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Computing for the Visually Impaired, Part 4

by Mariva H. Aviram

It’s easy to complain.

I know, because I’ve spent a lot of time complaining. First, in part one of this series (see “Computing for the Visually Impaired, Part 1 [1],” 9 January 2015), I regaled you with the horror story of my eye troubles and resultant temporary vision problems. In part two (see “Computing for the Visually Impaired, Part 2 [2],” 19 January 2015), I covered the myriad defects that can affect eyes and vision in general. Part three (see “Computing for the Visually Impaired, Part 3 [3],” 26 January 2015) comprised a long list of design flaws that render even basic computer tasks unnecessarily difficult for low vision users.

Identifying the problem is the first step in fixing it. The next step is to seek and implement solutions (or to invent them if they don’t yet exist). Now I will detail the visual accessibility features, guides, and third-party apps that are available. I’ll begin with what’s already at hand, built in to your Mac.

Accessibility Display Preferences -- If you haven’t yet experimented with the Accessibility > Display pane [4] of System Preferences in OS X 10.10 Yosemite, note that each of the following is adjustable for visual needs:

(Click the question mark icon in the lower right corner of the Accessibility window for a convenient reference.)

Accessibility Zoom Preferences -- Zoom is all about screen magnification. The Accessibility > Zoom pane [9] offers options for controlling the zoom feature in various ways:

VoiceOver -- VoiceOver [11], the built-in screen reader for both Mac OS X [12] and iOS [13], enables visually impaired users to read interface elements and text via spoken audio or a refreshable braille reader [14]. It also enables full keyboard control. You can turn it on and off, and set a keyboard shortcut to toggle it, in Accessibility > VoiceOver. The real configuration takes place in the VoiceOver Utility, which can be opened from the Accessibility > VoiceOver pane, along with a VoiceOver Training app.

Limitations to Accessibility Options -- Unfortunately, there’s no way to set a system-wide type size; font sizes in each application must be set independently [15]. While not difficult, many apps limit sizing on both ends of the scale. To change the default text size in Finder windows for Icon, List, and Cover Flow views, choose View > Show View Options > Select Text Size. Choose a font size of 10 to 16 points and click Use as Defaults to apply to all windows in the current view. Repeat for each type of Finder view other than Column view, which lacks that button. You can also experiment with font sizes in the free utility TinkerTool [16].

Should you be running Windows in a virtual machine, the equivalent to the OS X Accessibility preference pane is the Ease Of Access Center in the Windows Control Panel. Be warned that results when running Windows in a virtual machine may be unpredictable.

Other Relevant System Preferences -- These preference panes also provide options that may be helpful for low vision users:

Tech Guides -- To extend the Mac’s native capabilities, many third-party apps and utilities are worth considering. (And, because of Apple’s Accessibility API for developers [17], more of these can appear in the marketplace at any time.) High-end application suites can be pricey ($400 and up), but many simpler utilities are inexpensive or even free.

Because visual impairments are diverse, each user may have unique accessibility needs. In fact, TidBITS commenter G.F. Mueden astutely differentiated between “eye readers” and “ear readers.” “Low vision includes two groups, eye readers, those who still read with their eyes but not well, and ear readers, those who read with their ears via text-to-speech technology (screen readers). What helps one group is unlikely to help the other, and the professionals who deal with accessibility seem mostly concerned with helping ear readers — a complex affair, because screen readers are not all alike.”

It might take some experimenting to configure a setup that works best. Before investing time and money into software and electronic devices, the following resources offer a good start for research:

Advanced App Suites -- For those looking for a comprehensive solution, two companies have full suites of accessibility utilities for the Mac (there are many more options for Windows):

Screen Dimmers and Color Adjusters -- Some Mac apps offer rudimentary controls for color adjustments, such as setting white or colored text against a black or colored background. For system-wide control, though, there are a variety of screen dimmers and utilities that can adjust brightness, color, and contrast, including:

Some visual accessibility utilities focus on making the mouse pointer easier to see and/or control:

Browser Extensions -- In Safari, I found it handy to use extensions that disable visually assaultive animated ads and pop-ups, set up a keyboard shortcut to disable JavaScript, and regularly view mostly text pages with Reader. I wish Reader offered more than two font sizes, color controls for text and background, and adjustable margins — and it doesn’t always capture all the text of a full page — but Canisbos’s CustomReader [35] Safari extension for enhancing Reader may provide a workaround.

A variety of Google Chrome extensions and Mozilla Firefox add-ons provide other options for easier Web site reading. Apart from Evernote Clearly and Reasy, these mostly reformat the text.

Accessibility Tech Support -- For specific assistance, accessibility support staff are available at the major operating system development companies:

For assistance with iOS, author and low vision expert Shelly Brisbin has recently released the iOS 8 version of her $20 ebook “iOS Access for All [55].”

While full accessibility for low vision users has a long way to go, improvements are often made with new releases of operating systems and utilities. Taken together, these improvements have provided more access to, and a smoother experience with, the digital world.

In the fifth and final part of this series, I will explore adaptive tech in related areas: reading tablets, audio and touch assistive devices, ergonomics, and the horizon of new innovations and future tech.

Articles in this series:

Articles in this series: