Most computers have options that can make it easier for people with low or no vision to use them.

With a new computer this is the first area to investigate because it may be that that these features alone enable you to use your computer.

What can I change?

If you have low vision, you can:

  • Choose screen colours and font sizes
  • Change the mouse pointer size, shape  and colour, or
  • Magnify everything on the screen.

If you have no vision, you can:

  • Control the computer with the keyboard, and
  • Use a built-in screen reader that speaks information that appears on the screen.

Where can I change it?

Computers have a set of "accessibility" features which is one area to look in, but there are other features which are found elsewhere. There is usually more than one way to find a feature on your computer. Rather than try to list them all, we'll focus on showing one way to get to each.

Here's how to find the accessibility features of your computer:

  • Windows: Start menu > Control Panel > Ease of Access.
  • Mac OS X: Apple menu > System Preferences > Accessibility (on Lion and earlier it's called Universal Access).
  • Ubuntu (Linux): System menu > System Settings > Universal Access
  • Chrome: Dropdown menu > Settings > Show advanced settings

Change size and shape of fonts and icons

The text and icons on computer screens are by default small, so that lots of them can be shown on the screen at any one time. Here are two ways to make them bigger.

Change the screen resolution

A computer screen is made up of dots called pixels, arranged in lines across the screen. The more pixels there are, the clearer and smaller text and images on the screen can be. A screen resolution of 1024 x 768 means there are 768 lines, each of 1024 pixels. Lowering these numbers will make everything on the screen larger, but may also make them look fuzzier. The exact numbers you can change your resolution to depend on the monitor you have, but a common size that most monitors can use is 800 x 600.

To change the resolution of the screen:

  • Windows: Start menu > Control Panel > Adjust Screen Resolution.
  • Mac OS X: Apple menu > System Preferences > Displays.
  • Ubuntu (Linux): System menu > Displays.

Change the system font

The system font is the text used to show menus and labels:

  • Windows: Right click an empty area of the Desktop, Personalize, Display.
  • Ubuntu (Linux): System menu > System Settings > Universal Access > Seeing tab.
  • Chrome: Dropdown menu > Settings > Show advanced settings > look under Web content.

Change screen colours

Computers use colour to separate screen elements or to indicate whether something is available for use. Most often text is shown as dark text on a lighter background. You can invert these colour options or choose specific colours to use for text and background:

  • Windows 7 or 8: right click an empty area of the Desktop and choose Personalize. Choose a theme and then go to Window Color for further options. The keyboard shortcut Left Alt + Left Shift + Print Screen toggles High Contrast theme on and off.
  • Windows XP: Start menu > Control Panel > Display > Appearance. The keyboard shortcut Left Alt + Left Shift + Print Screen toggles High Contrast theme on and off.
  • Mac OS X: Apple menu > System Preferences > Accessibility (or Universal Access) > Display, or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Opt-Cmd-8 to invert colours.
  • Ubuntu: Super key, type "gnome-control-center" without the quotes. Press Enter, then click appearance.
  • Chrome: Dropdown menu > Settings > Show advanced settings > look under Accessibility.

Screen magnification

Magnification makes everything on the screen bigger, but you can then no longer see the entire screen - imagine looking through a magnifying glass. If you move your mouse around, the magnified area of the screen will follow.

You can choose how much to magnify the screen, but at larger levels of magnification, text in particular can become very fuzzy. None of the built-in or free magnification facilities have the font smoothing or other advanced features of the paid-for options: 

  • Windows 7 or 8: switch on with Windows + Plus, switch off with Windows + Escape.
  • Windows XP: Start menu > Programs > Accessories > Accessibility > Magnifier. No full screen mode.
  • Mac OS X: Apple menu > System Preferences > Accessibility (or Universal Access) > Zoom to turn on "use scroll gesture... ", then hold down the Ctrl key and push two fingers up on the trackpad or Magic Mouse.
  • Chrome: Dropdown menu > Settings > Show advanced settings > Accessibility to turn on magnifier, then hold down Ctrl + Alt and push two fingers up on the trackpad.

Mouse pointer

You can often change the size of the mouse pointer, and sometimes the shape and colour too. There may be options to make it more obvious, for example by adding trails to it.

  • Windows: Start menu > Control Panel > Mouse (or Hardware and Sound > Mouse).
  • Mac OS X: Apple menu > System Preferences > Accessibility (or Universal Access) > Display (or Mouse & Trackpad). It is only possible to change the size of the cursor (pointer).
  • Ubuntu: Super key, type "gnome-control-center" without the quotes. Press Enter, then click appearance.

Screen reader

All computers have a built-in screen reader, although its capability varies greatly. For Windows the built-in option (Narrator) is poor but there are lots of third party options. On the Mac, the built-in voice (VoiceOver) is very good - a lot of blind people believe the Mac experience with VoiceOver is better than Windows with even the most expensive screen reader.

  • Windows: Windows + Enter (Windows 8) or Windows + U, Alt + N.
  • Mac OS X: Cmd-F5
  • Ubuntu (Linux): Alt + F2, type "orca" and press Return.
  • Chrome: Ctrl + Alt + Z

Windows Narrator

Narrator is not designed to be your main screen reader. Instead, it's a fall-back if your screen reader malfunctions. Narrator has been significantly improved with Windows 8, and now has better quality and more responsive voices, more keystrokes and increased functionality in areas such as the Start screen, Control Panel, Internet Explorer and the new Windows 8 apps. A second screen reader is required if you want to use applications like Microsoft Office.

The voices used for Windows 8 Narrator can be downloaded to earlier versions of Windows, find out more about Windows 8 Narrator.

OS X VoiceOver

All new Apple computers contain a screen reader called VoiceOver. There is a version of it also on touch screen devices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. This means once you've learnt to use them on one device, you can draw on this knowledge on the other devices.

VoiceOver is the only screen reader, free or paid for, to provide speech output from the moment a new computer is switched on. This allows a blind user to set up a Mac computer unaided, which can be a liberating feeling.

VoiceOver also works with more areas of the Mac computer than other screen readers, including informative text that cannot be altered, which is usually completely ignored by Windows screen readers.

VoiceOver is highly configurable and the default voice is very clear.

The first time VoiceOver starts, a tutorial is offered. This runs through the default VoiceOver commands and method of use. Some commands may need you to press four or even five keys, which can make them difficult to remember and cumbersome to perform. However, there are other ways to work with VoiceOver:

  • QuickNav involves using only the four arrow keys. Press Left and Right together to turn it on or off.
  • Gestures on a track pad can also be used. A laptop comes with a track pad, and it is also possible to buy one to work with a desktop computer.

Apple have an online guide to getting started with VoiceOver.

Other useful options

In Windows, keyboard accessibility is available at all times and is very well-developed. On the Mac, you can turn on full keyboard access with Ctrl-F7, or go to System Preferences > Keyboard Preferences.

Macs allow you to use the trackpad (built-in on laptops, or available separately for desktops) to perform gestures similar to those on the iPhone rather than using the keyboard or mouse.

Both Windows and Macs have good voice recognition built in - see our beginner's guide to voice control for more information.

Many applications have settings that can be helpful in terms of simplifying the screen or changing the way the application looks:

  • Windows: look in the View menu of an application. Most Microsoft applications have a Tools menu and the Options item at the bottom gives access to a lot of settings. For many other applications these settings are found in Edit > Preferences.
  • Mac OS X: go to the name of the application on the menu bar and choose Preferences, or press Cmd-Comma.
  • Ubuntu: application settings found in the same places as for Windows applications.

Technology support

To speak to one of our Technology for Life coordinators contact 0303 123 9999; or to make a referral request for Technology Support - please contact our technology mailbox [email protected] or complete the enquiry form on the following page.

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