Beginner's guide to assistive technology

Assistive technology, also called access technology, is anything that helps you access a device or printed material.

Watch our video

We've recorded a short video about using screen readers and screen magnifiers as part of our Getting Interested series:

Screen reader software

Screen readers are designed to give blind people access to information on a computer, tablet device or a mobile phone by reading the information using a synthetic voice rather than the user reading it with their eyes. This means you don't have to be able to see the device to use it. A screen reader does much more than just read text, it will allow you to navigate round your computer using speech. For instance, it can tell you:

  • what page or file you are in,
  • what icons are on the screen,
  • what webpage you are on
  • whether a link in the web page has been visited,
  • whether a tick box is ticked or unticked,
  • if some text is underlined.

For people who read braille, a screen reader will also display this information on a refreshable braille display.

Most computers and a growing number of mobile phones come with a screen reader already installed. On a Microsoft Windows computer, Narrator is built in however its functions are very limited, it is best described as speech support rather than a screen reader. On an Apple Mac computer VoiceOver is included; this is a fully functioning screen reader. Both of these products come with tutorials designed to get you going.

Other screen readers include JAWS, NVDA, Window-Eyes, SuperNova Screen Reader and System Access.

For people with mobile phones and tablets, two of the most popular operating systems already have a screen reader built in.

  • Apple's iPhone has a screen reader called VoiceOver; the same screen reader is also on the iPod touch and iPad.
  • The latest versions of Android contain a screen reader called TalkBack.

For some older Nokia phones and Blackberry devices, you can download a screen reader to it to enable basic functions. There is currently no screen reader for a Windows phone.

Screen readers vary in price from free to £1000 depending on the product.

Screen magnification

A screen magnifier is designed for people with low vision and can magnify everything on a computer or mobile phone screen. This results in only part of the original screen image being visible, but a magnifier can follow the mouse pointer or cursor on a computer or a finger on a touch screen device.

A screen magnifier can be a useful addition or alternative to a larger screen and large font. Computer screen magnifiers will usually include extra features such as the ability to change screen colours, enhance mouse pointers or cursors, and sometimes include reading features and basic screen reading functions.

Any recent computer running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux (that's almost all of them) have some screen magnification built into them. Built-in magnifiers will not enlarge your screen as much or as smoothly as the commercial products, but they may be all you need.

For people requiring a more comprehensive screen magnifier there are a number of options.

The majority of smart phones and tablets also include built in screen magnification settings. When choosing a new mobile phone you should be able to test these settings to see if the amount of magnification and colour options are suitable for you.

For information about magnification for mobile phones, see our beginner's guide to mobiles and smart phones.

Reading machine

A reading machine allows you to have a printed document read out to you with a synthetic voice. It uses a camera or scanner with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to turn your documents into electronic text which in turn can be either displayed in large print on a monitor, read out by a screen reader or both.

There are two different types of reading machine:

  • Standalone - This type combines a camera or scanner, OCR software, monitor and/or screen reader as one device. They are easier to use but are not as flexible for doing other things such as checking email or writing letters.
  • Computer based - This type combines a camera or scanner and OCR software, but unlike the standalone machines can be added to your computer, which will already have a monitor and screen magnifier or screen reader. This may be more complicated to set up and use, but is cheaper and offers more flexibility.

The addition of cameras to many portable devices such as mobile phones and tablets now means you are able to have a portable reading machine with the addition of an OCR app. These apps are cheap - some are even free. Some examples are Google Goggles; for Android and Image to Text on iOS (Apple). Whilst they don't work as well as the computer based systems, they are cheaper and more portable. You will also need access to an internet connection for these to work.

OCR software for a computer is available from a number of sources; there are some free versions available. A commercial product will cost between £20 and £75. Standalone reading machines have an average price range between £1000 and £3000 depending on the features of the product. There are some that are cheaper with fewer features and more expensive with more features.

There are also a number of video magnifiers (see below) that have these features incorporated into the design. Some of these include the Humanware Prodigi, Optelec ClearView+ Speech and Professional Vision Services Magnilink S TTS.

Video Magnifiers or Closed Circuit Television (CCTV)

A video magnifier is a magnifying aid that typically consists of a high definition (HD) camera connected to a monitor with a movable table below. A video magnifier is designed to allow somebody with low vision to magnify documents, pictures, maps and books to a high level. By placing your document or picture on the table below the camera and moving it around, you can read and navigate it . Some video magnifiers can be connected to a TV or computer screen instead of using a built in monitor; others can fit into your pocket.

There are three different types of video magnifiers:

  • Desktop video magnifiers have the highest level of magnification. They often have built in features that allow you to change foreground and background colours.
  • Portable video magnifiers are ideal for students or people who want to read in different places. They connect to a laptop computer and use software on the computer to change colours, use OCR, or record snapshots or videos, for example of a whiteboard.
  • Pocket video magnifiers are small enough to fit in a pocket or bag and are similar in size to a digital camera. Typical features include the ability to change background and foreground colours and the ability to take a snapshot of something that can be magnified without having to hover the magnifier in place.

The distinction between a reading machine and a video magnifier has reduced drastically over the last few years, with many video magnifiers including Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to read a document out loud

With the addition of a camera to many mobile phones and tablets means they can act as low-level video magnifiers. There are also many different apps available which can turn a mobile device into a portable video magnifier. Examples of these include Optelec Magnifier, Big Magnify and Claro MagX; on iOS, and Your Magnifier on Android.

A video magnifier that plugs into a television is around £100 and desktop machines cost between £1,000 and £4,000. Typically the more expensive the model, the more features it has. Pocket video magnifiers range in price from around £400.

Refreshable Braille display

A Braille display is used in conjunction with a screen reader on a computer or mobile device to allow someone to read digital information in a tactile form. A Braille display consists of a number of cells which have eight pins in each. As information is received from the computer the top six pins move up and down to form Braille characters, with the lower two pins signifying formatting or other information. Braille displays usually have between 12 and 80 cells.

Dependent upon the model, a refreshable Braille displays can either connect to a computer using a cable or wirelessly using Bluetooth. Apple devices including the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad and some Android devices also allow you to connect a Bluetooth braille display to your device.

Braille displays are very expensive and differ in price depending on the number of Braille cells and features available. They start at £1,500 and cost up to £10,000.

Notetakers

A notetaker is a small computer specifically designed for use by blind and partially sighted people. It can have either a QWERTY (standard type) or Braille keyboard. Instead of displaying the information on a screen it is read out in speech, displayed in Braille or both.

Notetakers with a Braille keyboard are small portable devices that have six keys and a space bar arranged in the typical way for typing braille. Typically these will have between 18 and 32 Braille cells.

Notetakers with a QWERTY keyboard are ideal for blind people who are not Braille users or are just learning Braille.

The benefits of a notetaker over a conventional computer include a shorter start-up time and a much longer battery life. A notetaker will also have a calendar and contact database, and most have email and Internet capability. They can usually be connected to a PC or a printer for transferring information. Some can even print braille to an embosser.

In the last few years smartphones have evolved to include many of the features of specialist notetakers at a fraction of the cost, but some people will still prefer the specialist devices. There is even an iOS app called AccessNote aimed specifically at blind users who want the facilities of a notetaker but already have an iOS device and don't want an expensive second device.

Notetakers vary in price depending on their features, whether they include a braille display and connectivity options. Braille notetakers range from £700 for a very basic model to £4,500, with the average product costing between £2,000 and £3,000. QWERTY keyboard notetakers range from £900 to £4,400 with the average product costing about £2,500. AccessNote costs £13.99.

Voice recognition and dictation software

Voice recognition provides an alternative way to control or input information to a computer or smartphone. You simply talk to the computer or phone and what you say is interpreted as commands or converted to electronic text.

For more information on the facilities built into modern computers or smartphones, see our beginner's guide to voice control.

There are also apps that allow you to do similar things. Examples of these include Evi, Jeannie and Robin  for Android, or Evi  for iOS (Apple)

For computer users the most popular voice recognition software is Dragon. Dragon will allow you to dictate, create and edit documents and emails, launch programs and open files and even take control of your mouse!

For people with sight loss, voice recognition programmes are difficult to use and it may be more productive to learn to touch type unless you also have mobility and/or dexterity.

Frequently asked questions

Search our most frequently asked questions to find the detailed answers you need about benefits, eye health, education, employment, travel and much more.

Search FAQs