As a society we are increasingly becoming reliant on digital technology. Never has this been highlighted more than during the recent pandemic, as more of us have worked or studied from home. But it has also emphasized that there can be barriers to accessing and using technology as a result of health and disability issues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights that almost all of us will at some point experience some form of disability or impairment, be that temporary or permanent (World Health Organization, 2021). Like any other service industry, software and internet providers have a moral and legal duty to make their services accessible.
almost all of us will at some point experience some form of disability or impairment, be that temporary or permanent
While Assistive Technology is a specialty in its own right, many accessibility features and adaptations are now included as standard in our IT equipment and do not need specialist assessment or training to use. But how many of us know they are there? Well, the aim of this article is to shine a torch into the recesses of your computers and gadgets to illuminate and draw your attention to just a few of these features. While this may inform your practice, you may also find a few accessibility features that can make your own life easier.
Thinking about how we interact with IT, we tend predominantly to receive information from the device visually. Making text bigger, brighter and bolder can help mitigate some of the issues for those with low vision. (RNIB, 2021). An obvious adjustment is to have a larger screen as this automatically increases the size of the display. To increase the size of the icons on your desktop simply press and hold the control key (Ctrl) and use the scroll on your mouse. Alternatively, while on your desktop, right click with your mouse and select View from the pop-up menu. This then gives you the option to select large, medium or small sized icons.
The Ease of Access page can be accessed through the start menu> settings> Ease of Access and gives the user the ability to adjust the computer display, including making text bigger, everything bigger or everything brighter. Adjustments can be made to the cursor, or pointer as it is sometimes known, changing its size and colour. There is also the facility to “find” your cursor on the screen quickly. This can be set up using the mouse properties (Start menu> Settings> Devices> Mouse> Additional mouse options -top right of screen). Select pointer options and check the button to allow you to locate the cursor when you press the Ctrl key. It is also worth noting that the mouse properties allow you to swap the functions of the left and right buttons, change the speed of the double click or remove the need to hold the button down when clicking and dragging. These features may help where there are issues with coordination or manual dexterity.
There is an onscreen magnifier that can zoom in, cover the whole screen, as a separate window or as a lens that follows the cursor. The magnifier is easily accessible by using the keyboard shortcut of pressing the windows and + keys at the same time. On a phone or tablet this can often be achieved by placing two fingers on the screen and opening out (like a pinch in reverse).
Bright colours can be easier to see as they reflect more light, therefore choosing a black background with a text colour that has a high contrast can make the text stand out. In windows 10 there are some pre set options that again can be accessed through the Ease of access page. Start menu> settings> Ease of Access>High contrast. There are also filters available for different types of colour blindness. Using these can make it easier to differentiate between red, green, blue, and yellow.
The amount of light available can also greatly assist with contrast and clarity. The RNIB highlights that as we age, we need increasing levels of light to see clearly, with most people aged 60 needing three times more light than when they were 20. (RNIB and Pocklington Trust, 2013). Natural daylight can vary depending on the time of day or weather, leading to a conflict of needs regarding electric lighting in a shared workspace, with some colleagues requiring low lighting e.g., people with migraines, Autistic Spectrum Disorder or albinism for example. Task lighting may therefore be a solution. This ideally should be positioned between the user and the task so that any shadow is below eye level height to reduce glare. It is also possible to adjust the screen brightness Ease of Access> Vision > Display > Brightness.
Read aloud is a feature available in Word, powerpoint and outlook and, as its name suggests, it reads the text to you. You can select a range of voices and adjust the speed. I use this facility to help me proofread my reports, it helps me pick up typos that I otherwise do not see, as well as helping with the flow of my writing. I’ve included a link in the resource section on how to access this. Most browsers also have this facility, and it can usually be accessed via the browser menu found in the top righthand corner of the screen via the symbol. If you are using Microsoft Edge as your browser, it can also be accessed by the keyboard shortcut ctrl+ Shift +G.
If you are using Teams for meetings (or consultations) there are numerous accessibility features included. If like me you are a visual learner, you may find the video explaining these easier to follow. Although primarily aimed at teachers, it walks through the tools available. (link in the Useful websites section). These features include Immersive reader – this is similar to read aloud, but has been developed taking into consideration the needs of people with dyslexia – Spotlight allows the presenter /meeting chair to focus the screen on the person who is currently speaking, while All together facilitates everyone being displayed on the screen in a set place to avoid the confusion and sensory overload of people’s images constantly changing position. Live Transcription and Recording allow speech to be converted to text in real time, and for a recording of the meeting to be made and available for individuals to refer back to. This is useful if individuals find it hard to process and remember verbal information.
Live Transcribe serves the same purpose but is available via android tablets and phones. This also converts speech to text as it occurs in a face to face setting, assisting in communication for those with a hearing impairment. In these times of mask wearing, it can help those who would normally rely on lip reading to support their understanding of verbal communication.
Other speech to text applications include Intelligent personal assistants. These can help with internet searches, playing music, e- mail, calendar, lists and reducing the amount of keyboard use required. Examples include Siri – for iOS devices (iPads and iPhones), Google Now – for Android and iOs devices and Cortana – for Windows. Dictate is a feature that is currently only available with an Office 365 Word subscription. In word it can be accessed using the microphone icon or by using the keyboard shortcut Alt +‘. From my personal experience it works best when used with a separate microphone, but it does make some mistakes. To insert grammar there are specific phrases, as there are too for editing. These can be found by clicking on the information icon when using this feature. Most smartphones and tablets have a speech to text feature as standard.
Some features to help address difficulties using a keyboard include Sticky keys, this allows access to keyboard shortcuts by enabling the user to press keys in succession, rather than at the same time. AbilityNet has a fact sheet on how to use this facility as well as hints and tips on using a keyboard one handed. This focuses on reducing key strikes by utilising predictive text and auto text insertion using features such as quick parts or autocorrect.
I would highlight that any new technology or software takes time to learn and that this can initially reduce productivity. Adequate support and training are therefore key, as it can take several months to become proficient. It may be worth highlighting this when we give managers advice regarding adjustments, so as to manage expectations and help ensure that this is factored in when setting workload and targets.
The aim of this article has really been to provide only the briefest of introduction to these features, therefore you may find some of these resources helpful if you wish to delve deeper. Be warned, like any browsing, it can take you down the rabbit holes of the internet. So don’t forget to follow out your own normal advice to carry out a DSE risk assessment and make sure you get up and move on a regular basis.
Free online course providing awareness training on assistive technology such as text to speech (TTS)
AbilityNet helps people of any age and with any disability to use technology to achieve their goals at home, at work and in education. They have a range of fact sheets including, adaptions for visual impairment, hearing loss, Autism, dyslexia, dementia, ergonomics and phones and tablets.
World Health Organization, 2021. Disability and health. [Accessed 16 August 2021].
RNIB, 2021. Making the most of your sight. [Accessed 16 August 2021].
RNIB and Pocklington Trust, 2013. Lighting Solutions Guide: Improve the lighting in your home. [Accessed 16 August 2021].