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Technology Q&A

How to Modify a Computer for Older People with Low Vision without Spending a Dime

Jay Leventhal

Print edition page number(s) 365-368

Editor's note: Launched in January 2008 in direct response to the feedback we received from the recent JVIB Readers' Survey, JVIB's new "Technology Q&A" column, written by technology expert Jay Leventhal, editor in chief of AccessWorld®: Technology and People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, provides readers what they said they wanted: more practical information on assistive technology and how such products are being used in education and employment. For this month's installment, JVIB invited individuals who work with older visually impaired people to submit their questions to the technology expert. Readers are encouraged to submit their own technology questions to the column's editor by e-mail to: <>.

In this new "Technology Q&A" column, the technology expert answers questions submitted by JVIB readers. This month's question was submitted by a case manager at an independent living center who wrote:

I am working with several individuals who have lost vision later in life. They cannot use the computer for personal communication, access to information, and entertainment as their peers do at our center. They want to be able to send and receive e-mail, look up things of interest on the Internet and play games. However, they often cannot see the letters on the keyboard without bending very close, and the mouse pointer or the text on the screen is very difficult if not impossible for them to see. What options exist for enhancing the size and viewability of a standard computer? Are there other options seniors who do not have much, if any, computer experience could use more easily? Many of the people I work with are on fixed incomes. Are there affordable means of adapting a standard computer? Thanks for any help you can give me.

There are a number of options for increasing the size and contrast of the information presented on a computer screen without needing to purchase an expensive screen magnifier. Computers running relatively recent versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system have a number of built-in accessibility features (such features in Apple Macintosh computers are discussed at the end of this column). Although these built-in features may not be as versatile as the screen magnification and screen reading software that is currently available in the marketplace, they have the advantage of requiring no additional cost from the consumer. Here are some tips to get started.

Control Panel

In Windows, it is possible to modify and customize a variety of the computer's features through the Control Panel, an area that contains a variety of options for controlling the visual aspects and accessibility features of the computer. The Control Panel is located on the Start menu, possibly under Settings in some versions of Windows.

Accessibility Options

Accessibility Options in the Control Panel includes a list of selections that enable users to apply certain accessibility features Microsoft has built into Windows. This option has tabs to control the display, keyboard, and the mouse and its cursor and to allow an individual to add sounds that may be helpful for confirming that a program has launched or that a new message has been received by the computer's e-mail application. Accessibility Options is available on most Windows operating systems. However, selections within Accessibility Options vary depending on which version of the operating system the computer is running.

Once Accessibility Options is open, choose the Display tab. One of the selections in the Display tab adjusts the Cursor Options Blink Rate. By increasing or decreasing the rate at which the cursor blinks, it may become easier for a computer user with low vision to see the cursor when working in word processing programs. Also within the Display tab is the Cursor Options Width control. This tool is designed to change the width of the cursor that appears on the screen, making it easier to locate and follow the cursor when entering information. Once all the desired changes have been made within the Display tab, select the Apply button followed by the OK button to enact your changes. (The Apply button followed by the OK button needs to be pressed to put into effect the changes made in the other tabs of Accessibility Options, as well.) In order to see the changes that were made to the cursor, a word-processing document needs to be opened in an application such as Microsoft Word.

Display Properties

Like Accessibility Options, Display Properties is located within the Control Panel. Within this multipage dialog box are various options for changing the computer screen's appearance. The page tabs in Display Properties are, from left to right: Themes, Desktop, Screen Saver, Appearance, and Settings. A "theme" is a background plus a set of sounds, icons, and other elements that personalize a computer. The Desktop tab includes choices for customizing the computer's "Desktop" or main screen. A Screen Saver is a feature--often a moving image--that turns on when the computer has been idle for a set period of time. The Appearance tab includes options to change the appearance of many aspects of the computer's display, including the font type, the font size, the color of the background, and the color of the title bar. The Settings tab tells Windows the type of computer monitor being used, sets screen resolution and color quality, and provides advanced troubleshooting features.

Desktop tab. The Desktop is the main screen of the computer that displays icons, the Start Button, Task Bar, and System Folder. For most users with low vision, the items or icons on the Desktop can be hard to see, depending on the image, pattern, or color in the background. A computer user with low vision should select a background that suits his or her preferences and causes the least amount of eyestrain. Preset Desktop backgrounds are found in the Desktop tab of Display Properties. There are 117 preset backgrounds available in Windows XP, all of which feature a different image or pattern. It is possible to preview the available backgrounds in the mini-view window in the Display tab. Once a background is selected, click the OK button, then the Apply button.

Another feature in the Desktop tab that directly affects the appearance of the Desktop is the Position "combo box" or drop-down menu. Position refers to the way in which the selected Desktop background appears on the screen. There are three position options: Center, which will position the background in the center of the Desktop; Tile, which will position the background in multiple squares across the Desktop; and Stretch, which will position the background across the entire Desktop. Changing the Position option of the Desktop image will affect, for example, whether or not the Desktop appears visually cluttered with a pattern or design or features a central image or color.

Appearance tab. The Appearance tab includes options that affect the look of everything from the menu bar to dialog boxes, including the arrangement and size of the icons and fonts, and the colors used by the various elements. Most computer users with low vision will find that it becomes easier to read and locate items on the computer screen by just adjusting the computer's Windows and Buttons scheme, Color Schemes, and Font Size. All of these adjustments can be accomplished from the Appearance tab, which is in Display Properties.

An option within the Appearance tab is to select a "look" for Windows and Buttons. There are two choices in the combo box: Windows Classic or Windows XP. If the computer user wants to customize the color, font, and font size of certain elements, the Windows Classic option is recommended, since some of these features cannot be adjusted if the Windows XP option is selected. The Windows Classic option also provides an extensive selection of color schemes, including many high-contrast color schemes that work well for users with low vision. Another option in the Appearance tab is Color Scheme. As previously stated, changing the color scheme of a computer can increase contrast, which may make it easier for a person with low vision to read the computer screen. Options that control many other aspects of the computer can be found by exploring the other settings in the Control Panel.

Accessibility Accessories

Microsoft Windows XP includes other accessibility accessories that can be found by going to the Start Button, selecting Programs, then Accessories, and finally Accessibility. One of the tools included in the Accessibility option is Magnifier, which is a simplified screen magnifier. A screen magnifier enlarges the text and graphics on the screen by varying degrees of magnification. Another accessory is the Accessibility Wizard, which is a program that asks a series of questions. As a computer user clicks the answers to the questions posed by the Accessibility Wizard, the program is designed to automatically adjust the size of icons, fonts, and various aspects of the computer's display.

Apple Macintosh Computers

So far, this column has described how to make changes in Windows that will improve the ability of a person with low vision to use a computer without spending a dime. Not all these options are available on Apple Macintosh computers, but, it is possible to increase accessibility for some individuals with low vision by making a few adjustments within the operating system of a Macintosh computer. The tools on a Macintosh that allow a computer user to adjust the size of type and icons and the like can be found in the System Preferences and Universal Access menus or in the Finder's View menu. In the View Options area, individuals can change the size of icons, the size and position of text associated with icons, and the appearance of other features. In addition, the current version of the Macintosh operating system includes simple built-in screen magnification as well as screen reading software. These accessibility accessories can be found in the Universal Access menus.

Individuals with low vision, as well as those who work with them, can explore these options to determine whether they will provide adequate access to information displayed on the computer monitor, or whether they need to investigate other solutions. If a person with low vision still has to struggle to read the screen after making the changes described in this column, additional screen magnification software or screen reading software may be required for this individual to use a computer comfortably.


For more information and further details on how to customize a computer for individuals with low vision, read the AccessWorld® article entitled, "Redoing Windows: A Guide for Customizing Windows for Users with Low Vision," by Amy R. Salmon; available: <>. For individuals whose eyesight precludes the use of a mouse for completing the steps presented in this column, keyboard commands may be helpful. These mouse-free commands allow a computer user to use keyboard shortcuts to operate the computer, as well as select system folders and menus, choose accessibility options, interact with combo and dialogue boxes, and the like. For a complete listing of keyboard commands for all Windows operating systems and Microsoft programs, visit <>.

Have a question for the technology expert?
If readers would like to submit a question to JVIB's technology expert for consideration for a future "Technology Q&A" column, please send an e-mail message to <>.

Jay Leventhal, B.A., editor in chief, AccessWorld®: Technology and People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, Web Operations, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001; e-mail: <>; web site: <>.

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