I get many questions online about how I do various everyday things as someone who is legally blind, so I've decided to start a series of posts called "How do you ...?" This first one will cover how I use a computer, and future ones will cover topics such as how I read, get around, and manage diabetes. Feel free to post in the comments section with any topics you would like me to cover in this series and I can add them in.
Many people wonder how someone with little or no vision can use a computer. Often, people may assume that a friend or family member must read the screen aloud and type for the person who is blind or visually impaired. Fortunately, this isn't the case! Touch typing requires no modifications; in fact, people who are visually impaired often type much faster than those who are sighted simply because they must learn to touch type, and can't cheat by looking at the keys. They also tend to use computers far more often. For people who are sighted, computers are a convenience, tools that makes things faster and easier. For people who are blind or visually impaired, computers are a necessity, a tool that makes things that were formally impossible possible. Without computers, I personally would find it much harder to correspond with friends, read the daily news, conduct research, read books and articles of interest, and do tasks such as banking and filing. Not to mention the things everyone else does, like participating in social media!
All the major operating systems out there (Windows, Mac, Linux) are accessible to people with little or no vision through various types of assistive technology. Portable devices including tablets and cell phones are also accessible to varying degrees depending in large part on the brand. Those of us with visual impairments use the same operating systems and programs as everyone else, but we rely on various types of access software and, in some cases, on hardware like braille displays to use the computer.
I myself use a combination of the technologies listed below. This isn't usually the case; most people use only one or two of them. What I, and others, use at any given time depends on what the task is.
Most people with visual impairments, such as myself, have enough residual vision to read large print. In that case, they can use screen magnification software to access a computer. This software enlarges all text and graphics on the screen, and provides visual enhancements of things like the mouse cursor and caret (the little blinking bar that shows where you are typing). Since the entire screen is enlarged, not everything can fit on the physical monitor at once, so the user needs to move the view around by moving the mouse pointer or using keyboard commands. The software automatically jumps to the area of the screen with focus (the area where the mouse cursor or text caret is, or where something else changes). It can take some getting used to, but for the most part the software is easy to learn, and for many people this software makes the difference between being able to read the screen and not being able to. Examples of popular screen magnification software include ZoomText and MAGic. Almost all screen magnification software is also available with some reading features that provide speech output, so that users can have long documents and windows read aloud using synthetic speech, if needed.
For people who have to use high levels of magnification (like me), which can make navigating the screen with magnification software alone difficult, as well as for those who have little to no vision and who can't see enough to read even magnified text, there is screen reading software. A screen reader takes the contents of the screen and translates it into synthetic speech. Since a screen reader user likely won't be able to see a mouse cursor on the screen, navigation is achieved entirely through keyboard commands. That's right—screen reader users do everything sighted users do but never touch the mouse. Sometimes, this means that a screen reader user can open Microsoft Word or compose and send an e-mail even faster than a sighted, mouse-dependent person. Learning to use screen reading software has a bit of a learning curve because the method of access is entirely different from what most people are used to (keyboard input and speech output, compared to mouse input and visual output), but once a user is proficient they are able to access virtually anything. Examples of popular screen readers include JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, and System Access. There is also a very good open-source screen reader called NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), and VoiceOver is an integrated screen reader that comes included on every Mac.
As well as magnification and screen reading software, which are the two most popular methods of computer access, some people also use refreshable braille displays. These displays use tiny pins that raise and lower to form a line of braille characters (ranging from 12 to 80 cell models). Braille displays require a screen reader in order to run, and due to their expense (ranging from $1,500 to over $10,000!) and the low braille literacy rate, they are not as popular as using speech or large print. For those who use them, however, they are invaluable because they provide direct access to what is on the screen—including spelling, formatting, punctuation, and other things that are difficult to access with speech. Tasks such as proofreading or skimming text, as well as computer programming, are much more easily done with braille than with speech. Braille also provides a way for someone who is totally blind to operate a computer without needing headphones (such as in a library or lecture hall).
In addition to the usual desktop and laptop computers, tablets and mobile phones are also accessible. Screen magnification and screen reading software (including braille display support) is available for Symbian, Windows Mobile, Android, Blackberry, and iOS devices. In fact, many companies (most notably Apple, though other companies are slowly beginning to follow suit) are beginning to include this software in every product so that a phone or tablet can be used by someone with a visual impairment without having to spend hundreds of dollars on extra software. The next area that is beginning to open up in terms of accessibility is entertainment, including talking TVs and digital cable boxes.
The one area of computer access that lags far behind are all the little LCD screens we find everywhere in our daily lives, from point of sale machines to microwaves to printers and office phones. Hopefully, these miniature computer systems will become accessible in the near future. (This complete lack of accessibility extends to virtually all diabetes supplies, especially the higher-tech devices like pumps and CGMs. But that's a topic for another post ...)
I hope this post has been helpful (and hopefully interesting, too!). Feel free to post any comments or questions you have, I'd be glad to discuss them!