Justin and his seeing eye dog PJ. Justin is sat on the beach in a red baseball cap, tshirt and shorts and polarised sunglasses. PJ is standing in front of him, side on, in his brown harness. PJ is looking off to the left of the photo. PJ is a black lab.

How do blind people use computers?

Note: I was asked by Amy a while back to write about technology and it’s uses for blind people. This is the first in these series of posts.

I’d love to say that being blind is easy, but I’d be lying. Being blind is hard, especially for someone whose vision was more or less normal until their late 20’s. Suddenly, many tasks that I took for granted before I began losing my sight became challenging, if not impossible. I eventually had to quit my job working as an analyst at a call center because I couldn’t read my computer screen.

It’s a common story and part of why the unemployment rate among the blind and visually impaired is somewhere between 60 and 70% in the US, depending on who you ask (currently 75% of working age visually impaired people are unemployed in the UK). Fact is that the sighted world is not exactly the friendliest place for blind people.

Assistive technology is helping to level the playing field, though. I could write a myriad of posts on how assistive tech helps blind people in their daily lives, and I probably will if Amy lets me. Today I’m going to focus on using a computer, a task I originally thought I’d never be able to do again when losing my sight.

What options are there?

The best option for someone who’s blind or visually impaired depends on their level of vision loss. Many folks are fine with just larger text or other slight tweaks.

Other people may require specialized magnification software, such as ZoomText. This software not only provides screen magnification, but many other useful features, such as being able to manipulate the colors text and other elements are being displayed in for easier viewing. For example, instead of seeing the traditional black text on a white background, the user might set it to display the text as green on a black background. Here’s a demo showing how ZoomText works.

A clip showing some of the features that Amy uses! Amy is currently learning how to use a similar software that combines magnification and screen reading depending on the level of vision she has. 

I don’t have enough useful vision left to get any use out of magnification, so I rely solely on screen readers to be able to use a computer. What screen reading software aims to do is be able to allow the user to interact with the computer using just the keyboard. Instead of seeing things on the screen, the screen reader will read them through the computer’s speakers or output them to a refreshable braille display, which raises and lowers braille dots so they can be read in the same manner as printed braille. There are many options out there for screen readers, but the two I hear about the most are NVDA, which is free and open source, and JAWS, which is quite expensive but very powerful. Here’s a demo of NVDA in action as well as a JAWS demo.

Check out this 1 minute clip from the demo to see how JAWs navigates links on complicated websites.

Others may benefit from a combination of magnification and screen reading, and they’re taken care of as well. Screen readers and magnification software can be run in tandem and can be very useful for many people. It’s not uncommon for people to run JAWS and ZoomText together to get the best of both worlds. In fact, since the companies that produce JAWS and ZoomText merged a few years ago, they have come out with ZoomText Fusion, which includes both in one product.

JAWS is not just a shark movie

As I noted above, JAWS is what I use. It’s what I was trained on when I went through my comprehensive rehabilitation program and what I was using while working towards a paralegal degree online from a local community college. About the same time I finished my degree over the summer, I also became JAWS certified, which involves taking an exam that covers the workings of JAWS in depth, and was hired to work full time as an accessibility specialist for the college, where I spend most of my time ensuring that our online courses are accessible to other students using technology like JAWS.

With assistive technologies such as JAWS and ZoomText, blind people can accomplish most of the same things that sighted people can do with computers. Technology like this allows blind people to work as accountants, lawyers, teachers, programmers, and many other jobs that one might not think possible without the technology at our fingertips.

About Justin: Justin works as an accessibility specialist for a Phoenix-area community college, specializing in digital accessibility. He lives in Phoenix with his wife Jennifer and Seeing Eye Dog PJ. He can be found on Twitter at @FatElvis04.

1 thought on “How do blind people use computers?”

  1. I get asked how us blindies can use a computer on many occasions. and screenreading software is the answer I give them and it’s even better as I have my IPhone with me which also speaks. I’ve been a JAWS user for almost 20 years now and have tried other screenreaders such as NVDA and for me, JAWS comes out on top every time. not saying I hate NVDA but if I was stuck I’d use it if it was the only thing I was able to use at the time.


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