AbilityNet Factsheet - June 2019

Vision impairment and Computing

This factsheet provides an overview of the main ways in which computers can be adapted to help anyone with a visual impairment. Some of these accessibility features are built into standard computers.

Advances in assistive technology are opening up a world of productive possibilities for blind and partially sighted people in work and education, and at home. Finding the right technological ‘solution’ for anyone with a visual impairment can enable them to carry out a wide range of computing tasks very effectively. Access to these technologies can have a profound impact on peoples’ lives, from enabling career advancement, to increasing peoples’ sense of independence and self-esteem, while also helping reduce social isolation.

Employers have a duty of care to all their employees under the Equality Act 2010 and must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to prevent discrimination against disabled staff.

This factsheet has been written to help visually impaired users begin to identify the particular configuration of hardware and software options that will best meet their individual needs.

Last updated: June 2019

1. How many people have sight loss?

Almost two million people in the UK live with sight loss (around one in 30).  360,000 are registered with their local authority as blind or partially sighted. That is, they have experienced some degree of irreversible sight loss which cannot be corrected by glasses or contact lenses. (Source: NHS)

The number of people living with sight loss is estimated to double by 2050 because:

  • the UK population is ageing and, as we get older, we are more likely to experience sight loss
  • there is a growing incidence in some of the key underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes.

2. How can technology help?

Choosing the right kind of assistive technology can transform the abilities of visually impaired people to perform everyday computing tasks like:

  • reading documents
  • producing letters and reports
  • sending and receiving emails
  • browsing the web
  • communicating through social media
  • working with spreadsheets and data entry

Becoming an experienced user of assistive technology can enable someone with partial or no vision to effectively undertake very advanced tasks such as programming or web development.

Moreover, technologies that used to be expensive are now being either built in to mainstream devices or are available at a far lower cost.

In addition to built-in options, specialist hardware and software solutions (including apps for smartphones) now make it far easier for blind and partially sighted people to:

  • quickly input information and control their computer
  • read and understand a range of outputs from their computer
  • read other printed materials.

3. What should employers do?

Under the Equality Act, employers have a duty to ensure that employees with a disability (including visual impairment) are able to 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 Act may be vulnerable to claims of discrimination and could be taken to an employment tribunal.

Any adjustments required do not necessarily need to cost a lot of money and would depend in part 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 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.

See Section 9 for details of AbilityNet’s services to employers.

4. How can I input into and control my computer?

Keyboarding

Learning your way around the keyboard and, ideally, learning to touch type are key skills for visually impaired computer users.

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. Working with keyboard shortcuts or ‘hotkeys’ is an effective and efficient method for anyone to control a computer.

Learning to touch type

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

For Windows, options include: Azabat Touch-Typing Tutor, and Portset Touch Typing Tutor.

Englishtype Senior is available for both Windows and Apple Mac computers.

Suppliers of touch type tutorials include: Adapt-IT; Inclusive Technology; RNIB; and Portset.

Alternative keyboards

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

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

Specialist keyboards

Dolphin Large Print keyboardSome keyboards have been designed specifically to work with certain specialist software programmes produced to assist people with a visual impairment. These include Dolphin Large Print and MAGic keyboards, both of which feature large print, high contrast keys – many of which give quick access to the associated software's most useful features.

Braille displayAnother 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 also to read documents, web pages and email using Braille.

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

For more information on additional keyboarding options, see the AbilityNet factsheet on Keyboard and mouse alternatives and adjustments.

Specialist suppliers for keyboards and stickers include: Adapt-IT; Bellaire Electronics; Hands Free Computing; Humanware; Keytools; RNIB; and Sight and Sound Technology.

Voice control

Using voice or speech recognition to operate the computer and combining this with text-to-speech removes the need to physically type or to see the screen. Like any new skill, voice control can require some patience to learn, but can be particularly effective for people with an additional motor impairment (such as arthritis). The majority of computer, tablet and smartphone operating systems have voice recognition built-in, allowing you to give commands such as opening programs or apps and dictating text and the capabilities are constantly evolving and improving.

For more information on the main options, see the AbilityNet factsheet on Voice Recognition – an overview.

5. How can I read and understand my computer output?

Enhancements for people with low vision

For people with low vision there are many ways that to adjust your computer set up to enable you to view and understand its output more successfully. Significant accessibility features are now built-in as standard the majority of devices and operating systems. Many of which are highlighted below but, for more detailed instructions on how to make these adjustments visit My Computer My Way at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk/vision/

Configuring your web browser

Many websites are visually complex and can be extremely difficult to navigate and read, with multiple columns and difficult colour combinations. However, many popular web browsers allow you to adjust the size of the text and the colour settings to whatever suits you best as well as having a ‘reading mode’ that removes a lot of the visual ‘clutter’ and allows you to adjust how the main body of the text appears.

Larger monitor

Larger screens present much larger images and text to view, and screens are available today that are over 30 inches. Using a monitor arm can also be very useful in adjusting the viewing distance / angle and reducing potential glare.

Laptop screens are generally smaller, with a typical viewing area of around 15 inches. They do come in larger sizes but with quite substantial increases in overall weight. Connecting your laptop to a larger monitor (or to a modern TV using an HDMI cable or wirelessly ‘casting’ on some models) is generally a better solution.

Screen resolution, image size, contrast and colour

High resolution screens present sharper images but tend to have default settings that present icons and text at a smaller size. People with low vision will benefit from the ‘Accessibility’ options available in both 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 contents of the screen 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 in 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 pressing the “Ctrl” key and using the wheel on your mouse or sliding two fingers together down the mousepad is a quick way to zoom in and out. On an Apple computer, placing two fingers on the trackpad and opening out (like a pinch in reverse), provides the same shortcut. 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.

Magnification

Specialist magnification software programmes are also available that 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.

Windows and Mac computers have built-in magnifiers that provide basic magnification options.

Reading large print on screen for any length of time can be very tiring but, fortunately, leading magnification products are also available with fully integrated screen reading capabilities.

These can offer complete or selective screen reading options, full internet accessibility and text navigation (making it easy to read – by character, word, line or sentence and paragraph – while you create or edit documents).

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

Compatible keyboards are also available for Dolphin and software. 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.

Help for people with very little or no vision

JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a very popular (but expensive) screen reader for users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse. It provides 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 is a free alternative to JAWS. It stands for ‘Non-Visual Desktop Access’ and provides blind people with options to hear the text on screen being read or to 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.

NVDA can be downloaded from www.nvaccess.org

Built-in screen readers

New computers, and the majority of smartphones, now come with an in built. Narrator is the screen reader supplied with Windows machines. Apple Mac computers include a fully featured screen reader called VoiceOver.

6. How can I read other printed materials?

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.

Reading machines

There are three main types of reading machine:

  • 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.

There are also many apps that 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).

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 document 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, of 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 etc. read out loud.

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

Please note that there are also many apps that run on standard smartphones that will provide very 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. Microsoft’s “Seeing AI”, for example, is a free app that provides a number of 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.

7. What about note takers, tablets and smartphones?

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, with most including email and internet capabilities, a calendar and address book among other features. 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.

Tablets and smartphones

Technological advances are transforming modern communications. This is especially true of tablet computers and smartphones which, among myriad features, now include many of the functions of specialist notetakers, reading machines and video magnifiers.

Intelligent personal assistants – like Siri and the Google Assistant – are a key feature of all modern tablets and smartphones. These use speech recognition technology to carry out a range of everyday 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 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.

It is only possible here to point to a few of the apps that are 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

Some useful apps

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

  • Seeing AI – a free app (iOS only) that 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 are able to 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 – is a powerful and efficient notetaker that takes advantage of the built-in accessibility of Apple devices by working with VoiceOver (iOS only).
  • Vokul – is 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 is 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 means most new users can learn how to use its wealth of features in just a few minutes. Utilising text-to-speech and voice control, this includes being able to send and receive texts and emails, make calls, browse the web, take photos, scan and read, make notes and voice memos, listen 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 – is 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 very easy 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, as well as 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 get access to the system via a remote control and this 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 gets updated with new capabilities every month, and now includes the Be My Eyes vision assistant. The “In Your Pocket” device is a subscription device which is provided by the RNIB.

Supplier: RNIB

Kapsys – is a French-based company who offer an all in one package (Smart Vision 2) which includes an Android smartphone with a very simple and intuitive interface.

Supplier: Sight and Sound Technology

8. How important is training?

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 of these will be paid services. 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:

Vision Australia podcasts (primarily, but not exclusively, for Mac computers and iOS devices) at www.visionaustralia.org/community/podcasts

9. Useful contacts

RNIB

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

BCAB (British Computer Association for the Blind)

BCAB is a lively, self-help community of blind and partially sighted computer users of all skill levels, ages and interests. Visit www.bcab.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

Specialist suppliers – contact details

10. 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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