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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Selecting a Computer as a User with a Visual Impairment

Desktops versus Notebooks or Laptops

When considering which kind of computer to purchase, one of the first things you will want to decide is which type of computer will best suit your needs. These days, most consumer personal computers are either desktops, which are designed to be stationary, and notebooks or laptops, which are designed to be portable. 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, 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

Doubtless 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.

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.

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 OS X Computers

A computer’s operating system, or OS, is the basic set of instructions that bridges 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 OS X. 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 OS X operating systems.

Microsoft Windows: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

Microsoft Windows has been around, in various versions, for more than 20 years. Windows 8.1 is the most current version, but Windows 7 is still among the most popular computer operating systems. Windows XP is still also used by millions, but Microsoft has ended support for this product, so we will not discuss it here.

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 8.1 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 they are improving with each new OS version. Windows 8.1 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 OS X: Considerations for the User with a Visual Impairment

Unlike Microsoft, Apple does not license OS X to other computer manufacturers. OS X 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 OS X as a User with a Visual Impairment


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 .

Text-to-Speech: A Comparison

Here is a sample of Windows 7 Narrator text to speech.

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

Visit the Apple Accessibility website to hear a sample of Alex speaking at a normal, slow, or fast rate of speed.

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