Low cost computing for the visually impaired learner

I was hoping to write up about accessibility in general, but recent work with people have prompted me to write about the problems with trying to set up a cheap system for a person with visual impairment.

I’ll say now that I’ve had quite a lot of experience training people with visual impairment, although they all have been at least in their 30’s – it would be interesting to hear what younger readers think; so comment please young people.

My first experience of a screen magnifier was with the humble and proud Windows XP, the windows magnifier which isn’t really up to the job, although people without glasses can find it useful for entering web addresses.

windows xp magnifier

Lately, I’ve been looking at Vinux / Ubuntu (they are the same thing, but Vinux is Ubuntu set up with high contrast and large fonts) and the screen reader and enlarger, Orca. Orca is a killer whale in the natural world , interestingly Dolphin is the name of the company that produces Supernova for Windows, which I’ll get to later.

Orca: is it a hunter killer app?

Well, not quite. In both Vinux and Ubuntu the magnification was not showing a full sub menu box when clicking on the button labelled ‘Applications’, so became very hard to actually use. I then tried to find a place on the web to find answers, or at least to report a bug…and found it quite hard. I’m familiar with getting around the web, but was caught up in strange development web sites..and then I thought that this would be too hard for a person learning about computers. So I stopped looking. I knew Windows had new magnifiers out there – Windows 7 has a great magnification, but needs a fairly powerful set up to make playing games and using the internet a treat, so at least a decent video card can help out.

Interestingly, again, Supernova has to be the latest version to make it work with Windows 7; this had also been the case with Vista, and this software is not cheap to update. Screen magnification of Supernova has to be it’s best feature, the screen reading is fairly good with voices definitely better than Microsoft ones, but it’s a big powerful program requiring a lot of memory and a decent processor. The basic commands can be straight forward enough, but I’m not convinced that the keyboard commands are consistently robust – for the money, it’s a big deal.

I’ve known about screenreader.net for some time, and am very impressed with Thunder, the completely free screen reader (there is a paid for version with better voices). This can also be downloaded with the absolutely brilliant webbIE, a suite of internet utilities with a text only web browser at its centre. This again is not for everyone, but I recommend the download for webbIE even on its own for VI users, as there are some great internet and general tools, the internet radio and gutenberg reader being favourites.

webbIE screenshot

webbIE is a reliable internet browser which presents text instead of pictures - great for screenreaders



I’ve just jumped to the topic of screenreaders, because I’ve found it hard to find a decent magnification tool for an older computer running windows XP, (there is also NDVA which is completely free too) . That was until I had a chat with Roger Wilson Hinds, the main man behind Thunder. I don’t think he coded the program, but he is the main man marketing it. Roger pointed me to www.itzooms.com, and the free lightning express screen magnifier, and first impressions were good, although I did need to reboot after running – it did crash the first time it was run.

So, back to the low cost of computing…as in the title.

Software is freely available to help the majority of VI and blind computer learners, but when it comes down to hardware, I say “If the budget you have is too low for new, try second hand or ideally refurbished”. If you’re learning, then the less trouble you have with the ‘office in a box’ is a good thing!

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