Computers seem to be getting more and more complex, and with new versions of Windows and Microsoft Office coming out every couple of years, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes performing even a basic task like checking e-mail or opening a file on your computer can be difficult because of the hard-to-read text and icons used by Windows and most computer programs. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to make your Windows PC more accessible and to make sure that any new PC you buy is suitable for your needs.
This article will cover some basic tips for how to select and configure a PC to make it more accessible for users with low vision, including information on what to look for when buying a new PC, and how to change the display colors and increase the size of the on-screen text in Windows, Internet Explorer, and Mozilla Firefox.
Recommended Computer Specifications
When purchasing a computer, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the vast number of different setups and configurations that are out there. Even if you do find a helpful salesperson or friend, it can still be difficult to find out what kind of PC is best suited for people with visual impairments.
We recommend that you purchase your PC from a trusted name-brand company like Dell, IBM, or Hewlett-Packard. Purchasing a PC from a major outlet ensures that you will get a dependable machine from a trusted seller. Also, these companies usually offer a warranty with good technical support (although often not for assistive technology), and you can be confident that they won't suddenly go belly-up tomorrow.
This article will focus on PCs, but you may also want to consider an Apple computer. Apple computers feature a built-in screen reader and screen magnifier at no additional cost. VoiceOver, the Apple screen reader, was recently significantly improved. Zoom, the Apple screen magnifier, offers up to 40x magnification, as well as options for high contrast colors or reverse video. Check out the accessibility overview page on the Apple website for more information.
The amount of memory, or RAM, determines how smoothly and quickly multiple programs will run on a PC. We recommend that you purchase a PC with at least 2 GB of memory, although 4 GB would be preferable. Screen readers and magnifiers both can take up a lot of memory, not to mention other memory-intensive applications you may want to run. If you like having several different programs open at the same time, it would be a worthwhile investment to get a large amount of RAM.
The size of your hard drive determines how many files and programs you can install on the computer. The minimum hard drive size sold with most new computers is 320 GB, though you may sometimes see smaller hard drives in certain setups. This standard size is definitely large enough to install just about any type of assistive technology, as well as store a substantial quantity of files and documents. If you have a large collection of music or video files, you should check out some larger disk sizes and get something appropriate to your needs; hard drives are relatively inexpensive.
Nearly all computers today are at least 2 GHz, and can be as high as 3.7 GHz. Although it's often tempting to go for the fastest computer available, in reality even the low-end 2 GHz computers are capable of running most types of assistive technology, as well as most other types of programs out there. You may also come across computer chips advertised as being "dual-core" or "quad-core," terms that refer to the number of processors in a given computer. A quad core machine has four smaller processors instead of one big processor, which makes for a faster computer, but is really unnecessary unless you do intensive work on your computer, such as video editing or programming.
If you have some usable vision, look into buying a flat panel monitor that is at least 19 inches in size. If you have no usable vision, consider saving the money and not buying a monitor at all.
A DVD/CD-RW drive, which can read DVDs and CDs and write to blank CDs, is useful for using discs and backing up data. CDs are inexpensive and can hold up to 650 MB. If you would like a larger capacity data backup option, look into purchasing a DVD-RW, which can write to blank DVDs (up to 4.7 GB).
Ports and Slots
USB ports are the standard for PC connection, and are often used for assistive devices. Make sure the computer you buy has several USB ports. Serial ports, which are common in many older pieces of assistive technology, have disappeared from current computers. If you have a device that uses a serial port, you can purchase USB-to-serial converters that will allow you to connect your device to your PC.
Microsoft released the latest version of Windows, Windows 7, in 2009, and there are a number of screen readers and magnifiers available for it. Windows 7 can be made accessible with the right assistive technology.
Video and Sound System
The integrated video and sound cards that come standard with most PCs are more than suitable for running assistive technology. A separate or high-end graphics or sound card is really only necessary if you do a lot of work with video files, or if you have a high-definition audio system.
Improving the Accessibility of Windows
There are a number of settings you can change in Windows to make the text and icons larger and easier to see. All versions of Windows use "themes," which set the color and size of the system text. This setting applies to the Start menu, the desktop, and My Computer and My Documents. The default theme uses fairly small type in a white-on-black scheme, but this can be changed to something that might better suit your needs.
In Windows XP, modify this setting by following these steps:
- Open the Start menu and select Settings. Under Settings, open the Control Panel.
- In the Control Panel, open Display
- In the Display dialog box, select the Appearance tab, which is located in the row across the top of the window.
- One of the items under Appearance is Color Scheme. There are four different high contrast color schemes to choose from. Keep selecting "H" until you find a scheme that works well for you, then select Enter.
- There is a drop down menu directly underneath Color Scheme called Font Size, where you can increase the size of the text in Windows. If the settings you find here don't work for you, select the Advanced button and choose your own color combinations and text sizes.
Windows Vista and Windows 7 both have a feature called the Ease of Access Center, which replaces and improves the Accessibility Tools found in earlier versions of Windows. Follow these steps to open the Ease of Access Center:
- Open the Start menu and select the Control Panel
- In the Control Panel, open the Ease of Access Center. Once the Center opens, you can activate accessibility tools, such as Magnifier or Narrator, and change the fonts and colors used by Windows.
- Select "Get recommendations to make your computer easier to use." This will bring up a wizard that will ask you a series of questions and automatically change the text size and color settings based on your answers.
In all versions of Windows, the changes made to the text size using the above steps will affect text created by Windows, which includes the Start menu, desktop, My Documents, My Computer, and the top title bar for all programs. It will not affect the size of text in webpages, Word documents, or most other programs. The changes to the color scheme, however, will carry over to web browsers and Microsoft Office, in addition to the desktop, Start menu, My Computer, and My Documents. Be warned, however, that there will still be some non-Microsoft programs that will use their own color scheme.
Improving the Accessibility of Web Browsers
There are ways to make sure that nearly every webpage uses high-contrast colors and larger text. To do so, follow the steps below for your preferred web browser:
- Pull down the Tools menu and pick Internet Options
- A new window should open up. In this new window, choose the "Accessibility" button by pressing Alt-E.
- Check the boxes labeled "Ignore font styles specified on Web pages" and "Ignore font sizes specified on Web pages." Select "OK" in the dialog box and again in the Internet Options dialog box. This will return you to the page you were viewing.
- Now, whenever you want to increase or decrease the size of the text on a webpage, pull down the View menu (Alt-V) and select Text Size (X). Here, you can choose any option, ranging from largest to smallest. If you select largest, all pages will display an enlarged text size (size will fluctuate from page to page).
- Pull down the Tools menu and pick Options
- A new window should open up. Choose the "Content" tab, which is located in the row across the top of the window.
- Choose the style and size you prefer using the Default Font and Size drop down menus.
- Select the "Advanced" button to the right of the Size drop down menu. In this new dialog box, make sure the box for "Allow pages to choose their own fonts" is unchecked. Select "OK."
- Now, you should be back in the Content options for Firefox. Below the "Advanced" button there is a button labeled "Colors" where you can adjust the font and background colors used by Firefox. In the Colors window, choose the colors that you would prefer, and make sure that the box for "Allow pages to choose their own colors" is unchecked. Select "OK" to return to the webpage you were viewing.
- The pages should now be using the fonts and colors you specified. You can increase the size of text on screen any time by hitting Ctrl +, or by going into View and selecting Zoom.
These tips are designed to help you take advantage of the built-in tools offered by Windows and web browsers, and to make sure that any new PC you buy will be able to effectively run a wide range of assistive technologies. While changing the color themes and text size can go a long way towards making the text and icons on the computer easier to see, adjusting these settings still falls short of the accessibility and comfort provided by a standalone screen magnifier such as ZoomText. Experiment with your screen magnifier and the settings described here to find the best combination for your needs.