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Visual Impairment

The term ‘visual impairment’ is used to describe a wide range of conditions that affect how well we see and perceive information through sight.

Visual impairment can arise from a limitation of one or more functions of the eye or brain processing

These difficulties can include:

  • Sharpness or clarity of vision - visual acuity.
  • Range of what you can see - visual fields.
  • Visual tracking - sometimes referred to as visual stress, though not limited to that.
  • Visual processing - how the brain processes information from the eye.
  • Seeing and identifying colour - for example, colour blindness associated with more with males than females.
 

Some ways technology can help

Technology can help to support people with a visual impairment, including those who are blind. Many features are built-in to the operating systems of computers including SmartPhones. Other solutions require specialist devices and/or software.

A major benefit of using technology is in allowing each user to customise the computer screen to suit individual preferences.

  • Magnifying text by increasing the font size to aid readability.
  • Magnifying information on the computer screen such as the desktop, menus, icons.
  • Increase the size (and colour) of the mouse pointer.
  • Use mouse pointer 'trails' to track mouse movement.
  • Change font and background colours to improve contrast, e.g. yellow on black, white on black.
  • Listen to information on the computer spoken aloud - for writing, reading and navigating around the computer.
  • Use a high visibility or larger keys keyboard to aid typing.
 

Built-in tools

Modern operating systems on desktops and tablet devices (including smartphones) include tools to support sight difficulties, i.e. magnification, large cursors, high contrast colour schemes large text and screen reading. 

Windows and Ease of Access Centre 

Ease of Access Centre Both Windows desktops and tablets, i.e. the Surface Pro feature an accessibility tool called ‘Ease of Access Centre’. Windows Ease of Access Centre (formerly Accessibility on Windows XP) is available on all Windows operating systems. It includes the following tools:

  • Magnifier – Magnifier can magnify or zoom screen content to high levels with options to toggle between different Views: ‘Full Screen’, ‘Lens’ and ‘Docked’. Magnifier does not support font smoothing so even a low magnification levels, text, menu bars etc., appear ‘jagged’ or ‘pixilated’. 
  • Invert Colours: the default invert colour scheme is a high contrast ‘white on black’ theme. 
  • High Contrast: includes 4 default colours, e.g. High Contrast Black, White etc and an option to personalise high contrast colour themes such as text, button text and background colours. 
  • Mouse: different choices of ‘Pointer sizes’ and ‘Pointer Colours’. 
  • Make things on the screen easier to see – allows you to adjust the colour transparency of windows borders and ‘Fine tune display effects’ such as thickening the size of the ‘blinking cursor’ – therefore making the cursor easier to identify, e.g. when used in a word processor. 
  • Narrator – is a basic screen-reading program which reads aloud text on the screen, normally triggered by a series of keyboard shortcuts. On new tablet devices such as the Windows Surface, Narrator will speak aloud text wherever the user positions their finger, offering increased ease-of-use to find items on the screen and hear content spoken.

Quick tips for Windows

  • On the Windows desktop - hold down the CTRL key and use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and out.
  • In Microsoft Wordhold down the CTRL key and use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and out.
  • Surfing the web - hold down the CTRL key and use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and out or press CTRL - / CTRL + keys to zoom in and out. 

Find out more on Windows – Ease of Access Centre

Mac Accessibility Zoom

Apple - Macs and Accessibility 

Apple Macs also include a comprehensive list of tools to support sight loss. They can be found in System Preferences and Accessibility. 

  • VoiceOver – a comprehensive screen reading program.
  • Zoom – up to x40 magnification with some basic image smoothing. 
  • Display – options to invert colours, use greyscale and adjust contrast.
  • Cursor Size – choose between normal and large. 
  • Speech – for those who don’t need a full-screen reader. Speech will read the text in documents, such as Pages. 
  • Braille – supports over 100 compatible Braille displays and supports VoiceOver.

Read more on Macs and  Accessibility

iPads and Accessibility 

As the iPad’s operating system has evolved, so has the built-in support for visually impaired users. Features include:

  • iPad Zoom

    VoiceOver – screen reading which uses a combination of touch (gestures, tapping, double tapping, swipes etc) and/or an external keyboard, e.g. an Apple Bluetooth keyboard/Voiceover compatible. VoiceOver also features a ‘practice area’ so you can learn and practice the main gestures before letting loose on your device. 
  • Zoom – choose between ‘full-screen magnification’ or ‘window zoom’ (a movable lens).
  • Follow Focus and Smart Typing – follows the cursor so a user can track their typing position when the screen is magnified. 
  • Magnifier – use the iPad’s camera to magnify documents etc (similar to a basic CCTV magnifier). Magnifier also includes different contrast colour filters. 
  • Larger Text – increase the size of fonts and text. 
  • Display Accommodations – use colour ‘masking’ filters on the iPad – ‘Greyscale’, Colour Tints with different hues and intensities. 
  • Speech – for users who don’t require a screen reader but benefit from having text spoken aloud:
    • Speak Selection: speak a selection of text. 
    • Speak Screen: speak text on the screen.
    • Typing Feedback: individual characters, words are spoken as they are typed.
    • Braille – has a built-in Braille with both 8 and 12 dot input and is compatible with a range of Bluetooth Braille displays. 

Find out more on iPads – Accessibility

Android 

Google Android Accessibility has improved with each new OS update. Android’s accessibility tools are located in Settings and Accessibility.

  • TalkBack – the Android’s screen reader which provides spoken feedback with touch, describing actions, alerts and notifications. 
  • Magnification – zoom in and out of the desktop and apps using gestures, e.g., pinching and dragging. 
  • Large Text – toggle between normal and larger font sizes.
  • High Contrast / Colour Inversion.  
  • Support for Bluetooth Braille devices

Visit the Android Accessibility website 

Commercial magnification software

Dedicated magnification software programs are available that offer features such as 'font smoothing' so fonts appear smooth (not pixelated or jaggy at the edge) when magnified at high levels.

Features of commercial magnification software

  • Choice of magnification levels.
  • Font smoothing.
  • Enlarged mouse pointers/cursors with colour options.
  • Enhanced colour contrast.
  • Options to have full screen display, split screen display (only one half is magnified), window magnification.
  • Options to read one line of text at a time (magnified with colour contrast) when reading documents or web pages - similar to a video magnifier.
  • Mouse tracking - the screen follows the movement of the mouse.
  • Dedicated keyboard function keys to increase ease of use.

Some specialised magnification software can integrate with screen reading tools to aid reading and navigation. Many are also compatible with the latest Braille displays.

Commercial magnification software products

Free magnification software products

Free magnification software programs are available and while they offer some useful tools to support vision they do not offer specialised features such as font smoothing.

 

Computer monitors

You may wish to consider the size of the computer or tablet screen when using magnification software. The 'viewable' area of the screen decreases as the software increases the zoom area. This is especially noticeable when information on the screen follows the mouse cursor.

Larger screens, e.g., a 21 inch screen provides a greater screen area when the desktop is magnified as opposed to a smaller 17 or 19 inch monitor. A 12" tablet screen shows more than a 10" device.

 

Screen Readers

A screen reader is a software program that reads or interprets information on the computer screen, i.e. menus, icons, toolbars, documents, web pages are read aloud using a computer/synthetic voice. 

Screen readers are quite different to text readers: screen readers read everything on the computer screen, whereas text readers read text or numbers that you select with a mouse or keyboard. 

Screen readers can, therefore, help people who are blind to navigate the whole computer, tablet or, in some cases, Smart Phone interface - via a keyboard. Some people also use a screen reader in combination with Braille reader which provides additional tactile support.

Commercial screen reader products

Free screen reader products

There are some powerful free screen readers available – comparable (arguably) to commercial software.

  • NVDA - Non Visual Desktop Access.
  • Thunder - Not compatible with Windows 10.

Text Readers

See our Text-to-Speech page for more on text readers

Keyboards

Keyboards and typing play an important and integral part for anyone using a magnification and/or screen reading program.

  • Magnification programs can be used more efficiently using keyboard shortcuts.
  • To use screen reading software effectively a sound knowledge of keyboard shortcuts is required.

Keyboard familiarity and learning to touch type

Touch typing or keyboard familiarity is therefore a big benefit for people who use magnification and/or screen reading software. Touch typing software includes:

  • Doorway Online - Text Type 2 (Free)
  • Nessy Fingers - for younger learners.
  • Azabat - beginners and advanced touch typing tutor.
  • IOTA - Touch typing tutor suitable for visually impaired learners.
  • RNIB - Beginners guide to keyboard skills 

Large Keyboards

Large keyboards or large print keyboards feature large letter, number and character keys which are available in a range of colours to enhance colour contrast:

  • Black letters on white keys.
  • White letters on black keys.
  • Black letters on yellow keys.
  • Yellow letters on black keys.

Types of large keyboard:

Key top stickers

These are large high contrast stickers which can be attached to an existing keyboard e.g. a laptop keyboard where the keys tend to have smaller letters and characters.

 

Video Digital Magnifiers

A video magnifier is an electronic device that uses a built-in camera and display screen to convey or produce a 'digital magnification' of printed materials.

Video digital magnifiers are available in different sizes and can be used in a variety of situations, e.g. portable video magnifiers for viewing signage and directions when outdoors or flyers and posters at school. Some digital magnifiers can be connected to a TV or mirrored to another display, such as a whiteboard in class.

Types of video magnifiers

  • Desktop video magnifiers (documents can be read with high magnification and include background colour options).
  • Portable video magnifiers (smaller and lighter than a desktop – some can be folded into a compact size – some also have handles to aid portability)
  • Pocket sized magnifiers (for taking snapshots of everyday materials such as receipts, timetables, signs, posters).

Tablet devices such as iPhones, Pads and Androids with their built-in cameras and apps can be used as a portable magnifier.

Adding an external lens to enhance picture quality

To enhance the quality of a tablet's built-in camera (i.e optical zoom for capturing information at long distances) external lenses are available which fit over the existing camera lens.

Features of video magnifiers

As well as differing in size video magnifiers differ in the features they offer – you will need to consider carefully before buying a video magnifier to ensure it meets your needs.

  • High levels magnification.
  • Rechargeable batteries for portable and pocket.
  • Choice of background and font colours.
  • Built-in sound system – with text-to-speech.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR)

The RNIB has a wealth of information and details on a range of video magnifiers.

iPad document stands

iPads and other tablet devices can be attached to document camera stands so they can be used as an alternative to traditional video magnifiers, i.e. the Justand V2 or the Belkin Portable Tablet Stage Stand for iPad.

 

eBooks

Depending on the severity of a learner’s visual impairment digital or eBooks can also be used to support reading. Digital or eBooks books are widely available and are compatible with most devices.

With eBooks you can:

  • Customise the font styles, colour, size and character spacing to suit your personal preferences.
  • Customise the background colours to improve readability.
  • Use text-to-speech to hear the book read aloud.
  • Create bookmarks, highlight important points which can be collated and summarised
  • Share or synchronise your books so they are available on different devices, e.g. Windows, Macs, Androids, iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Kobos etc.

Commercial eBook sources

Free eBook sources

iOS devices such as iPhones and iPads support Kindle, Google Play and Nook books - search for the apps on the Apps Store. Windows tablet devices also support Kindle and Kobo eBooks.

 

DAISY

DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System (digital talking book). The aim of DAISY is to offer the same flexibility that readers of standard print enjoy, allowing readers to:

  • Navigate by chapter (by human voice or synthetic)
  • Navigate by section, subsection, and page.

People who use DAISY can read or skip footnotes including information added specifically for users of the audio version.

DAISY books are available in different formats:

  • Audio with a narrated human voice.
  • Full-audio DAISY book – both text and audio with narrated voice.
  • Text books which use text-to-speech.

The DAISY format can be played using both hardware and/or a device and software:

Software players

Hardware players

Free DAISY resources

  • RNIB Bookshare (RNIB).
  • Listening Books (fiction and non-fiction titles for children and adults).
  • RNIB (Talking Books service)
  • Calibre (eBook management and eBooks)
  • Your local library (the OverDrive App can access audiobooks in your local library).
  • Some DAISY books are available in the Books for All database.

Commercial DAISY resources

Standard audiobooks may not include spoken navigation.

 

Braille books

For people who read Braille, a selection of Braille books are available from the RNIB, including books for children.

Braille display / note takers / keyboards

Braille notetakers are portable devices which have either a standard or Braille keyboard. They can be used to taking notes and for displaying Information, e.g. email, web content, documents etc., which can be read out, displayed in Braille, or both. Braille display / note takers can be connected to a computer but increasingly Bluetooth models are appearing which can be linked to tablet devices such as iPhones and iPads. 

Examples of Braille display/ note takers include:

iPad and Braille keyboard

The iPad has a built-in on-screen Braille keyboard that you can use instead of the standard on-screen keyboard -  tap Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver and scroll down to 'Braille'. 

 

Using a magnifier in class - distance viewers and screen mirroring

A difficulty for many learners with a visual impairment in a classroom or lecture theatre is seeing information on a screen, such as a whiteboard.

Portable magnifiers capture and store information on the learner's laptop at a distance, hence the name 'distance viewers'.

Features of a distant viewer

  • Lightweight and portable.
  • The camera can rotate 360 degrees.
  • Connect to a laptop via USB.
  • Work with most popular magnification software.
  • Capture and store images.

Examples of ‘distance’ magnifiers

Screen Mirroring

Screen mirroring 'mirrors' or 'reflects' information on a screen to a computer or tablet and vice versa. This means that a learner can see what it displayed on the classroom whiteboard on his/her own computer or tablet. 

In most cases, screen mirroring requires at least one device to be connected to Wi-Fi.

Examples include:

  • Reflector – a wireless mirroring and streaming app that displays (and records) content between laptops and tablet devices.
  • JoinMe - free to use (with limited places) and works through an internet browser.
  • Team Viewer - requires a download and installation. 
  • Skype - free with Glow and Office 365.
  • Glow Meet - available in Glow.
 

Tablets and Smartphones

Despite their small screens, tablets and smartphones such as iPhones and iPads are being used increasingly by learners with visual impairments.

Benefits of using a tablet and smartphone

  • Both iPads and Androids have numerous built-in ‘Accessiblity’ features, e.g.
    • iPhones and iPads – VoiceOver, Larger Text, Invert Colours, Greyscale, Zoom including Full Screen and Window Zoom, Follow Focus and Smart Typing.
    • Androids – TalkBack, DarkScreen, Font Size, Magnification Gestures.

Tablets and smartphone can also be used as navigation devices, i.e. BlindSquare, ViaOpta though the accuracy of these apps will depend on your geographical location.

Personal Digital Assistants

Personal Digital Assistant such as Siri (iPhone/iPad), Google Now (Androids) and Cortana (Windows) use speech recognition technology to answer questions, open apps, create and send messages, make appointments and reminders and much more. Siri, Google Now and Cortana also confirm the question or command by speaking back the question and taking the user through each step - this can be of particular benefit to visually impaired and blind learners as it requires minimal training and effort on the part of the user - however, they do require a Wi-Fi connection.

Optical Recognition Apps

There are several iPad (and Android) apps which can convert a text image to 'editable' text, sometimes known as Optical Character Recognition.

Some apps can also convert an image to text and read it aloud using text-to-speech. Such apps can be useful for snapping street and school signage, posters and flyers. Teachers can also convert paper worksheets to digital text which can be copied to other apps allowing the learner to customise the text to suit their needs.

OCR Apps - some things to consider

Getting decent OCR results with a tablet device is not straight forward. Potential issues to consider include:

  • Good, consistent lighting.
  • Problems with shadows falling onto the document when scanning.
  • The condition and layout of the original document.
  • Accuracy of OCR after scanning.

OCR Apps include:

Some apps may require Wi-Fi to convert the image to text.

Useful Apps

  • Aiploy Vision (point the camera at everyday objects and the app will read out the name of the object).
  • GeorgiePhone (a family of Android apps ‘Directions’, ‘Finder’, etc. for blind or low vision people)

Visit the AppleVis website for a list of accessible iPad apps that have been evaluated and recommend by a community of visually impaired users.

 

Alternative formats

Alternative formats provide an accessible method of reading 'standard print' to people who are visually impaired.

Alternative formats include:

  • Large print.
  • PDF i.e. Books for All Database;
  • Scanning Paper Books;
  • Easy Read.
  • Symbol Supported.
  • Audio.
  • DAISY.
  • Braille.

Advice on creating alternative formats is available on the CALL Scotland Books for All website.

Tools to create alternative formats

  • EasyConverter (converts paper-based information into a range of formats such as large print, Mp3, DAISY and Braille).

Some tips when creating information for print-disabled learners:

  • Keep it simple - write in plain language.
  • Avoid overly complicated information - make it as concise as possible.
  • Think about your wider audience – consider font styles, colours and sizes.
  • Avoid ‘serif’ fonts, small text sizes and complicated layouts. 

Making your original document more accessible will reduce the need for producing accessible formats.

 

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