Computing aids

For many people, using a computer is something we do every day. Whether it is at work, or at home, much of our daily lives are conducted online.

For people with complex communication needs, accessing a computer can be a frustrating experience. There are a number of aids available that can help you use a computer, including screen readers, refreshable braille displays, screen magnification, accessible keyboards and alternatives to keyboards.

Screen readers 

A screen reader is a piece of software that enables someone who is blind to access a computer, tablet or smartphone by reading the information out loud. They allow the user to navigate around and interact with the device enabling you to, for example, surf the web, send emails and use social media to keep in touch with family and friends or produce documents.

There are a large number of screen readers available, and the type of screen reader you get will depend on a number of things, for example, what you need the screen reader to be able to do.

Windows computers and Apple Macs have built-in screen readers, for windows, it is called Narrator and is extremely basic. Voiceover is already installed on Apple Mac computers and is a fully functioning screen reader.

If you are looking for basic functionality, (reading emails surfing the web) then you might want to consider the various free options that are on the market such as NDVA. As you might expect, a free programme is not as sophisticated as a paid for piece of software. Visit the RNIB website to access their useful guide to free screen readers, detailing what they can and can't do.

At the other end of the spectrum are paid-for screen readers such as Jaws, Supernova Screen reader and Window-Eyes.

These have more functionality than their free counterparts. It is possible to download demonstration versions of many paid for screen readers so 'try before you buy' may be a sensible option.

Refreshable braille displays

If you read braille, it may be possible to access your computer, Smartphone or tablet in braille by using a refreshable braille display.

The display is connected to your computer either via Bluetooth or via a USB cable and uses a screen reader to run. A braille display shows braille characters using a series of bumps that can be raised and lowered.

You can use a braille display to read documents, surf the web and carry out any other tasks with a computer that a sighted person would carry out using the keyboard, on-screen keyboard or mouse.

Most braille displays incorporate a Perkins-style keyboard that allows the user to navigate the system and type using braille key commands.

Others may incorporate a qwerty keyboard or may be designed to sit under a qwerty keyboard. Braille displays usually sit in front of a keyboard just below the space bar.

An increasing number of smart phones and tablet devices can connect to braille displays and may allow you to operate some, or all, of the functions using either the devices keyboard or that of the braille display.

Like much assistive technology, refreshable braille displays can be very expensive, so it is recommended to try one if possible before purchasing.

Some suppliers will come to you and demonstrate the display free of charge. One of the main factors that relates to a braille displays cost will be its size.

It is possible to buy a braille display that is extremely small and portable and, for example will display 14 or 18 cells of braille at a time while there are much larger displays showing up to 80 cells at a time.

Screen magnification

Screen magnifier software can enlarge part of your computer's display. This helps people who are partially sighted or cannot read small text.

The magnifying software may fill the whole screen or may just have a window showing the enlarged portion. If the software fills the whole screen there may be a navigation window showing which part of the screen is being enlarged.

Before looking into purchasing screen magnification software, it's worth investigating the functionality built in to your computer. Both Windows Computers and Apple Mac computers can enlarge text or zoom in to a specific part of the screen. This kind of functionality is also built in to many smartphones and tablets.

As well as magnification software, it is also possible to buy screen magnifying systems. They come in many different varieties and sizes. Some have a camera which displays a magnified image on to a screen. This kind of magnifier is particularly helpful for reading books or magazines.

There are also a variety of hand-held or portable magnifiers which you can, for example, take with you to restaurants to help read the menu.

Accessible keyboards

There is a wide range of accessible keyboards available - from smaller keyboards, usually with the numeric keypads removed that can, for example, be positioned between the arms of a wheelchair, through to keyboards with larger keys, if location of the keys on a standard keyboard poses challenges. Various options are available, including those with high contrast keys.

It's also possible to get keyboards with braille on the keys, which would be helpful for people who are proficient with the braille alphabet, but are unused to a standard computer keyboard.

Keyboard alternatives

If you'd prefer not to use a physical keyboard, options are available, including onscreen keyboards (both Apple and Windows computers offer this), switches or head pointers.

Head pointers are devices that the user wears on their head and have an extending piece allowing the user to interact with the computer's keyboard.

Another alternative to interacting with your computer is using your voice. Systems such as Dragon allow you to talk to your computer and it produces what you have said in text form.

For more information about accessing the computer using keyboard and mouse alternatives, view the helpful factsheet available on the AbilityNet website