Workstation adjustments for people with visual impairments

visual impairments

Technology is on hand to make working life easier for employees with visual impairments. Robin Christopherson looks at how employers can provide support.

We are spending more of our time in the workplace, at home and on the go using computers or mobile devices of some kind. For many of us, the daily routine starts with a compulsory check of our emails, the local weather report and a browse through our social media feeds on a smartphone or tablet, before we have even left the bedroom.

According to Ofcom, more than 80% of adults regularly go online on any device in any location and 62% of adults in the UK now own a smartphone. Being constantly connected to the internet means that we are spending more and more time using or interacting with a screen.

While there are many benefits to this connectivity, the pervasive use of screen-based technology could also be having a direct and negative impact on our visual health and wellbeing.

Vision can be impaired in many ways, and by many different conditions, including the effects of ageing. The overuse of computer screens and long periods straining the eyes can cause a deterioration in vision, which is why many employers offer funding for eye sight tests and/or money towards glasses to their employees.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People estimates that there are currently nearly two million people in the UK living with sight loss. This figure also includes around 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK, who have severe and irreversible sight loss. Only onethird of people with a visual impairment are in employment – or, more shockingly, 67% are unemployed, seven times more than the general population.

Historically, people affected by sight loss were either not employed or were restricted to certain types of roles, either due to people’s assumptions about what they could and could not do, or down to specialist equipment not being readily available or affordable.

The good news is that technology is now on hand to make working life easier for people with visual impairments. Not only  are more and more employers open to employees bringing their own devices to work, but some have bring your own device (BYOD) policies and procedures in place.

BYOD has many benefits for employees, especially those with a disability. Previously, you might have been assigned a standard-issue work phone (usually a Blackberry) or laptop, but those devices might not be the best choice of device for your personal settings and requirements.

Some of the more recent advances in technology have made items such as flatscreens more affordable, which means that instead of spending thousands of pounds, an employer can purchase a 40-inch flatscreen for a staff member with a visual impairment for a few hundred pounds.

A larger screen enables users to magnify text to a greater size and, if it is being used in combination with smart optical character recognition scanning software, then changes can be made to text layout and colour contrasts at the same time.

There is also a vast array of specialist software and equipment options available for employees with significant visual impairments. As no two people or jobs are the same, conducting an individual workplace assessment is always advisable. However, for those employees who experience mild to moderate visual impairments, there are many solutions already built in to mainstream office software products.

Five lesser-known hacks for people with visual impairments

1. The mouse pointer

On Windows and Mac OS X, it is possible to change the colour and size of the mouse pointer (arrow) and the shape of the mouse pointer. A wider range of sizes and colours and high-visibility effects can be achieved with specialist software, but increasing the size is free and built in.

2. Microsoft Office features

The Microsoft Office suite of programmes has inbuilt features that may help aid visibility. You can increase the size of the buttons in the toolbars and, in Word, you can make the document window white text on a blue background regardless of Windows’ colour scheme.

3. Built-in magnification and screen-reading

Windows and Mac OS X have built in magnification and screen-reading capabilities. In Windows they are called “Windows magnifier” and “narrator”. In Mac OS X, they are “Zoom” and “VoiceOver”. Activating these features enables text to be enlarged very considerably, meaning you do not see the whole screen at any time. The view-window follows as you move the mouse or the text cursor as you type, or have text or controls spoken out.

4. Finding the text cursor

Many people find it difficult to locate the blinking vertical bar that indicates where you are typing. There is no way of increasing the size, or enhancing the appearance, of this cursor except in Windows XP and above (and then its size only increases in MS Word and a few other programmes). A program called Mouse&Caret Buddy can help you find your mouse cursor and text caret by showing pictures next to them.

5. Configuring your web browser

All new computers come with internet browsing software already installed. Many websites are visually complex and confusing, with multiple columns and text in a strange combination of colours. All of the most common browsers can force the text to be of the size and colour that you prefer, and the background and foreground colours of the page can be whatever combination you wish.

For more information, download a copy of AbilityNet’s factsheet, Vision Impairment and Computing. AbilityNet also runs a monthly series of free webinars for employers, HR professionals and employees to understand how technology can help disabled people in the workplace.

About Robin Christopherson

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet.
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