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Selecting a Computer As a User with a Visual Impairment

Desktops, Notebooks or Laptops, and Tablets

When considering which kind of computer to purchase, one of the first things you will want to decide is what type of computer will best suit your needs. These days, most consumer personal computers are either desktops, which are designed to be stationary, or notebooks/laptops, which are designed to be portable. Tablets are portable and lighter weight than notebooks. Let's see which of these designs is best for you.

Desktop Computers

Desktop computers are meant to remain stationary on a desk or table. They usually consist of several parts: the computer processing unit (CPU), which is usually housed in a box-like case; a computer monitor; speakers; and a keyboard and mouse. Some manufacturers combine two or more of these elements into streamlined systems where the CPU, DVD drive, and speakers have all been designed to fit inside the computer monitor.

Notebook or Laptop Computers

No doubt you have encountered friends or family members who carry their computers with them. Notebook or laptop computers are engineered to be lightweight and easily carried around. They are similar to the streamlined systems mentioned above, but they also include a built-in keyboard and often replace the computer mouse with a square of glass called a touchpad that allows you to control the computer with the touch of a finger. Some laptops now offer a touch screen to allow them to be used with finger gestures on the screen like a tablet.

Pros and Cons

Desktop computers often offer more memory and faster processing speeds for the price, but notebook computers are easier to carry around. If you have partial sight, a desktop with a large monitor may be in order; however, most notebook computers include an external monitor port to which you can connect a second, larger monitor when you are using the notebook at home.

Desktop computers usually have more powerful speakers, a definite consideration when using a screen reader to make your computer talk, though notebooks and laptops usually do include audio jacks to which you can connect a pair of headphones or even a set of higher-fidelity, external speakers.

Tablet computers, while lighter weight and more portable, have smaller screens and may not offer the full range of computing options available on a desktop or laptop. For example, they may be very handy for communications applications such as email but be less efficient for detailed word processing needs or spreadsheets. Text input and using gestures or dictation can also be less efficient for more complex tasks without adding an external keyboard to a tablet.

Once you've determined which type of computer you think would be best for your needs, it's time to move on to the question of operating system.

Built-In Accessibility Features of Windows and macOS Computers

A computer’s operating system, or OS, is the basic set of instructions that bridge the gap between you, the user, and the computer’s hardware. It enables your computer to accept keyboard input, process data and display the results on a screen, send information to a printer, or play audio content through the computer’s speakers.

These days, the two most popular computer operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Apple macOS. These systems are similar in many ways. They both allow you to have more than one application running at the same time, such as a word processor and an e-mail program. Both operating systems feature visual text cursors and arrow pointers to indicate where text will be entered and where you're pointing with the mouse, along with the display of various collections of tiny pictures, or icons, that represent elements you can interact with.

Both operating systems also include their own built-in accessibility tools, which assist people with visual impairments in two main ways:

  1. Making visual elements easier to see and interact with via screen magnification software
  2. Reading text and describing visual elements aloud via screen reading software

We'll discuss screen magnification and screen reading in detail in Part II. For now, let's take a closer look at the Windows and macOS operating systems.

Microsoft Windows: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

Microsoft Windows has been around, in various versions, for more than 25 years. Windows 10 is the most current version, but older versions of Windows are still among the most popular computer operating systems. Windows 7 remains a popular OS on a significant portion of the market.

Microsoft licenses the Windows operating system to a variety of computer manufacturers, which is why you will find Dell, Acer, Sony, HP, and many other companies selling Windows computers.

All Windows 7 and newer computers include the Microsoft Ease of Access Center, where you can start the built-in screen magnifier program, Magnifier, and the Narrator screen reader. These built-in accessibility features offer only basic functionality but have improved with each new OS version. Windows 10 offers substantially better built-in accessibility than Windows 7.

We'll go into detail about accessibility options and settings for Windows computers in Part II.

Apple macOS: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

Unlike Microsoft, Apple does not license macOS to other computer manufacturers. macOS comes installed on every Apple laptop or desktop computer, and updates to the OS are usually free.

Apple has designed a complete accessibility suite that is built right into the operating system. Indeed, the very first time a new Mac starts up, any and all users are invited to turn on VoiceOver, the Apple native screen reader, and to take a quick tutorial before using VoiceOver to set up your new Mac.

Additional Considerations When Looking at Windows Versus macOS


Unlike Windows machines, Mac computers do not offer touchscreen controls. They do offer small glass trackpads located just beneath the spacebar on their notebook computers and an optional Magic Trackpad for their desktop units. Nearly all accessibility keyboard commands are also available or can be easily made so to work with touch gestures as well as the keyboard. Many find using these touch gestures simpler than using the multi-keystroke commands used to operate screen access software. In addition, some MacBook Pro devices have a limited touchscreen interface called the touch bar which takes the place of the function keys found on traditional keyboards.

Text-to-Speech: A Comparison

Here is a sample of Windows 8.1 Narrator text-to-speech.

Here is a sample of Windows 10 Narrator text-to-speech.

Here is a sample of text-to-speech voices included in macOS: Note that Alex, the most popular voice, says, "Most people recognize me by my voice."

Built-In Accessibility Features of Android and iOS tablets

Android is the operating system found most often in tablets and smartphones not manufactured by Apple, such as the Samsung Galaxy line of tablets. Apple tablets, called iPads and smartphones (iPhones), use the iOS operating system. Like Windows, the Android OS is licensed to other manufacturers and appears in many customized varieties. iOS is only available on Apple products.

Android: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

The latest version of Android offers significant improvements in accessibility features for vision, including Magnification Gestures to enlarge the image on the screen, the TalkBack screen reader, and Negative Color for increased contrast. Although Android provides accessibility, developers may choose not to include accessibility access in their apps (applications that run on smartphones and tablets).

Apple iOS: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

Apple’s iOS has been the standard in accessibility for tablets and smartphones since these devices were first developed. The features in the Accessibility settings for vision include Zoom, for screen magnification; VoiceOver as a screen reader; Invert Colors to increase contrast; Magnifier, which functions as an electronic video magnifier with customizable foreground and background colors; and Speech, to enable text-to-speech on selected text without enabling VoiceOver. For computer users familiar with the VoiceOver screen reader on the Mac, the iOS VoiceOver feature is very similar, utilizing many of the same gestures or keyboard commands when a keyboard is connected to the tablet. Like Android’s TalkBack screen reader, VoiceOver also enables another set of gestures for reading and interacting with text and objects on the screen. Again, be aware that not all third-party app developers will follow the accessibility guidelines that would make their apps accessible with Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader.

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