In a world of ever evolving technology, you might wonder how people with visual impairments can take advantage of the latest computer technology.
The visually impaired, like many people with disabilities, have been using computers for decades with the help of software and hardware that have continued to improve over the years.
How do people who are blind use computers?
Computers, laptops, notebooks, tablets, and smart phones have been adapted for people with visual impairments through special programs and equipment called assistive technology (AT) which is any technological device or service that helps people overcome the challenges of their disabilities.
AT includes everything from smart glasses for the blind to voice recognition programs that type for you and follow commands as you speak. Assistive technology allows people who are blind or visually impaired to utilize computers in a similar way as sighted individuals.
Understanding your options is key to choosing which devices and equipment will suit your specific needs.
Which is best for the visually impaired: a desktop, laptop, or tablet?
The answer to this question depends on what you plan to use your device for and your lifestyle.
Do you travel regularly? Are you a student? Do you work from home?
Each device has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the key is choosing a computer based on your specific needs.
If you donâ€™t mind your computer being stationary, then a desktop might be the right choice for you.
Desktops offer larger storage capabilities and faster operating systems than portable computers. They often come with accessibility programs such as screen reader software and the ability to enlarge fonts and contrast colors and backgrounds (to aid colorblind).
With desktops, you can buy larger monitors and use braille stickers for the keyboard. There are also attachable screen magnifiers available for stationary computers.
Laptops and Notebooks
Laptops and notebooks are lightweight computers that operate like miniature desktops. Theyâ€™re great for students, people who travel a lot, or those who want to operate their computer from the sofa.
Laptops are less bulky than desktops too; a desktop requires a keyboard, monitor, PC, and mouse while a laptop has everything in one unit.
Some brands of laptops and notebooks have touchscreen capabilities that can be beneficial if you have difficulty keeping track of the cursor on the screen.
However, a laptop seldom has the same storage and speed capacity as a desktop and needs to be charged every 3 to 8 hours.
Tablets and Smartphones
Tablets and smartphones are like small computers, but they do not have the same abilities and AT functionality as laptops and desktops.
Tablets and smartphones have built-in assistive software like computers, the applications you download may not be compatible with that software. In addition, websites and graphics do not always translate well on a mobile device.
On the other hand, there are tablets specifically designed for the blind and visually impaired like BLITABÂ®, the first tablet to integrate a refreshable braille display directly on the screen.
Voice over technologies can be used with tablets and other mobile devices to make it easier to message friends, read eBooks, message friends, and navigate social media.
There’s also the voice activated AI of Siri (for Apple) and Cortana (for Android) that can make smartphones accesible for people with visual impairments.
Can people who are visually impaired or blind use “regular” computers?
There are few computers specifically designed for the blind and visually impaired. In most cases, people with visual impairments use regular computers equipped with technology to help them type, read, surf the web, email, and operate a computer like anyone else.
It is our opinion that the best computers for the blind are those with either a Windows or MAC [BV3] operating system because they have quality built-in accessibility options.
Windows and MAC offers screen reading software, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech, and more programs to assist individuals with disabilities.
While built-in assistive programs have improved over the years, they are not the best technologies on the market for the blind and visually impaired.
Best assistive devices for people who are blind
Individuals with visual impairments can benefit from using refreshable braille displays, screen reading programs, and screen magnifiers to provide independent access to computers and mobile devices.
Whether you are a student, in the work force, or want to stay up-to-date with the latest technology the following assistive devices and software programs are sure to impress you.
Refreshable Braille Displays
One of the most interesting assistive devices that can help you or a loved one who is visually impaired, is a refreshable braille display. Refreshable braille displays are electronic devices that display braille characters by moving small pins in and out of a flat service. The braille display can indicate where the cursor is, instantly read text, and allow you to operate your computer through a series of key commands.
Braille displays are often used in conjunction with a screen reader.
Refreshable braille displays make navigating the internet, drafting documents, and using a computer in general easier and more efficient.
Below are some of our favorite refreshable braille displays:
- HumanWare Brailliant BI 40 is light weight braille display that is compatible with computers, laptops, and mobile devices. It’s simple and easy to use with key commands on each side of the device.
- HIMS Smart Beetle Bluetooth USB UltraPortable Display Keyboard is a portable braille display with Bluetooth capabilities. It’s compatible with preferred screen reading programs, computers, and mobile devices.
- Braille EDGE 40 by MAGNIFYING AIDS is a braille display that comes in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and several other languages. It features key commands on both sides and connects to portable devices via Bluetooth.
All three of these three braille displays are easy to transport and can be used to operate a smart phone, tablet, or computer.
Screen Reading Programs
Screen reading programs are a type of software developed to help computer users that have vision loss that prevents them from accessing content on the screen and navigating with a mouse
MAC and Windows computers have built-in screen readers, but these programs have limited capabilities. The more advanced programs allow you to operate your computer through a text-to-speech feature and braille display.
A screen reader is like a virtual assistant that responds to voice and key commands to access applications on the computer and read documents or information on the web.
Here are 5 of our favorite screen reader software programs:
|Job Access with Speech (JAWS)||$90/yr||Surf the web on all popular web browsers, Compatible with Microsoft Word and Google Docs, Draft emails, Supports touchscreens and gestures, Includes drivers for braille displays, Voice commands|
|Dolphin Screen Reader||$795||Compatible with braille displays, Speech commands, Specialized cursor for web access, Microsoft Word compatible|
|NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA)||Free||Guides email, social media, shopping, and banking, Microsoft Word and Powerpoint compatible, Portable access, Braille display access|
|COBRA||$749 -$849||Compatible with braille displays, Microsoft Office compatible, Up to 32x screen magnification, Surf the web and draft emails|
|WebAnywhere||Free||Use anywhere on any computer|
For people with low vision, screen magnifiers are a wonderful technology that provide access to a regular computer screen. There are many different software programs available but they basically do the same thing â€“ enlarge text and graphics as the user moves their mouse around the computer screen.
The key to choosing the right software for you, is understanding what each program offers and whether or not those features will meet your needs. For instance, some programs only magnify to 20x and others magnify to over 60x the original text. The price of a screen magnifier software program ranges from free to several hundred dollars.
iZoom, Virtual Magnifying Glass 3.7, and MAGic are three programs that we feel are affordable and beneficial.
What is the cost?
Some of the best screen readers, voice recognition programs, screen magnifiers, and braille displays range from several hundred dollars to over two thousand dollars. A new computer plus any required assistive technology, could cost thousands of dollars,making it an unattainable option for low-income families.
Thankfully, there are organizations like Computers for the Blind who help by offering low-cost computers and laptops complete with many of the assistive technologies we’ve discussed.
Without assistive technology, the millions of Americans with vision loss would not be able to access computers and mobile devices that are so widely used in our society.
Refreshable braille displays, screen reader programs, screen magnification software, and built-in accessibility features are providing individuals with visual impairments fair access to technology.
Advancements in assistive technology will continue to improve the experience of all computer users.
Paul Blayney says
I am looking at your website to help my aunt in San Diego who has severe visual impairment. She is very sad that she is no longer able to do her arts & crafts. Or to read. I think that with screen magnifiers and the like she should still be able to read. Can you advise what the best way would be for me to help her.
Everyday Sight says
It’s difficult to say without knowing her specific condition, history, etc. I can say that screen magnifiers typically work for people who have some functional vision. You may consider checking out one of the screen magnifiers we’ve listed above, such as the iZoom (which can be found here.)
Honestly, I am visually impaired myself and I came here looking for information about a good monitor or computer for me. I’ve been visually impaired my whole life, and I can say that screen readers and magnifiers are very helpful, BUT what I am now actually looking for is a computer or monitor that is a touchscreen and is good at voice commands. Those things, along with screen reader/magnifier (depending on how inhibited her vision is) would probably give her the most freedom. I don’t know which products to recommend yet as I’ve only just started looking. 😉
I just noticed you wrote this more than a year ago. Please let me know what you came up with for her. Feel free to e-mail me at knowing.dawn at gmail.
steven r beal says
I use WE,but I now have to switch over to JAWS. Have Jaws20sommething. Need to find a class in Akron,ohio for Jaws.
Leah wanja Githiomi says
Need a laptop I have partial blindness
iam visually impaired. i still have some functional vision. i would like to have a screen magnifier in my laptop. what should I do? how much does it cost?
TANEA R GODDARD says
My 8 year old has RP2. Hes falling behind in his schoolwork because he cannot see the material provided on a regular computer.
Carole Wilson says
Tanea he might need a talking computer because of his vision problems. Ask for help everywhere. He should not be losing time in school. Ask teachers, doctors, guidance counsellors, agencies, etc. Get help because of his vision problems he will need extra help. Reach out and call the school, write the teachers, the principles and doctors.
Vision Teacher says
Ask your son’s school for a vision assessment. Have his classroom teacher contact the Special Education Dept. at his school and have the vision department come out and access his vision. In addition get a him a current eye examination from an eye doctor.
My partner has a Dell laptop with Jaws software which unfortunately has had problems from the outset. Might you know of a UK supplier apart from Sight & Sound who you might recommend.
Thank you in anticipation. Richard Cox
Selorm Kove says
I need a desktop for my father who is visually impaired, however we are in Africa.
Can I get some support and how?
+233 244 999 199
Carole Wilson says
Selorm, I would say go on google in Africa and ask for help. Go on craigslist in Africa too under “Wanted.” Call any local organizations in Africa to help the sight impaired. Go on craigslist under computers/cellphones and call anyone that has a computer and make sure it works well before you buy it.
Carolyn Lane says
My neighbor is totally blind. She bought a computer for the blind but no one showed her how to use it. She has had a tech come but has been no help for teaching her how to use it. I am very computer literate but only with regular computers. I am trying to find out how I can help her get help and learn how to use it. Can you help me? I want so much to help her. She is in her 70’s and loves music and wants to learn how to use the computer.
Betty Lou Visocan says
Carolyn, my Dad learned to use a computer at 75. It opened the world up for him when he became confined due to severe lung disease. My husband recently became Low Vision and has had 5 vision Therapists working with him to relearn computer use. He is doing great, reconnecting with friends and writing and researching again. I was a tech writer of computer manuals and teacher of computer software in the 90s. I would suggest starting with a computer function your neighbor is very interested in. Perhaps emails or social media to contact her family, or writing/dictating stories from her life. This could give her the motivation she needs to learn some keyboard and software skills, as well as having therapeutic benefits. My husband uses a program called ZoomText and Reader to magnify a portion of the computer screen. I know it is very confusing for me as a sighted person to understand what is being displayed, but when I concentrate, I can visualize and navigate the page. It helps me understand how difficult this is for my husband! There is usually a keystroke that quickly returns the computer to a normal/non magnified view. You need to know that keystroke for her software so that you can get oriented to what is going on. Nice that you want to help. Start small. Good luck.
Vision Teacher says
Vocational Rehab in your city have people who can train her. Also contact the National Federation for the Blind for help at
Carole Wilson says
I am legally blind but wear corrective lenses and can see, drive and work on a regular laptop. I think my vision will become worse in the next 3 years. I bought a keyboard large letters yellow and black online. I will turn it into a keyboard for when I become blind (if I do) and learn braille. There are not a lot of organizations out there to help us in our hour of need. When I was young they would say “Lighthouse for the Blind.” Now, that it is getting closer I find myself going online and researching utube for tutorials to learn braille. I have found a few books in the library that I will take out. There is a woman and a man who teach Braille for free in Leesburg (near where I live) and they are out of a nearby college. Yes, I had to do a lot of research because becoming blind ain’t popular. I had to drag some information out of an organization. I am giving myself 3 years to learn Braille and whatever else I will need to survive if I do become blind. I am going on 78 in two months but have spent the last 10 years on a computer. I would google help for the blind in your state and nearby cities and then start calling them. Ask them for help as I did. One lady asked me to fill out an application she is sending me and said I had to qualify. I told her I am legally blind and she said I qualified. That would mean a teacher would come to my house at no cost and teach me Braille. I have six or 7 different pairs of glasses. I have two pairs of computer glasses, one for reading, two pairs of sunglasses; one for driving in the rain and one for nighttime driving, and two pairs to watch tv and distance. Every prescription is not the same and doctors don’t tell us that information. Call colleges too and ask if there is any help for the blind or soon to be. I pray for you and your loved ones. We will make it. I am practicing wearing a mask on my eyes at home and walking around.
A long-time neighbor (since a baby) is now totally blind. Can she learn the computer – I’m thinking a voice activated computer. Also, what other devices are there for the totally blind? Lee
Everyday Sight says
She can of course learn to use a computer, it will just take some time. Most operating systems like Windows 10 and iOS have voice activated commands. Typically phones and tablets are a little easier to learn on because the voice activated apps are a little more user friendly.
Carol McDowall says
hi…I have just became vision impaired….Would love to purchase a computer screen …any suggestionss. Also I play the ukulele, I sit and look at my music stand with a book on it…but can’t see the chords…any suggestions.Would love any kind of help.
Hi Carol, I don’t know if you found a solution yet, as you posted your question in March. you could probably use any standard screen and simply use software with a zoom feature, then when you are playing your music place your screen on a table that is at a comfortable Height. Or search for sheet music and print it in a larger print. If your vision is going to deteriorate even more with time you could try rewriting the music into something your screen reader could read e.g. the word c sharp instead of the note. then you would just change the rate of the speech of your screen reader to something you could follow. There is an app called be my eyes that would put you in contact with a sighted volunteer, however it would be a gamble whether you find someone who can read music. Any way best of luck.