There is lots of technology available to support people with visual impairments to communicate and access the world around them.
In this brief guide, find out more about accessible technology like braille displays, screen readers and wearable vision aids.
On this page:
- Computers, smartphones and tablets
- Braille displays
- Screen readers
- Easier-to-use keyboards
- Typing without keyboards
- Android accessibility features
- Apple accessibility features
- Amazon Fire accessibility features
- Television, film and radio
- Wearable technology
- Voice-activated home technology
Computers, smartphones and tablets
There are several types of technology that can support you to use your computer, smartphone or tablet with a visual impairment.
Braille displays (sometimes called refreshable braille displays) are devices that allow you to read what’s on your computer screen in braille.
They have flat surfaces, with pins underneath that move around to form different combinations. By feeling the pins move, the visually impaired person can read in braille.
A number of devices are now available:
- Braillant BI 40.
- Orbit Reader.
- Braille Me.
- BrailleNote Touch.
To use a braille display, you usually need to have a braille translation software, to translate the documents you’re reading into braille.
Braille translation software
Find out more about other braille software packages, such as Send to Braille, iBrailler Notes and MBraille, as well as Braille Tutor for learning Unified English Braille on the Vital tech website.
If you are blind or have very limited vision, screen readers can help you to use digital technology to explore the internet and use apps.
Nearly all computers, tablets and smartphones now have built-in screen readers. You can purchase more advanced screen readers to get access to more features.
What are screen readers?
Screen readers are a type of software that read text aloud, so that people with visual impairments can hear it.
How do screen readers work?
Screen readers use a synthesised voice to read aloud what’s on your screen. Most people use keyboard shortcuts, or gestures on their mouse pad, to control what is being read aloud and use a screen reader to skim through content quickly.
You can adapt them to suit your needs, for example, by changing the language and speed.
When you’re starting out with a screen reader, you’ll need to learn some keyboard shortcuts or touch gestures. It takes time and practice to become confident with using a screen reader. You might want to get some training.
Find out more about home support and training from AbilityNet.
What screen readers are available?
The most popular screen readers are:
- JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows: This paid-for desktop screen reader works well with Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. Get a 40-minute trial version of JAWS.
- NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access): This free, open-source screen reader for Windows computers works well with all popular browsers. Download NVDA here.
- Narrator for Windows: Narrator is the screen reader built into Windows. This works well with Microsoft Office and the Edge Browser. You can find the Microsoft Narrator training guide here.
- VoiceOver: VoiceOver is the built-in screen reader for Apple’s Mac computers, iPads, iPhones, the Apple Watch and the Apple TV. It is very popular on the iPhone, working well with millions of apps and the internet, using the Apple browser Safari. You don’t need to install VoiceOver. On your Apple device, just go to settings and click or tap on Accessibility to find VoiceOver and other options.
- TalkBack for Android Devices: Found on Android devices, TalkBack is widely used. It works well with most apps and the internet using the Chrome browser. You don’t need to download TalkBack on most Android devices. On some, you will have to install it from the Google Play Store. To enable TalkBack, go to your device’s settings and tap on Accessibility. On some devices, TalkBack may be called Voice Assistant or Accessibility Suite. TalkBack works best on phones from Google or Samsung. Get a helpful overview of Android accessibility settings and apps.
- VoiceView for the Amazon Fire tablet: The VoiceView screen reader lets you use gestures to navigate your Amazon Fire tablet (FireOS 5 and higher) and use speech output for content. Learn more about how to turn on VoiceView, basic use, settings and gestures.
Other screen readers include:
- ChromeVox – built into Chromebooks.
To make it easier to see the keys on your keyboard, you could use:
- A keyboard with larger keys.
- A keyboard with high-contrast colours, such as black and yellow.
- Helpikeys – with five overlays and five personalised layouts you can programme.
- Maltron expanded keyboard – a metal keyguard helps to prevent accidental key presses.
Typing without keyboards
You don’t have to use a physical keyboard to type. There are other options.
Onscreen keyboards are standard on most tablets and smartphones. But you can also use them on most computer operating systems, including Windows and Apple.
Voice recognition (speech to text)
With voice recognition, you speak to your device and it converts what you say to text.
Learn how to use the Windows voice recognition software, and find out more about Apple’s Voice Control (and other helpful accessibility functions).
For devices using Windows, you can also use Dragon Individual Professional voice recognition software.
Google speech recognition is now also available for Android devices, in Google apps such as Keep, and in Google Docs using the Add-ons Speech Sound writer.
Find out more about how Google speech recognition works.
Android accessibility features
Android is Google’s mobile operating system. It is used on smartphones and tablets manufactured by Google, Samsung, LG, Sony, HPC, Huawei, Xiaomi, Acer and Motorola.
All major UK mobile network providers offer phones and tablets running Android.
All Android devices have Bluetooth (short-distance wireless technology), can connect to WiFi, have touchscreens, can access a range of mobile apps and can be customised to suit your preferences.
If you have a visual impairment, you can use the Android Accessibility Suite to get the most out of your device using different settings and apps.
Here are just some of the Android Accessibility Suite’s features:
- VoiceView screen reader.
- Changing font sizes.
- Using contrast and colour options.
- Using voice control and other ways to control your device.
- Using a braille display.
Apps for Android are available through Google Play.
Apple accessibility features
Apple iOs is the mobile operating system used only on Apple iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch.
Most major UK mobile network providers offer iPhones.
If you have a visual impairment, you can use the built-in iOs accessibility features to get the most out of your device using different settings and apps.
Here are just some iOs accessibility features:
- VoiceOver screen reader.
- Changing font sizes.
- Adjusting touch settings.
- Using voice control.
- Adjusting audio and visual settings.
Amazon Fire accessibility features
Amazon’s range of Fire tablets use a customised version of Google’s Android operating system, called Fire OS.
If you have a visual impairment, you can use the Fire OS accessibility features to get the most out of your device using different settings and apps.
Here are just some Fire OS accessibility features:
- VoiceView screen reader.
- Changing font sizes.
- High-contrast text.
- Audio descriptions.
- Closed captioning.
- Switch access – different ways to navigate, such as blinking.
You can download Apps for Amazon Fire OS from the Appstore using the Apps icon on your Fire tablet home screen.
Magnifiers are helpful if you have low vision, because they simply make things bigger.
You may be able to get one for free on the NHS. Speak first to your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist for a referral for a low vision assessment at your local eye hospital.
At the assessment, a qualified low vision practitioner will check your vision and decide whether low vision aids such as magnifiers are right for you.
They may recommend different magnifiers for different tasks. Always follow their advice.
Depending on what you need, there are a number of types of magnifier:
- Handheld magnifiers – fairly cheap, easy to carry in a pocket or bag, and handy for reading labels, menus or short letters.
- Illuminated hand magnifiers.
- Handsfree magnifiers – wearable, like glasses.
- Electronic magnifiers – with video screens.
- Stand magnifiers – useful for larger blocks of text, documents or anything you need to look at for a long time.
- Illuminated stand magnifiers.
- Line magnifiers – these have a coloured line across them to help you scan text more easily and are good for longer pieces of text.
- Folding magnifiers – small and easily carried around.
- Bar and brightfield magnifiers – provide magnification and a large visual field.
- Technical magnifiers – for close extended tasks, such as quality control or hobbies such as viewing stamps, coins or insects.
- Mini telescope (monocular magnifier) – can be focused on objects, in some cases as close as 1m and beyond as far as needed.
- Compact binoculars – these can be useful if you’re partially sighted with some useable sight in both eyes.
You can also use:
- Smartphones’ built-in magnification – for occasional use only.
- Screen readers – also, occasionally, you can use your smartphone to take a photo of some text and use a screen reader to read it.
Top tips for using magnifiers
- One magnifier cannot solve all your problems: you may need a hand magnifier when you’re out and about, and a stand magnifier at home.
- The higher the magnification, the smaller the lens, so the closer you need to hold it to your eye.
- If you hold a magnifier too far away from your eye, the image will be upside down.
- If you can, shine a lamp directly onto what you are looking at.
- Hold the magnifier close to your eye and bring what you want to see up to the magnifier.
- Magnifiers usually work best with spectacles:
- For close work, use your reading spectacles.
- For distance, use your distance spectacles.
- If you use a magnifier to make print bigger you can often only see one or two words or letters at a time. To keep your place:
- Use your finger to mark each line.
- As you finish a line, return your finger to the beginning of the line and then drop it down to the next line.
- If it’s easier, move the book or page from side to side, not the magnifier.
- When reading in a chair, put your book or newspaper on a clipboard to keep the page flat and still. Use a cushion or tray for support.
- Keep your magnifier clean with the lens cloth provided.
- If your eyes get tired, take a break and start again later.
Many books are available in audio format, so that you can listen to your favourite fiction or non-fiction being read aloud.
Some places to get audiobooks include:
Television, film and radio
Audio description (AD) for films and TV
Audio description (AD) is a voiceover commentary that explains what is happening visually in films, TV shows and other kinds of filmed media.
It tells you about the details you may not be able to see, like body language and facial expressions.
All broadcast TV can be watched with AD, including Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media, Freesat and YouView.
AD is available on streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime, for original titles as well as selected other movies and TV shows. The streaming subscription service Now TV does not have AD.
Most Smart TVs now have a range of accessibility tools and features built into them to help support people with visual impairments.
Common features are:
- Adjustable sound settings – adjusting bass (low sounds) and treble (high pitched) to make speech clearer.
- Advanced tone control.
- Audio description (AD) on most UK broadcast channels and catch-up services: BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4.
- AD is also available on selected Welsh language programmes.
- AD is available on the streaming services Amazon Prime and Netflix but not on Now TV.
- Separate volume controls for the main speaker and headphones, allowing you to listen at a volume that suits you without disturbing others.
- Speech enhancement – to help you hear what people say more clearly over background music and sound effects.
- Voice guidance.
How can I find the right smart TV for me?
To find the smart TV that suits your needs, visit the Global Accessible Reporting Initiative.
Use the search options to find the right device for you from a range of manufacturers, including Apple, Samsung, Sony and LG.
As smart TV technology changes all the time, it’s a good idea to visit manufacturers’ websites from time to time to see what their latest products offer.
Many different types of smart glasses, head-mounted cameras and visors are now available.
Cyber Eyez and Vuzix M400
This smart glasses app for blind and partially sighted people works on devices like the Vuzix M400 smart glasses.
NuEyes Pro glasses
These lightweight, wireless smart glasses have a magnification range from 1x to 12x, and are suitable for distance and near viewing.
This voice-activated device attaches to almost glasses. It can instantly read to you text from a book, smartphone screen or any other surface, and recognise faces.
For people with mild low vision, this hand-held device with a smart camera reads text from any printed surface or digital screen.
These smart glasses can help if you have central vision loss or peripheral vision loss.
The first-ever, all-in-one wearable smart device for low vision.
This visor-style headset has a very modern design, and is light and comfortable to wear for long periods. It can connect to a TV, computer or a games console.
SightPlus™ is a headset for people with untreatable sight loss.
Voice-activated home technology
Siri is Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant and is built in to iPhones, iPads, the iPod Touch, Apple Watches, HomePods and Macs.
With Siri, you can go hands-free.
Siri has access to every other app that is part of the operating system (OS or iOS), such as Mail, Contacts, Messages, Maps, Safari and so on.
Simply speak to Siri and tell her what to do, ask her questions or get her to show you something.
Google Assistant offers voice commands, voice searching and voice-activated control, letting you complete a number of tasks after you’ve said the “OK Google” or “Hey Google” wake words.
Google Assistant can:
- Control your devices and smart home.
- Get personal information from your calendars and other sources.
- Find information online, from restaurant bookings to weather and news.
- Control your music.
- Play content on your Chromecast or other compatible devices.
- Run timers and reminders.
- Make appointments and send messages.
- Open apps on your phone.
- Read your notifications to you.
- Give you real-time spoken translations
- Play games.
You can download Google Assistant from Google Play and from the App Store for the iPhone and iPad only.
Alexa is Amazon’s cloud-based voice service. It works with Amazon’s range of Echo devices and a wide range of devices from other manufacturers.
Echo devices can:
- Play music.
- Tune in to radio stations.
- Read the latest news, weather and sports results.
- Search the internet for answers to your questions.
- Act as a calculator, currency converter, alarm, clock and timer.
- Let you listen to your Kindle or books from Audible.
- Communicate with other people who have Echo devices.
- Help you shop online.
- Control lighting, heating, smart plugs and cameras through other connected devices.
You can download Alexa from Google Play and from the App Store for the iPhone and iPad only.
If you have vision impairment, the way you light your home and workplace can improve things greatly and help you to live more independently.
So, think about the areas you use most and how best to light them:
- Keep windows clear of plants.
- Use blinds to control the direction of light and strong sunlight.
- Arrange your seating to make the best of natural light from windows.
- Use shades and dimmers switches to reduce glare.
- Use daylight bulbs in rooms with less natural light. You can use these for specific areas of a room.
- Use timers to light certain areas automatically at specific times, e.g. set your bedroom light to switch on ten minutes before you go to bed, or your hallway and living room lights for ten minutes before you get home.
- If you are less mobile, you can use a remote control, your smartphone or other smart home devices to control your lighting.
- Avoid shiny, high-gloss kitchen units or other furniture, as light can bounce off these and distract you.
Use task lights, such as adjustable lamps, for activities such as reading and writing.
The best position for an adjustable lamp is below your eye level, between you and what you want to look at.
This reduces the amount of glare you experience when doing close work. It also makes tasks such as reading less tiring.
Also, ideally, you want to be able to adjust the lamp to any height, and move the head freely, sideways and up and down.
Get in touch
Get in touch for more information and advice about communication.
This content was last reviewed in September 2023. We’ll review it again in 2025.