Accessibility Software

Using a computer screen if you are a VI computer user…

Some time ago I wrote about using a computer using software to make life easier. This time I’m coming back to the subject, talking about specifically Screen Magnifiers on different types of computers.

As the name suggests, this is software which allows the screen display to be magnified, giving a Visually Impaired (VI) user  an equal chance in moving around the computer with a mouse (or keyboard) to use the Graphical User Interface (GUI – pronounced ‘gooey’). The GUI includes all of the buttons, windows, icons and menus we take for granted on pretty much all modern computers. It make the whole computer experience easier to use if you know what the ‘window furniture’ does.

Something to bear in mind…

Working with computers needs to have a monitor…or a TV to plug into. If you want to enjoy pictures, music or films a modern TV can be plugged in to have some entertainment and fun stuff.  Depending on your vision requirements you may need to have different distances to use a computer. You may not need a computer at all, and an iPad or cheaper Android tablet may be a better option for you.

More to come about that another day, but you could always contact me to discuss this.

Windows 7 Magnifier
Dolphin Magnifier Reader (Supernova)
Apple Mac OSX and a difference
Ubuntu and Orca

Windows 7 magnifier

This has to be the best improvement in accessibility that Microsoft has done. Previous versions of the magnifier in XP (I will forget Vista if you don’t mind) and before were very poor, with no full screen option, and it was very clunky to use generally. The latest upgrade is stunning, and to get the best out of it needs a little tuning in the options .

picutre showing the windows magnifier opening
just click on the lens and bring up the control panel



I installed the XP version on my windows 7 machine by mistake,and it worked well for a minute or so before crashing…I mention this because when I went through the process of installing the latest version as a trial which didn’t crash, but was very sluggish on my machine.

the supernova control panel

Admittedly I didn’t have a 2ghz dual core cpu or a decent graphics card as it recommends on the Dolphin site.

Interestingly Dolphin now tout systems as well as the software, but the default settings were not very good – no moving around with computer focus was the most noticeable. A steep learning curve makes it hard to recommend to an elderly learner, or someone that needs a straightforward set up and may not need fractional magnification (instead of jumping from 2x to 3x the screen, the magnification can jump in 0.5 increments). The log in screen is also magnified. Some very useful features to promote productivity such as screen hooks to navigate around the screen quickly and a document reader. It is expensive (prices seem to be £800-£1100), but a quick look shows that there is a licensing option for young users to use in school and home.

I would generally recommend this to a company with a VI computer user needing a useful productivity set up to help in the workplace, but not for a casual home user. Too expensive, like I say. It’s actually cheaper to buy a decent machine second hand and buy a copy of Windows 7 home premium to use a decent magnifier.

Mac OSX and the difference.

I’m going to take this opportunity to expand on the Universal Access panel and how the OSX works with the VoiceOver functions to magnify menu labels and buttons.

OSX universal access pane
Universal access is very good, but it depends on keeping aesthetics and doesn't change enough to make it really useful.

This panel is definitely the best I’ve seen, but it can be too much for someone learning to get around a computer. The zoom function is a great feature, with the ability to jump to the general magnification you require, although the edges can become ‘fluffy’ and not well defined, which then means you have to change the contrast of the screen, which then impacts on colours and picture viewing. I also notice a big issue, which Microsoft have addressed for years and Apple don’t want to – Font resizing and scheme colours. It seems that only black on white, white on black or greyscale are options for the screen, which affects EVERYTHING, not just text. Very poor for VI users with some vision,  do treasure what they can see- this is very important to remember. Having different colour schemes can also be beneficial to dyslexia users too. The issue with Font resizing in the system? It doesn’t happen. It seems that it would disrupt the prettiness of the layout and that can’t happen in OSX. The only other option is to dig into the VoiceOver options and bring up the large labels, which incidentally make the system navigable by keyboard, another aspect sadly missing as standard…sigh. Please note that these options were tested on Leopard, and I hear good things about Lion.

Ubuntu : Orca

Ubuntu has a number of screen readers and Orca seems to be the most integrated with the system that I’ve found. It works, but in a fashion that I’ve related before. The speech aspect of the software is truly impressive (UK English from the midlands anyone?), but the magnification seems to not completely render sub menus. This then places more focus on the voice which is okay to a degree – better than the standard windows voices, but not as good as OSX.

Ubuntu Orca screenshot
This screenshot from my netbook - as you can see the magnifier seems to make viewing not that easy. Nice voice though.

People with visual impairment do tend to try and use as much of their vision as possible, and means that only the advanced and confident computer users will benefit.  I’m a big fan of Ubuntu and look forward to seeing how this develops, and especially in the new interface which I have only tried in previous versions.


It seems that Windows is best served for the average VI learner as it has a respectable magnifier built in to Windows 7, the next version of windows being much more touch friendly. Having touch built in could be a real deal breaker – although upgrading the very capable Dolphin magnifier with each new release is not what I call friendly to the average pocket, or something a small company can manage.

That said, the systems have different pros and cons in terms of what people want. I work with a client that is a musician and she wants an Apple Mac for the apparent simplicity of use and the number of recommendations (other musical folk have said that it ‘just works’ which is the usual).

As usual, it boils down to what you can afford (and if you can garner extra monies), and what your goals are – as mentioned right at the beginning, an iPad  or a big TV may be your best bet if you just want to be on-line. If you want to chat about your needs, please use the contact form.

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