Frustrated girl lifting her glasses while trying to read text on a laptop.

Assistive technology for fluctuating eyesight

Assistive technology considerations for people who have fluctuating eyesight or changing vision.

When I was in middle school, I noticed that it was easier to read text early in the morning compared to later in the day when my eyesight would be worse, not realizing this was due to fluctuating eyesight. As I got older and my vision continued to change, I found that my vision would sometimes change several times throughout one class period due to factors outside my control. I wasn’t sure how to tell my history teacher that I suddenly couldn’t read the board even though I could earlier, and I was certain my math teacher would question why I couldn’t read the large print that I could read easily earlier in the day. As much as I wish I could go back in time and explain this to my younger self, today I’ll be sharing how I use assistive technology with my fluctuating eyesight to support myself inside and outside the classroom.

What is fluctuating eyesight?

Fluctuating eyesight is described as having vision that changes in quality throughout the day, or good and bad vision days. In my case, I have both an eye and brain condition that contribute to my low vision, and one or both conditions can sometimes become aggravated and change how well I can see during a given period of time. While my vision condition has changed over time, I specifically use the term fluctuating eyesight to talk about short-term vision changes.

Factors that can contribute to fluctuating eyesight

Some examples of factors that can contribute to my fluctuating eyesight include:

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How does this affect assistive technology?

Having fluctuating eyesight can affect how I work with assistive technology, since my changing eyesight means that I also have changing accessibility preferences. Some examples include:

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Provide options for file formats

One of the most common questions I get from my professors is which file format is the easiest for me to access course materials. While I am very good at converting file formats as needed, it’s helpful to have access to formats that I can edit so that I can easily change the format. Alternatively, I can copy text from a PDF into Microsoft Word and modify different elements as needed to make it easier to see.

Another thing I look for when buying digital textbooks is if there is an option to have the book read out loud with my Amazon Alexa or another speech synthesis tool so that I can have both a digital large print and audio copy of the textbook.

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Look for tools with several different options for accessibility

I love finding versatile apps that give me options for font type, font size, background, speech synthesis, and similar options so I can adjust settings as needed. For example, I can read websites in Microsoft Edge using the Immersive Reader and modify the settings to make text easier to see, or have it read text out loud. Alternatively, I can enable different accessibility settings within my computer’s accessibility settings so that I can make it easier to use.

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Learn to use magnification and screen readers if possible

Remember how I mentioned that my eyes were swollen shut due to environmental allergies? One of the major things that helped me with doing my classwork during that time was knowing how to use screen readers to be able to access different apps and resources so that I could stay on track with my classes. In a less extreme example, knowing how to use Zoom and Windows Magnifier has helped me with being able to magnify information when my eyes are having trouble focusing on text. By having these important technology skills, I can focus less on having to learn a new technology or on how frustrated I am with my eyes, and can instead focus on the task at hand.

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Have different apps that can be used to help with tasks

While there are times that I am able to complete certain tasks in my dorm or that I can walk to class with no issues, there are other times that I need some extra help with tasks. This is where my collection of apps come in handy, because I have lots of different apps that can help me with reading text, identifying images, or that can even connect me to a live human assistant. Of course, I may not need these apps all the time, but the times when I do need them, they are invaluable.

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Favor digital over print materials

Honestly, one of the major things that has helped me with fluctuating eyesight has been favoring digital over printed materials. This is because it is much easier to modify documents on the computer than it is to waste a lot of paper for something that may or may not be readable. Sometimes, I will modify a document and then print it, though since I also have dysgraphia that can be made worse with chronic pain, I tend to just type assignments or information whenever possible.

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Final thoughts

Having fluctuating eyesight isn’t necessarily a frustrating experience for me, as long as I have the tools to be able to make my environment or other materials easier to see. I’m grateful to have solid assistive technology skills, and recommend that others with fluctuating eyesight or changing eyesight also develop the skills to create accessible materials and find tools that work for them.

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated February 2024; original post published January 2020.

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Graphic: How I read research sources with assistive technology.

How I read research sources with assistive technology

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