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Resources for Visually Disabled Individuals

Below are some items I hope might be of use for visually disabled students (and teachers or anyone else). Unfortunately most of these items are very expensive. There might be financial assistance through your school for some of these items especially the software. Don't get discouraged, even if you can only slowly add to your resources over time you will be able to collect what you need.

First Steps

Most people with visual impairments struggle along for a long time before they discover these tools or are willing to accept they need some adaptive technology to improve their computer use. Some people think they are difficult or cumbersome to use. Others think that everything is so expensive they don't even consider it. While sometimes this is true its not always true.

Here are the first things everyone with vision problems should consider:

  1. Learn to use keyboard shortcuts - FREE
    Clicking on things is much harder and requires a lot of guess work. Keyboard shortcuts eliminate all this.
  2. Experiment with different contrasts and themes.
    Black Text on a White background is okay for some, a lot of people find White TEXT on a Black BACKGROUND is easier to read and produces less eye strain. Some people like Blue text on a Yellow Background or Yellow Text on a Blue Background. Try them and see which works best for you.
  3. Get a TV and use it as a monitor - LOW COST
    If you're still using a 30" monitor at 1280x720 resolution you're going to love switching to a 50" or 60"TV as a monitor at 1920x1080. You might need a new desk but its worth it.
  4. Use the Built in Windows Magnifier - FREE
    This is built in tool to magnify things in Windows. Mac's have an equivalent but I'm not sure how its used.
  5. Virtual Magnifying Glass 3.7 - FREE
    This is exactly what you would expect - its an on screen magnifier. Simple to use and the zoom level can be very easily controlled with the mouse wheel. It doesn't do everything MAGIC will do but its a good and free starter.
  6. Natural Reader Screen Reading Software - FREE
    This is good screen reading software for individuals that can control there computer with screen magnification. I love this for reading documents and web pages with natural sounding voices. This easy to learn and use software can convert any written text such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Web pages, PDF files, and Emails into speech. Natural Reader can also convert any text into audio files such as MP3 or WAV for your CD player or iPod. They have paid versions that do more but start with the free version.
  7. Dragon's Naturally Speaking - LOW COST
    Speech to text application. This really helps. It can be awkward at first to learn and use but once you get the hang of it you will love it. My best advice for starting with it is to think about each individual sentence before you say it and go slowly. If you start by trying to dictate an entire paragraph, page or email without stopping it will be very frustrating. The software doesn't care how slowly you dictate.
  8. Lighting - LOW COST
    If eye strain and headaches are an issue use indirect incandescent lighting instead of overhead fluorescent lighting and use a glare filter on your monitor if one is available in your screen size (TV's usually don't).
  9. Request books in Kindle Format - FREE
    Kindle is a great resource. if there is a book you want but its not available in Kindle format - use the Request Kindle from Publisher feature for the book. The more requests they get the more they will do. Ditto if you select another platform/format.
  10. If there is a Kindle eBook you use that has text to speech disabled, contact they publisher and ask them to enable Text to Speech for the visually disabled. Ditto if you select another platform/format.

Hardware and Devices

  • Topaz XL HD Magnifier
    Great video magnifier for reading printed materials such as books, periodicals, journals, maps, etc. It can adjust or change the contrast of items and take pictures. It works for Freedom Scientific GEM OCR software to convert text to speech although this works only fairly well.
  • Elmo TT-12iD Interactive Document Camera
    Another good video magnifier. Less expensive than the Topaz, but it doesn't have the contrast alteration features or OCR compatibility. Hooks up to a TV or monitor. Its mainly intended as a teaching tool, but works great as a desktop magnifier.
  • Ruby Hand-held Magnifier
    This is my best friend. A hand-held magnification device with very clear. It can adjust or change the contrast and take static pictures. It has a very long battery life and is light and easy to carry. If you've been trying to use a cell phone as a magnifier and been frustrated this is the solution you need.
  • Get a larger TV and use it as a monitor.
    I use a 44" TV with my computer currently with a screen resolution of 1280x720. Makes things nice and big. Next to it I have a 30" monitor and on that I display my screen magnifier (just extend the desktop). So the larger monitor is my "work area" and where I navigate and at the same time anything I point to will be magnified automatically on the second monitor so I can "edit" what I couldn't see on the first monitor.

    I have an acquaintance that uses a small Dell projector with his laptop. He projects the screen onto a blank flat white wall. He carries a trackball style mouse with a long USB cord and walks right up.
  • Kindle Fire HDX
    For text to speech Kindle books. The Kindle app for computers, iPads, Android devices does not support text to speech. If decide for another brand tablet, there is a controversy whether Android or Apple is better for the visually disabled. They both are miracles, about equal and both suck. But they still are miracles.
  • Voice Recorder
    Get one that is simple not one with a lot of features you can't / Won't use. They can be hard to use with their small LCD screens so the simpler and more straightforward models are usually best. You many also find that your cell or iPod makes a good voice recorder with the right app. If you can save your voice notes as MP3 files, Dragon Naturally Speaking can convert them to text. Make sure you check out Evernote.
  • Large Print Keyboard
    If you have enough remaining vision that you can still see the print on a keyboard these can be very helpful although you're probably a pretty good touch typist already.
  • MAGic Large Print Keyboard
    The MAGic Large Print Keyboard provides low vision users an easy-to-read keyboard designed to enhance the MAGic and JAWS experience. Twenty-two dedicated MAGic keys make learning and using MAGic easier than ever. Bold, high-contrast keys provide fast, accurate typing with less eye fatigue. More expensive than other large print keyboards, but worth it if you use JAWS or MAGIC
  • If you occasionally need to scan something you can use your tablet or smartphone as a scanner with ScanStand.
  • If your going to do a lot of scanning you need a good flatbed scanner with duplex scanning and an automatic document feeder. I like the HP Scanjet Enterprise Flow 7500 Flatbed Scanner

Software Resources

  • JAWS Screen Reading Software
    This is best for individuals that need complete screen reading software including the ability to control your computer with your voice. This can be difficult to learn to use at first but with some time and effort you can do wonders with it and it can be much faster than you expect. Many universities have this available and your university disabled student support services may have training available.
  • Simon Speech to Text - FREE
    Simon is an open source speech recognition program that can replace your mouse and keyboard. The system is designed to be as flexible as possible and will work with any language or dialect.

  • Natural Reader Screen Reading Software - FREE
    This is good screen reading software for individuals that can control there computer with screen magnification. I love this for reading documents and web pages with natural sounding voices. This easy to use software can convert any written text such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Web pages, PDF files, and Emails into speech. Natural Reader can also convert any written text into audio files such as MP3 or WAV for your CD player or iPod.
  • TextAloud 3 
    Text to Speech software for the Windows PC that converts your text from documents, webpages, PDF Files and more into natural-sounding speech. You can listen on your PC or create audio files for use on portable audio devices.
  • Google Text to Speech App for Android
    Google Text-to-speech powers applications to read the text on your screen aloud. For example, it can be used by:  • Google Play Books to “Read Aloud” your favorite book; Google Translate to speak translations aloud so you can hear the pronunciation of a word; TalkBack and accessibility applications for spoken feedback across your device 
  • Select and Speak - Google Chrome Browser Extension
  • GEM OCR Software
    Works with items on your computer and with the Topaz Magnifier to turn non accessible text to accessible text that can be read with a screen reader.
  • OmniPage OCR software
  • Low Vision CSS Stylesheets
  • Magic Screen Magnification Software
    This has more options for size and magnification than free screen magnifiers plus it can change the contrast settings (black to white, black and white to blue and yellow etc.) and it has text recognition so it will speak what its magnifying for you.
  • Virtual Magnifying Glass 3.7 - FREE
  • ItZooms
    Sensory ItZooms turns your iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPod Touch or iPad into a powerful high definition visual magnifier and zooming close-up camera.
  • Dragon's Naturally Speaking
    Speech to text application. This really helps. It can be awkward at first to learn and use but once you get the hang of it you will love it. My best advice for starting with it is to think about each individual sentence before you say it and go slowly. If you start by trying to dictate an entire paragraph, page or email without stopping it will be very frustrating. The software doesn't care how slowly you dictate.
  • Evernote
    This is an accessible note taking application that you can take both typed and voice notes on. Available for Windows and Mac as well as for iOS and Android devices so this make a great voice based note taking app for your cell, tablet or iPod.

Services

General Advice For Dealing with Vision Impairment

  • These are my personal opinions and experiences. They represent no one but myself. They may be right or wrong, but are well intentioned. Your experience will vary.
  • Slow and Steady works better than Fast but Sprinty. This is a marathon.
  • You will get eye strain at some level and will experience headaches. There is no way around this. My goal is to minimize eye strain and keep headaches to a minimum.
  • When you're thinking, close your eyes and don't stare at the screen.
  • Limit your computer use to small periods of time. Rest your eyes. For me using a computer for only an hour at a time and then letting my eyes rest for an hour really helps minimize headaches and eye strain. Plan your time so that you have things to do that don't require your eyes during the time off the computer (such as listening to Kindle Text to Speech books).
  • Don't press your face right up against the monitor. Keep your distance about a normal 12" away or whatever your doc suggests. Siting too close to your monitor will only make you're eye strain worse. If you need to be closer than 12" you need a bigger monitor or stronger magnification.
  • Learn to use a keyboard more than your mouse. Using keyboard shortcuts really cuts down on straining to see where things are so you can click on them. Most applications and browsers have extensive keyboard shortcuts. It takes time to learn them but they are very helpful. This will also be helpful if you are progressively losing your eyesight and know the day will come when you can't use a mouse anymore.
  • Try using a high contrast theme for your computer and increase the size of the cursor and default text. Some people do find that using a very high contrast theme can increase eye strain and causes headaches. A theme with a lower contrast but still increased might be better for you. There are also much better themes for browsers.
  • Use "cursor trails" to help you find your cursor on the screen. You can turn this on in your mouse settings. Minimize mouse use. If you find using a mouse is difficult use the keyboard more.
  • Experiment with different monitor setups and projectors.
    I use a 44" TV with my computer currently with a screen resolution of 1280x720. Makes things nice and big. Next to it I have a 30" monitor and on that I display my screen magnifier (just extend the desktop). So the larger monitor is my "work area" and where I navigate and at the same time anything I point to will be magnified automatically on the second monitor so I can "edit" what I couldn't see on the first monitor. Some people use projectors and walls as "monitors".
  • Trying wearing sunglasses when using a computer. This helps some people minimize eye strain. An anti-glare screen might help, but a lot of people find wearing sun glasses really helps. Consult your doctor before tying any glasses.
  • Don't use your computer right after you come in from the sunlight. Give your eyes an hour to adjust. Again helps avoid eye strain and headaches.
  • Avoid working in rooms with florescent lighting if possible. A lot of people find that this causes eye strain and headaches because of the flickering. Use indirect lighting.
  • Don't get frustrated. If you start to walk away for a moment and return. You're vision problems will mean things are often slow and cumbersome but there is no way to avoid this. You will make mistakes. Accept it and learn to adapt. Don't give up.
  • Know your limits and make the best of it. I know its politically incorrect to say you can't do it, but realistically there are some things depending on your level and type of vision impairment that are probably not possible or very difficult. For example I won't be studying maps. If the subject you're studying requires more vision than you have then you are in many ways setting yourself up for frustration. But there are far more things everyone regardless of vision can study than things that are off limits. Consider what the best use of your time is considering your individual situation.
  • If your vision loss is progressive, consider what you need to study now.
  • Find someone(s) to verbally describe things. You can spend a lot of time trying to understand something with screen magnifiers. Having someone that is willing to spend a few minutes describing something for you can save hours of time and lots of frustration. Your teachers, librarians, disabled student services and fellow students should be able to assist you in this way. If the item is online its even easier to share and talk with a remote friend for a moment.

Other Pages with useful tips and techniques

General Advice For Web Developers

Everyone with a visual disability is different. Depending on the severity of their vision loss and previous experience using the Internet the experience of visiting a website will be different.

If you are a web developer you have probably heard of different standards such as the ADA Section 508. These are often very vague, outdated and depend on a one size fits all solution. "Legal blindness" (20/200 or worse in the best corrected eye) is different from total blindness and those with no useful vision have a completely different situation to deal with from people with some residual useful vision.

In order to help web developers who wish to make their sites as friendly as possible for those with visual disabilities but with some remaining vision (approximately 20/200 to 20/800) I offer the following suggestions for the items I find the most important.

  • Many people with limited vision turn off CSS styles. Look at your page in a browser with CSS disabled and see if the content is understandable and organized in a meaningful way. It doesn't need to be pretty, it needs to be usable.
  • Many people with limited vision turn off JavaScript. Look at your page in a browser with JavaScript disabled and see if the content is understandable and organized in a meaningful way. It doesn't need to be pretty, it needs to be usable.
  • Many people with limited vision turn off Images. Look at your page in a browser with Images disabled and see if the content is understandable and organized in a meaningful way. It doesn't need to be pretty, it needs to be usable.
  • There are a lot of tools intended to "check" accessibility. These are usually a waste of time. Anything they find a good web developer who understands accessbility would have already included (such as <img> alt attributes) and much of what they do find is meaningless warnings about issues that do not exist. Where they are useful is checking for things that may have been accidentally overlooked (such as forgetting to include an alt attribute).
  • There are a lot of browser extensions to help developers create accessible sites. These are often very helpful and well worth exploring. Firefox seems to have the most tools of this kind.
  • Use heading tags in a way that indicated the structure of content. Use CSS to visually style your headings. If you have an <h3> tag, it should indicate subordinate content to the <h2> that is above it. Think of heading tags as forming a nested table of contents for your page content.
  • Always include meaningful but not excessively wordy alt attributes to your images. If the images are purely decorative include an empty alt attribute.
  • When appropriate use longdesc attributes. This can be a string of text, but it can be an anchor link or a link to another page. If you use an anchor link you can provide a lot of information in a <div> or <span> right below the image and visually hide this element with CSS for those that do not need it.
  • Always include a skip link that will take those using a screen reader to the page's main navigation <div> and another to the page's main content <div>. This can be hidden with CSS so that those that don't need it will not see it. If you have accessibility options on your page, such as links to alternative style-sheets or scripts to reveal hidden accessibility content, include a link here to these options.
  • If you hide an element intended for mainly for screen readers with CSS (such as skip links) a script that displays this content for those with low vision can be very helpful. This can be easily done with JavaScript or JQuery.
  • Use meaningful <title> tags and <meta> descriptions. Often good SEO practices also help with visual accessibility.
  • If a link is not surrounded by meaningful text, make sure the actual anchor text is meaningful. Use meaningful title attributes for your links unless the target is obvious from the anchor text or context.
  • Semantic structural tags such as <header>, <nav> and <footer> can be helpful, but not as much as many believe and minor compared to other features. The <nav> and <aside> tags are the most useful.
  • Contrast is important. Often people with visual disabilities use a special user style-sheet to meet their needs. Do not use JavaScript to override user style-sheets. Never use JavaScript to block accessibility tools in browsers such as scripts that prevent increasing the text size by using CTRL+ + and CTRL + -
  • If your content is not understandable when JavaScript is disabled, provide an alternative page with the same content displayed without JavaScript
  • Adobe Flash should be completely avoided in favor of JQuery and HTML5
  • If you have a video with no audio, such a video of a PowerPoint slide show, provide the information in text form.
  • Use <strong> and <em> tags as semantically appropriate, even if you use CSS to visually format items as bold or italic.
  • Avoid using table based layouts. Data tables are fine.
  • Use <th> tags to indicate headers in data tables. If you have a large table or a table with multiple heading levels a link to an accessible PDF or spreadsheet is often a much more accessible than complex table tag nesting. Sometimes providing a <div> or <span> with a description of your data table structure above the table is very helpful; a single paragraph description can make a data table much more understandable and this <div> or <span> can be hidden with CSS for those that do not need it.
  • Use <dl>, <dt> and <dd> lists and <ol> and <ul> lists as semantically correct.
  • Lesser used tags such as <figure>, <figcaption> and <abbr> are often very helpful.
  • If your site contains a search tool, use Google Site Search if possible. Most visually disabled users know how to use the differnet search filters in Google and may find searching using another tool more difficult because of the changed semantics.
  • Use <label> tags correctly in forms, make sure the tab order is correct and if the form is long or has multiple parts provide a way to save your progress and return later. CAPCHA Spam prevention tools are very difficult to use and the audio most provide is not helpful. Avoid this if at all possible. Wufoo.com forms are usually very accessible.
  • If your page layout is very visual or script dependent, it may be easiest to create a second site where accessibility is the primary purpose. This might not be necessary for an entire site, but only for certain pages. Storing your content in a database can make this much easier to maintain and ensure that the two versions of the site contain the same information. Many standards say this should be the "last resort", but it is often the best way to provide accessible content. It is important that the content be the same and that the accessible version is not neglected. You can use no follow links or no index tags to avoid duplicate content issues with SEO.
  • If someone who is visually disabled uses a standard browser (most do) Google Chrome is the most popular, followed by Opera and Firefox with Internet Explorer/Edge the least popular. This is mostly due to the themes available for Chrome and not because of any functional difference. For Mac users, Safarii is used, but not as much as Chrome and many people like Camino even though it is not being currently developed. Many visually disabled users also had very poor experiences with Internet Explorer 6 for Windows and any Mac version of Internet Explorer and just never returned. Links from Twilight Labs and Lynx by Thomas E. Dickey are text based browsers some use.

These are my opinions based on personal experiences.