Mainstream technology and low vision: Computers

What to look for when buying a laptop, aimed at students with low vision.

While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. Computers are a great example of how mainstream technology can be used as assistive technology, since there are so many options for customization and information access, though there are some characteristics that make certain computers better for assistive technology than others. Here are features to look for when buying a desktop or laptop computer for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.

Display size/screen size

While some people with low vision prefer to use larger screens so that a large amount of information can be displayed on the screen at once, others may prefer to use smaller screen sizes that fit into their field of view more easily or that are more portable. Multiple monitors can also provide a larger workspace and can be adjusted to have portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) displays.

Another option for laptop users is to connect their device to a larger external monitor when it is docked/placed on a desk, or to use their laptop’s built-in screen as a second monitor. Personally, I prefer to mirror my laptop’s display to a larger/wider monitor when I am working at my desk using a wired connection, or to connect my device to a large TV screen using a wireless connection.

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Weight and portability

A desktop computer is less portable and more likely to be stationary than a laptop computer, which can be taken to meetings and classrooms. It’s important to ensure the laptop can remain secure during transport in a backpack, carrying case, or rolling bag, and that any relevant accessories such as an external keyboard or mouse can be stored as well. For students attending classes, make sure that the device can fit on a desk, especially high school/college sized desks that are smaller than traditional tables.

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Requirements for specialty software

Some professional applications or fields of study use software that is exclusive to one operating system, and some tools such as third-party screen readers and magnification software are proprietary to one operating system as well. A popular example of software that is exclusive to one operating system is JAWS, a popular screen reader for Windows, so users who wish to use JAWS would need to purchase a Windows computer.

Battery life

Using multiple applications can drain the battery life of a laptop quickly, so it’s important to consider how often the device will need to be charged and if it can be placed in a location where it can be charged easily- portable battery packs often do not provide sufficient charging power for laptops. Avoid charging laptops inside backpacks or cases, as this can pose an overheating or fire risk.

Video/graphics card

Even if a computer will primarily be used for nonvisual access with a screen reader, many assistive technology software tools have minimum requirements for video and graphics cards so that the software can run efficiently and process visual information. This can be found by searching the system requirements online.

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Remote access memory (RAM)

RAM is a form of computer memory that impacts the speed of a computer and its ability to run multiple programs simultaneously, which is critical for users that have multiple accessibility tools enabled. Most assistive technology software requires at least eight gigabytes (8 GB) of RAM, and I chose to get 16 GB of RAM for my computers.

Connecting peripheral devices

I use a few different external devices with my computer, including a large print keyboard, external mouse, microphone, camera, and a few other tools on a rotating basis. Some of these devices connect wirelessly with Bluetooth, while others require a USB port or other wired connection. For this reason, it’s important to consider how many USB ports are on the device, and if an external USB hub will be required to accommodate all of the peripheral devices.

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Device color

Admittedly, this isn’t the deciding factor in choosing a computer with low vision, but I wanted to ensure that I would be able to easily locate my laptop on any surface and that it would look different from the laptops of others- I use color to label and distinguish things often since my color vision is not affected by my visual impairment. I chose to get a blue laptop with rainbow stickers on the back as it would be easy for me to spot it from across the room or check to make sure it’s in my backpack.

Setting up a computer for low vision

I have several posts on how to configure a variety of accessibility settings for computers across various operating systems, which have been linked below for more in-depth reading.

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Summary of features to consider when buying a computer with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published August 2017

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