Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities


Using popular computer applications

Commercial software and visual impairment accessibility

In the run-up to fieldwork, during fieldwork and after fieldwork, students will often be required to use general application programs, including word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawing and presentation software. Because the graphical user interface (GUI) adopted by most PCs and Apple Macs are intensely visual environments, applications software can present considerable problems for visually impaired students. (See Morley, 1995 for a blind person's view of Windows technology; see Edwards, 1995 for a brief history of the impact of the evolution of GUIs on the visually impaired community, and early responses to it; and see Petrie & Gill, 1993 fir a description of some early research on ways of making GUIs more accessible to visually impaired students.)

For several years, Microsoft has been working to incorporate accessibility facilities within Windows to help those with particular disabilities use its operating system and applications software. However, there was a significant hiccup when Internet Explorer 4 was first released without the Active Accessibility facilities available in the previous version (Chong, 1997), and this lead to considerable protest by the blind community. (Active Accessibility is described in the Assistive Technologies document.) Microsoft has since tried to make good by announcing a raft of visual accessibility features in its MSN Explorer software (Microsoft, 2000). Apple also has its own accessibility initiatives, and IBM has recently released a talking Web browser (Home Page Reader 3.0) that includes advanced facilities that will benefit visually impaired students (Keeler, 2000). These include: audio presentation, voice changes, sound effects, and tagging of text links so they can be spoken, and the speaking of multimedia applications.

Despite these and other initiatives, large software and Web companies are frequently criticised for not doing more to deliver accessible software or services. Macromedia, for example, has been criticised for failing to think through effective ways of making Flash animations accessible to visually impaired users (Clark, no date). Blind users have criticised AOL, one of the world's largest Web portals, arguing that its Web site violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (Ananova, 2000b). And the official Web site of the Sydney Olympic Games was severely criticised by the Australian human rights and equal opportunities commission for making it difficult for blind users to access information (Guardian, 2000a).

Improving the experience of using applications software

In the rest of this section, some suggestions are provided as to the approaches that visually impaired students might take when using applications programs, especially in a GUI environment. Most of the discussion focuses on the Microsoft Windows environment, which is used on over 90% of desktop PCs, and on its common applications programs. It should be noted that although many of Microsoft's products adopt its Accessibility Guidelines, their effectiveness is varied.

Readable text
Most application programs allow users to change the font and font size used to display text on screen, including all members of the Microsoft Office suite. Several Windows applications provide a tool to enable quick changes to be made to text size — e.g. increasing the font size in Netscape (q.v.) and increasing the magnification in Word and Excel using the percentage zoom option on the toolbar. Simple fonts are usually more readable than fancy fonts — serif and italics are usually less readable than sans serif fonts and non-italic characters. (All of the text in this guide, for example, is displayed using the Arial font, which is particularly clear on screen.)
Screen display enhancements
Screen enlarger programs allow users to selectively magnify parts of the screen so their contents can be more clearly seen. The effect is similar to holding a magnifying glass in front of a page of text. This kind of utility software is available for most desktop systems, including Windows, Apple, X-Windows and Unix. Another tactic for improving screen legibility is to change the standard mouse cursor for a larger and/or coloured one — the size can be changed in Windows itself, but the colour change requires a separate item of software. Another useful tactic is to acquire a large-size screen (e.g. 19-inch) and use a low-resolution display setting.
Keyboard navigation
The WIMP (Windows-Icons-Mouse-Pointer) environment used on most modern PCs demands excellent vision. For most blind and poorly sighted students, the mouse and cursor combination is difficult to use, especially on portable flat screens where the cursor can be difficult to locate and track visually. Fortunately, almost all mouse actions in the Windows environment have keyboard equivalents, so blind and poorly sighted individuals can more or less dispense with the mouse. Alternatively, if the MouseKeys feature is installed (in Windows), the mouse can be moved using the numeric keypad and certain keys can be used instead of the mouse buttons. Inexpensive but effective aids include large print or braille keytop stickers. More expensive solutions include the cursor keys provided on some braille display devices, but these require specially adapted software to work effectively.
Desktop appearance
Visually impaired students can modify several elements of the GUI environment to improve the visibility of the desktop:
Sound can be used to augment actions or events:
For Microsoft Windows users, these facilities are available by clicking on the My Computer icon on the desktop, then clicking on the Control Panel icon, then clicking on the Accessibility Options icon.
Audio input/output
Most applications software is able to output textual information in spoken form, either through standard PC speakers or through a sound card. There are some utility programs than can direct text output from application programs and direct it to a speech synthesiser. AbilityNet provides a fact sheet describing how voice recognition and speech synthesis can be used in tandem (
With the recent advent of effective dictation software for PCs, the promise of audio input is beginning to be realised. Command-driven software (e.g. CAD programs such as AutoCAD) often have add-on software to enable users to speak command keywords, keeping their hands free for other actions. A useful review of voice-recognition systems is available from AbilityNet (

For a more detailed discussion of how to design Web documents accessible to visually impaired students, see the Web Design document. For specific comments on using the visual disability features in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files, see the Handouts document.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock