
0800 145 6115

Portset

Designers and manufacturers of products for the visually impaired, including EnglishType software.
www.portset.co.uk
01489 893919

Professional Vision Services

Manufacturers and suppliers of assistive technology (including MagniLink products) for people with visual impairment.
www.professional-vision-services.co.uk
sales@professional-vision-services.co.uk
01462 420751

RNIB

A national charity supporting people with sight loss.
www.rnib.org.uk/
Helpline.Mailbox@rnib.org.uk
0303 123 9999

Sight and Sound Technology

Suppliers of assistive technology to improve the lives of people with a sensory or age-related disability.
www.sightandsound.co.uk
info@sightandsound.co.uk
01604 798070

Synapptic

Developers of Synapptic software and suppliers of Android tablets and smartphones fitted with the software ready installed.
www.synapptic.com
sales@synapptic.com
0191 909 7 909

VisionAid

Suppliers of vision aids for people with impaired sight.
www.visionaid.co.uk
info@visionaid.co.uk
01775 711977

17. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

https://abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

Copyright information

This factsheet is licensed by AbilityNet under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. View a copy of this license at creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 
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