Questions to Ask About Which Assistive Technology Is Right for You

Contributed by Steve Kelley, CVRT

How Do I Determine Which Computer Is Right for Me?

ipad with hand indicating apps on screen

One consumer recently said to me, "I'm afraid if I don’t learn how to use this thing (an iPad), I'm just going to be left in the dust." The consequences of not learning to use adaptive technology may not be quite so dire, but as he also pointed out later in the conversation, "It sure would be nice to do a little reading again, and have a way to look up information without having to depend on my wife all the time."

Trying to determine if there is technology that may help you or a family member read, communicate with email, or just have some fun playing an electronic game can be overwhelming — and what a pleasant surprise this is, compared to what the options used to be! You may be dizzy with all the available choices today, but overall, it is much easier to find a computer or tablet that best suits your needs. Compare this to what was available several years ago: choosing from the one or two products that had accessibility and "making do" with that.

"I Stopped Using the Computer Because I Can't Read What Is On the Screen"

More often, however, I hear this: "I stopped using the computer because I couldn’t read the screen anymore." Consumers rarely know that there is a technology world full of screen readers and screen magnifiers on devices as common as the Kindle HD, iPad, or the latest Mac or Windows computer.

How To Figure Out What's Right for You

No vision or low vision? At its most basic, we can divide access technology out there into two broad categories: screen readers or screen magnifiers. Today, you are going to find both almost everywhere: Mac and Windows computers, iPads and iPhones, Android tablets, and smart phones. Chances are, if you have a recently acquired vision loss, you simply have no idea what assistive technology may already be on the computer in your office or the gadget in your purse!

What Is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is software that reads what's on the screen. Users rely on keyboard shortcuts and/or gestures, instead of the mouse, to navigate the computer. With a screen reader, you can read and compose email, surf the Web, read a book, or write the novel you've always dreamed of! In most cases, you will use the same software on the computer a sighted user may choose, but access it with a screen reader instead.

What Is a Screen Magnifier?

A screen magnifier is software that makes the images and text on the screen, larger and easier to read. Most magnifiers offer the option to magnify just a portion of the screen or the entire screen. Some screen magnifiers will allow users to invert colors, change the color scheme entirely, and even read portions of the screen. The greater the screen magnification, the less one sees of the screen. This means more left-to-right scrolling and less overall efficiency.

If you are a low vision user who requires a great deal of magnification to read, you may want to have a professional assessment from your local vision rehabilitation therapist or assistive technology specialist because at a certain magnification you may become very frustrated with trying to use the computer or tablet screen visually and a screen reader may be the better choice for you.

Determining What Is Right for You

This is sometimes a difficult realization for computer users who have spent years using the computer visually. A professional can be honest with you and help you make that transition. That said, many low vision technology users will choose to use a screen magnifier with some voice features, or use a screen reader only when needed or convenient.

What Should I Get?

Consider the following questions to get you started:

1. What type of computer did you use in the past, if any? A Windows PC, Mac, or something else?

young woman at a computer

Consider that there may be less of a learning curve choosing technology you already have some familiarity with. Sure the iPad may be sexier these days, but if you are already familiar with Windows, you may get up and running more quickly using a Windows PC with a screen reader or magnifier.

2. Are you a touch typist, someone who knows the keyboard layout and can type without looking a great deal?

If you are a touch typist, add a keyboard to your device, even if it is a smartphone or tablet. Wireless keyboards will connect to most devices and you will find this will increase your efficiency. All programs have keyboard shortcuts you can learn instead of using the mouse or finger gestures.

If you are not a touch typist and rely on your sight to see the keys, consider large print keyboards and keyboard stickers. These products will make the keys easier to find. However, if you plan to do a great deal of typing, you may want to brush up on your touch typing skills at your local Adult Ed, or by using a software program like Talking Typer, available from the American Printing House for the Blind, or TypeAbility.

3. Do you want to return to the workplace? If so, what type of work are you looking for?

This is an important question to ask, because you may find that the profession you are seeking employment in uses a specific type of computer. For example, if you are looking for work in the field of graphic design, you may wish to begin your training with a Mac. Likewise, you may find that an open-source screen reader, like NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) is perfect for your home use, but JAWS is the standard in many employment settings.

If you are trying to decide on technology for the workplace, do a little research first and find out what employers are using, and/or contact your local vocational rehabilitation counselor who may be able to answer these questions.

4. How much are you able to spend?

The inclusion of accessibility features in many mainstream devices, like the Kindle Fire HD or Android Tablets with the latest version of the Android operating system, means that consumers can purchase a tablet with a screen reader and screen magnifier for under $200 new! These may work for some people who want access to email and other everyday home computing needs, but who also like the robust features of a third-party screen magnifier or screen reader.

As alternatives to reading print and online information from websites, these devices may not be the best tools for your needs. For example, you may find that the latest version of Windows with a screen magnifier, such as ZoomText, and a 24-inch monitor provides much greater access to the tasks you wish to do, and would cost closer to $1,000 for both computer and software.

5. Do you need portability?

It is hard to beat the portability of a small tablet or smart phone, but you often compromise many features: a larger, more visible screen, a full-size keyboard, and speed, for example. This too is becoming less of an issue with lighter and more powerful laptops and wireless keyboards that minimize the differences between portable and desktop.

Links to Common Screen Readers and Magnifiers

By now you should be getting a clearer idea of what technology may be useful for you. Here are some links to some of the more common screen readers and magnifiers that are available. This is not an inclusive list, just something to introduce you to what is available.

Windows Screen Magnifiers

Since Windows 7, a full-screen magnifier has been built into the Windows operating system. The magnifier is found in "Ease of Access," under the accessibility area of your computer.

ZoomText, MAGic and SuperNova Magnifier are all screen magnifiers that offer features above and beyond those of the standard Windows magnifier.

Windows Screen Readers

Windows has offered a basic screen reader in Narrator since Windows 2000 that was suitable, in the early versions, for some basic computer tasks. With the significant upgrades in Windows 10, however, Narrator improved significantly.

JAWS, SuperNova, and Dolphin Screen Reader are full-featured commercial screen readers. In addition, NVDA is an open source screen reader that is free to download and has a large and loyal following of users. System Access is another screen reader with an enthusiastic following that may be used at no cost while connected to the Internet using the Internet Explorer Web browser. Try the free version of System Access or you can download a copy of System Access from Serotek. It is also worth noting that WindowEyes was a very popular commercial screen reader that is no longer supported by parent company VFO.

Microsoft offers accessibility support online and through telephone assistance: 1-800-936-5900.

Dolphin Guide software combines both magnification and screen reading into an easy-to-use interface. Guide is a great alternative for users with specific goals, such as email or listening to Internet radio and limited computer skills.

Apple Macintosh Computer Screen Magnifier and Readers

Apple provides both a screen magnifier (Zoom) and screen reader (VoiceOver) within the operating system. Both are turned on by going into System Preferences and selecting Universal Access. Since the Mavericks operating system, both are found in Accessibility, which is in the System Preferences menu.

ZoomText also makes a screen magnifier for the Macintosh.

Apple also offers technical support at no cost to users of their accessibility features at 1-877-204-3930.

Android Screen Magnifier and Screen Reader

Both Android tablets and smartphones come with Talkback as a built-in screen reader. Since the KitKat operating system, Magnification Gestures (screen magnifier) have been included under Accessibility. Both features may be turned on by opening Settings and selecting Accessibility.

In addition, Code Factory makes an accessibility suite for the Android operating system, called Mobile Accessibility, that includes both a screen reader and screen magnifier.

Apple iOS Screen Magnifier and Screen Reader

The Apple operating system used in the iPad, iPhone and iPod is called iOS. If you learn it for one device, you’ll know how to use all of them, with minor variations.

All of these devices have a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver and a screen magnifier called Zoom. To find these features, open Settings, then select General, then find the Accessibility button. For more information on Apple iOS accessibility, go to Apple's website. Also, you can find lots of good information on AppleVis, a community-powered website for blind and low vision users of Apple's range of Mac computers, the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and the Apple TV.

Regardless of what you ultimately choose, you will learn skills that you can transfer to newer devices when they come out or to another similar device. While the keystrokes for an Apple's VoiceOver screen reader may be different from those used with NVDA on the PC, you will learn that both read documents and webpages in similar ways. So dust off that computer or start shopping for a new one, because you can learn to use the computer with limited vision, or none at all!

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