Low Cost Computing for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Contributed by Steven Kelley CRC, CVRT

Overcoming the Frustrations of Using a Computer If You Are Visually Impaired or Blind

A computer monitor

A newly referred client said to me recently, "I had to give up using the computer, because the print was too small to read any more." She is not my first client to say this. Vision loss for computer users creates real frustration—the inability to continue email communication with family, reading web pages and documents, and genuine concern regarding using a computer at work. Vision loss may very well affect the way you access a computer, but it doesn’t mean giving up the computer entirely, unless this is as good an excuse as any to stop using it! Computers are increasingly accessible, and there are many low cost alternatives to computer access with a vision loss.

Computers have changed dramatically in a short time with increased speed, alternative operating systems, lower cost, the introduction of tablets, and the increased availability of access technology. In the case of the recent client mentioned earlier, the access technology needed was a screen magnifier. Because she’d had relatively good vision most of her life, she never needed a screen magnifier until now, and didn’t know such a thing even existed. In fact, she just assumed that with the onset of low vision or blindness, using the computer was no longer an option.

Software to make computers accessible for blind and low vision users has been around for many years, and is even built into many of the devices we use today including smart phones; tablets; and Windows and Mac computers. Read our quick overview below on the accessibility of windows.

Guides for Selecting a Computer

For a more in-depth discussion, check out Selecting a Computer as a User with a Visual Impairment. This guide will help the novice user. If you are an experienced computer user, but new to vision loss, we also have a "primer" to help you.

The Accessibility of Windows

Fortunately this client was using a Windows 7 computer with a built in screen magnifier. We turned on the computer, and she was instructed to press and hold the Windows Key (bottom row of the keyboard, between the CTR and ALT keys) and then press the number pad “+” key. To her delight, this immediately magnified the screen. We made some changes to the Magnifier settings to optimize it for her, and she was able to resume reading her email. Windows 8 computers have the same built in magnifier, which uses the same keyboard shortcuts:

  • Windows Key + Number Pad "+" turns the magnifier on and increases magnification
  • Windows Key + Number Pad “-“ reduces magnification
  • Windows Key + Esc turns the magnifier off

Please note that Windows 7 Home Basic and Windows 7 Starter versions do not support Aero Themes which are required for full screen magnification in Windows 7. If you have these versions you will only be able to use the Lens and Docked version of the magnifier.

If you are part of the 25% of Windows users still clinging to Windows XP (according to CoolBlindTech.com), you too have a magnifier, although it has much fewer options than in newer versions of Windows. To open this magnifier press Start>All Programs>Accessories>Accessibility>Magnifier.

A full screen magnifier that will run with Windows XP and costs nothing is Desktop Zoom, which may be downloaded.

Low Cost Screen Readers

If you need more access than a screen magnifier provides, you’re probably looking for a screen reader, software that reads what’s on the screen and converts printed text into spoken words. Windows has offered a screen reader called Narrator as part of the built-in accessibility features, however, it has never really been robust enough to do more than the most basic of computing functions. The most recent version, in Windows 8 has more features but is still not enough to provide comprehensive access to the computer.

Two excellent low-cost alternatives for screen reading include NVDA and Window Eyes. NVDA is open source software that is available to download and use free of charge. There is a version that will work on Windows systems from Windows XP through Windows 8. NVDA works with a wide variety of Windows applications such as Microsoft Office, Open Office, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, providing a great deal of overall computer access. A great starting point with NVDA is An Overview of the NVDA Screen Reader from Seminars@Hadley at Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Window Eyes, on the other hand, was developed as a commercial product, and in a recent partnership with Microsoft is also available at no cost for users of Microsoft Office 2010 or 2013. Window Eyes has many tutorials and webinar archives on their website in their Support section.

Computers for the Blind

You can obtain a low cost computer from Computers for the Blind. And, among other things, you also can get a lower-priced license for ZoomText, a screen magnifier with more features than the one built into Windows 7.

Apple Macintosh Computers

Although a computer running Windows can offer the widest array of accessibility options, it is certainly not the only solution to low cost accessible computing. The Apple Macintosh computers have included accessibility options since the release of their operating system called Tiger in 2005. That means, there are a great number of older Macs out there with the Zoom screen magnifier, and VoiceOver screen reader. Both Zoom and VoiceOver can be turned on by going into the System Preferences and selecting Universal Access. In the latest Mac operating system, go to System Preference and select Accessibility.

VoiceOver and Zoom have also been available for several years on the Apple iOS devices, which include the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Just as they are on the Mac, they are built into the operating system, so there is no additional software to buy or use. VoiceOver and Zoom make these devices fully accessible using gestures, and an onscreen keyboard. Some users may find that by adding a wireless keyboard to these devices, depending on what you are using them for, they can be just as accessible as a full-size computer! To reduce costs go to the Apple Store’s website for refurbished items.

Here’s a tip when purchasing an older iPad for a user who is blind or visually impaired: purchase an iPad newer than the 2nd generation to get both a camera, and SIRI built in. The camera can be used with some applications as a magnifier, and SIRI is software that acts as a digital assistant and is responsive to some voice commands.

Kindle Fire

A man holds an e-reader with text pages flying out of the screen.

The latest version of the Kindle Fire, the HD and HDX, and the most recent version of the Android operating system, called KitKat, found on newer tablets and some smart phones, have made significant improvements in accessibility.

Like the iOS devices, accessibility is built into the operating system and will be found under Settings, Accessibility. For vision, these accessibility features include a Screen Reader called Talkback, Large Fonts, and Screen Magnifier or Magnification Gestures. These Android devices may also be used with a wireless keyboard to provide a suitable alternative for some computing activities, including reading books, answering emails, and accessing the Web.

A 7-inch Kindle Fire HD tablet new is $139 from Amazon.com, and a Samsung Galaxy tablet with the latest version of the Android operating system is $199, making them both low cost alternatives. For this writer however, the Android system has less overall accessibility than some of the other alternatives suggested.

Regardless of which low-cost alternative you choose, unless you are familiar with these devices, or the accessibility features used, there will be some learning curve involved. There are more options now for using a computer with a vision loss than ever before, and many of those options are at a much lower cost, or built right into the existing operating systems. After reading this article, you may not be able to say, "I had to give up using the computer because I couldn’t read the screen…"

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