Beginner's guide to getting online

The Internet can be a great source of information for blind and partially sighted people. This guide aims to demystify some of the jargon associated with getting online, and what you can do once you're there.

This is a topic that is evolving all the time, so this is not a definitive guide, but we hope that the information will help you get started.

Benefits of using the Internet

The Internet can open up a world of information. Here are just a handful of everyday uses:

  • exchange email messages with friends and family
  • meet new people who share your hobbies and interests
  • obtain information about any given topic
  • read newspapers and magazines
  • manage your finances and bank accounts
  • plan your journeys and book travel tickets
  • listen to radio stations from all over the world
  • watch recent TV programmes
  • shop for food, clothes, or practically anything, without leaving your home.

Watch our videos

We've spoken to blind and partially sighted people of all ages who have found that technology and the Internet has made their lives easier.

Technology for life

Technology for life

Getting interested in technology

Still not convinced? Have a look at some other videos we've created, supported by BT, to show that it isn't complicated to get started with technology.

Visit the Getting Interested in Technology page.

What you need to get online

First, you need access to a computer or smart phone - a device that can provide Internet access.

An increasing number of such devices come with magnification and screen reading features built in. If yours doesn't, or if the built-in features aren't enough, you may be able to add some "assistive technology". Find out more by reading our beginner's guide to assistive technology or calling our Helpline on 0303 123 9999.

Internet connection

Once you've decided which device you're going to use, the next thing you'll need is an Internet connection. There are a number of different connection types, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by jargon relating to each one. Here is a simple list of the main options available.

  • ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) uses your landline telephone to connect to the Internet via a small box called a router which also connects to your computer. The connection can be done by anyone sighted. You'll still be able to make and receive phone calls, even when you're using the Internet.
  • Cable broadband is supplied by big companies such as Virgin Media. If you live in an area that has cable, you should be able to pay one price per month for a combination of internet, TV and/or phone, which is delivered into your home via the cable connection. An engineer will visit your home to install some equipment if your address is being connected to cable for the first time.
  • Mobile broadband is provided by mobile phone companies. You're given a small gadget called a "dongle" that plugs into your computer and enables you to get online. Mobile broadband is usually more expensive than ADSL or cable, and its quality depends on the mobile signal available where you use it. However, it is portable, meaning that if you travel a lot and you like to use a laptop or netbook computer when you're on the move, it can be a good option.
  • Dial-up was the original method of Internet connection, and is much slower than newer connections available today. Although it isn't widely used anymore, people still rely on it if they live in remote areas where there are no other options. Usually, your telephone provider will offer a dial-up connection upon request.

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP)

Most ISPs offer a range of price plans that are constantly changing. Choosing one can be a confusing business.

Here are some key things to consider when deciding which package is best for you:

  • Try not to be intimidated by the range of options on offer. It's always good to shop around, and a good Internet Service Provider will take time to answer your questions and make you feel at ease.
  • In most cases, you'll have to sign up for a fixed term contract. Make sure your contract allows for a trial period of at least two weeks, so that you can cancel if you aren't happy with the service.
  • When you use the Internet, data is sent from your computer to your ISP ("uploaded") and from your ISP to your computer ("downloaded"). Both are measured in gigabytes (GB). Using the Internet for basic tasks such as email, browsing websites, and reading text, will not use much data. However, listening to the radio or music, viewing photos or videos, or downloading large files will use more data. Some ISPs set a limit on the amount of data you can use each month, often called a 'bandwidth' or 'usage limit'. If you plan to use the Internet a lot, it may be worth paying a little extra each month for unlimited bandwidth.

What's "cloud computing"?

The Internet is constantly evolving and is also being used now more as a platform, similar to a computer desktop. This means that instead of using applications and saving your content on your hard drive, you work and save it online '"in the cloud". This type of computing is called "cloud computing" simply because the Internet was very often depicted in computer network diagrams as a cloud.

This is a new model for computing as the software you are using is being run "in the cloud" through your web browser and is not installed on your computer. The content is also stored online as well. This way of working means that you have access to the application you are working with and your work wherever you are in the world as long as you have an Internet connection. This sort of flexibility is ideal if you are on the move a lot of the time.

Many people are using "cloud" services without being aware of it and have been doing for some time. Some of the first "cloud" services were mail programs such as Yahoo! Mail and (the new name for Hotmail). The mail "client" was on the Internet rather than installed on your computer. So the service was being offered "in the cloud".

Why should I use cloud computing

Applications and reasonable storage is free and this is cheaper than purchasing an expensive Office Suite of software. This can mean a saving of several hundred pounds, plus the ability to share your documents over the Internet easily. You can realistically purchase a cheaper computer with less storage capacity as you can store all of your data "in the cloud".

Google have a computer which they have brought onto the market for exactly this reason, to offer cheaper computing by exploiting 'the cloud'. It is called the Google Chromebook and offers a cheap laptop or netbook with Wifi capability and a 3G option. It is designed to be used with the internet and store your files online. Prices start at around £229.

A downside of this computer is that it does not allow a user to install any third party access technology on it. So if you use a particular screen reader or screen magnification program, it is not possible to install it. The Chrome Web Browser does have a free extension available called ChromeVox, which is built into the Chromebook. This is a screen reader, but is not as comprehensive as a paid for product. It would be important to try before you buy to ensure that the accessibility features provided in a Chromebook are comprehensive enough for the person who will be using it.

Risks with cloud computing

Responsibility for your data is in the hands of the provider and not in your hands. For some people this may be considered a concern and also a security issue. But this way of working has already been embraced by large companies such as Land Rover. You have to rely on your Internet connection, if you are not online then you don't have access to your data or in some cases your applications as not all of them have an "offline" capability.

Popular cloud computing services

If you're online, you may be already using some cloud applications. Some of the most popular applications include email applications such as Google GMail, Yahoo! Mail and Many people use photo storage sites such as Flickr and document storage and sharing applications such as Dropbox. Some of us have been using cloud services such as YouTube and blogging sites for some time.

Google have repackaged Gmail, Google Docs and other apps into Google Drive, which is a single place for all your Google Cloud services. OneDrive is Microsoft's equivalent, incorporating storage and web-based versions of some of their Office applications.

The other benefit to these services, as well as being free, is that as your data is not stored on one device you can get access to it via any device that is connected to the Internet. With the increase in smartphone and tablet use, it is clear that many people access their information on the go and in some cases use mobile devices as the main access to their information.

Accessibility of cloud applications

Because many of these cloud applications behave like desktop applications rather than web pages, a screen reader needs to be told how to interact with them differently. Many cloud applications were not accessible for some time and some still aren't. However some designers have taken advantage of new HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code that is making online applications accessible to screen readers, and so the accessibility is improving bit by bit. Accessibility is very patchy and in some places non existent - especially in the newer cloud offerings - but gradually companies are realising that if they want their services to be taken up by educational institutions, then they will have to improve their accessibility.

Google have added keyboard shortcuts and support for screen readers to Google Docs and Google Calendar, both part of Google Drive. Drive provides some support for ChromeVox, NVDA and JAWS. Google Drive is yet to be tested by us, so the extent of the accessibility is unclear at present. Google also say that the Google Drive phone app is accessible with the Android accessibility features in 4.0 (otherwise known as Ice-Cream Sandwich) and later. However the Android accessibility features are currently limited.

Yahoo! Mail promises to be accessible to screen readers and also offers keyboard shortcuts to its main features.

Dropbox is a service which provides the ability to "drop" documents into a "box" on the Internet and then those documents are automatically accessible on any computer or device on which you have installed Dropbox. It is mostly accessible. However, there are some issues that a user would need assistance with, within the installation process if you are a keyboard user but not using a screenreader.

It is clear that cloud computing is on the increase and this way of working will be cheap and convenient as long as there is adequate internet support and good accessibility.


RNIB Webwatchers are a group of blind and partially sighted people who use the Internet on various devices. They provide useful feedback on websites and apps and help us keep tabs on what online services people use and like. 

Webwatchers correspond by email, and sometimes contribute to our TechKnowMore blog. If you would like to become a Webwatcher, please email [email protected].