What if I can’t see the Screen? Considerations and Options for Accessing a Computer with Low Vision
There is nothing more frustrating for a student than not being able to read something that’s right in front of them. Fortunately, there are many options for accessing a computer screen for those with low vision. Some are as simple as activating built-in accessibility settings and others only require a one-time purchase of office equipment. If those solutions do not work, purchase of third-party software is also an option.
In the following article, a variety of options are introduced that will assist the individual with low vision to access content on a computer or tablet screen with the least amount of discomfort possible.
Low-tech Ergonomic Options
Using one of the following low-tech options or even using two or more together, may allow the user to be able to see content on the computer screen easier.
Use of a Monitor Arm or Tablet Stand
Often just bringing the screen a bit closer can be very helpful. Not only is the monitor closer to the individual, but it also is positioned so that they can retain good posture and avoid craning of the neck. Having the monitor at eye level can prevent a lot of neck and back pain.
When using a tablet, try a tablet stand and pairing the tablet with a wireless keyboard. There are lots of different types of stands that allow the user to adjust the height of the tablet. Use of a wireless keyboard also allows the user to avoid slouching or bending over, which can lead to back and neck pain.
Arrange Workspace More Effectively
When using a desktop computer, consider purchase of an under-desk keyboard tray. This will allow the monitor to be positioned closer to the user if needed. Additionally, arrange the workspace so there is an unobstructed view of the computer monitor. This will assist those who need to sit farther back from the screen so they can view all four sides.
Consider a Larger Monitor
Many offices and schools have standard 20- or 22-inch monitors, but sometimes providing a monitor that is 24 or 27 inches gives enough extra surface area to allow text and objects to appear bigger. Connecting a 15-inch laptop to a 22-inch monitor can also make a great deal of difference. Providing larger or external monitors can often be a very easy solution since many workplaces and schools have extra units or are willing to invest in a larger screen if it will be helpful.
There is one caveat to using a larger monitor: bigger is not always better. Larger monitors can decrease the field of view due to the larger surface area, especially if the user is positioned close to the screen. When choosing a monitor, make sure that the user can see all sides and edges of the monitor without the need to move their head or neck. If that is not possible, the monitor is too large, or at least is positioned too close to the individual.
Zoom in and out
Most applications in Windows and Chrome OS allow the user to “control scroll”, which means holding down the Control key on the keyboard while using the scroll wheel on the mouse. This increases the zoom level and enlarges the text. If a scroll wheel is not present, Control + Plus will increase the zoom level and Control + Minus will decrease the zoom level. It may also work to “pinch in” on the touchpad or touchscreen to zoom in and “pinch out” to zoom out.
On a Mac, zoom in by pressing Option + Command + Equal sign and zoom out by pressing Option + Command + Minus sign. When using a touchpad, the same effect can be applied by holding down the Command key and swiping up with two fingers on the touchpad in increase zoom and swiping down with two fingers to decrease.
Regardless of the operating system used, when this method is applied, the user may need to use “scroll bars” that appear on the side or bottom of the window to navigate to content that has been moved out of the visible portion of the screen. The user may need to “hover” their mouse over these scroll bars for them to appear. As one might imagine, the need to scroll to different areas of the screen when it is magnified can be time consuming and can also cause the user to miss information on a page since it can be “hidden” from them if the zoom level is too high.
Built in Accessibility
Windows, Chrome OS, and Mac OS all have ways to make text and objects seem bigger on the screen. The resource section contains some links that will help the user make adjustments to their specific operating system, but below are a few general ideas:
- Enlarge the text – Consider enlarging the default text size in your device’s system settings.
- High Contrast – Choose a theme (including any backgrounds) that are high contrast. Backgrounds should be uncluttered and, ideally, a solid color.
- Dark Mode – If a high contrast theme doesn’t work for you, perhaps putting the device in Dark Mode will provide the white on black experience without any other changes to the Windows theme currently enabled on your device.
- Pointer and Cursor Enhancements – Enlarge the pointer and cursor so that it appears larger. Also consider changing the color of the pointer or cursor so it is easier to pick up visually and contrasts with the background.
- Enable the device’s built-in screen magnifier.
Third Party Screen Magnification
Third party screen magnification such as ZoomText or SuperNova can be a great option if the built-in accessibility features do not meet your needs. It is important to note that third-party screen magnification software is not available for a Mac or Choromebook since these devices do not allow for third party accessibility software. They do, however, work well on machines running Windows or other operating systems.
Screen magnification software can provide an all-in-one solution for individuals with visual impairments. These programs can be more helpful than built-in accessibility settings at times because all of the settings are in one window rather than in a settings screen that a student may not know how to access. In addition, features included with screen magnification software can be toggled on or off using keyboard shortcuts where most built-in solutions require the user to manage these settings within the system settings.
Another advantage of screen magnification software is that it is more highly customizable and offers features that are not available within the operating system. For example, tools to extract text from a source and eliminate extraneous images and provide an uncluttered reading experience can help individuals who struggle with crowded websites. Additionally, reading tools that vocalize text can be very helpful to those whose eyes fatigue easily and have to read large amounts of text.
Conversely, there are times that third party programs don’t work as seamlessly with the operating system as integrated settings would. Sometimes glitches occur such as slow response of the mouse pointer, lagging of the screen as the pointer moves from one section to another, and other similar issues. These instances tend to be less prevalent when the version of the screen magnifier and the operating system are both up to date.
There are times when the computer the student is working with is an older model or is refurbished or used. Third party screen magnification software can still be installed, but it may not perform as well as it might on a newer model where the system is more modern, especially with a current version of screen magnification software. An update to the video driver or a new video card may resolve any lagging or choppy images. This may resolve the issue, or at least making it more manageable for the learner.
How can I Know Which Solution to Try First?
When performing an assessment on a student to determine what modifications will be most successful, it is generally best to start with the most low tech and low cost solutions. Not only are these solutions more likely to be successful, but many individuals with low vision, especially children and young adults, prefer not to use options and methods that make them feel as though they “stick out”. Embarrassment and discomfort may cause these individuals to choose not to implement any modifications at all, which will ultimately do more harm than good.
Another reason low tech solutions are preferred is that they tend to restrict the field of view far less. For example, when a monitor arm and slightly larger screen are used for positioning, the entire monitor and its contents are visible to the student. However, when we begin implementing zoom or magnification, less of the full screen is visible, which can cause the student to need more time so they can use scroll bars or move the magnification area to where it is needed.
As a general rule, the solution that requires the least modification to the computer and environment while still allowing the student or client to comfortably access the computer screen is the best fit for them.
- Individuals with low vision do not need to utilize third-party screen reading software to access a computer screen comfortably and without strain.
- Low-tech solutions tend to provide the user with more information on the screen at a time, even if the screen itself is larger.
- One advantage of third party screen magnification products is that all controls are on one interface rather than in system settings and key commands exist so some features in the screen magnification program can be easily turned on or off.
- Sometimes third-party screen magnifiers do not work seamlessly with the computer on which it is installed. An update to the video driver or a new video card may resolve this issue, especially with older machines.
Presley, I., & D'Andrea, F. M. (2009). Assistive technology for students who are blind or visually impaired: A guide to assessment. New York, NY: AFB Press.
Editor's Note: This article is authored by Amy Snow, Assistive Technology Specialist for Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCBVI).