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Paper colors and low vision

Learn more about paper colors and how they can affect readers with low vision, including tips for digital content.

When I was in high school, my TVI recommended that I receive classroom materials printed on off-white or other colored paper so that it would be easier for me to read text without the sharp glare of white paper. While I could still read content that was printed on traditional white copy paper, I found that the tinted backgrounds really helped me when it came to reading for long periods of time, and I decided to explore this topic further in the form of a science project during my junior year of high school where I conducted a survey to determine what color paper people preferred to read from, and asked them to provide feedback. Since then, I’ve used what I learned from this project to help create better accessible materials for myself and others, and today I will be sharing more information on paper colors and low vision.

The problem with white paper

White sheet paper can produce a harsh glare effect for some people with low vision, which affects the ability to read text, especially for long periods of time. The same is true for bright white lights and computer screens- these can be harsh on the eyes and contribute to fatigue, which can in turn cause the reader to have trouble focusing their eyes. If someone hands me something printed in large print on white paper, I will not ask for them to reprint it on a different color of paper, but if I am creating accessible materials for myself, I will often choose to use a colored or shaded background for improved readability.

Another consideration for white paper is that readers may have more difficulty reading text written in pencil on a white background, since gray on white provides poor contrast. I cannot read pencil no matter what color paper it is on, but it is especially difficult on white backgrounds.

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Off-white paper

When I was in high school, the majority of my math and science assignments were printed on off-white paper that had sepia undertones, typically with a page size of 11 inches by 17 inches- this is also known as ledger sized paper. This page color worked well for me because it provided a light tint to the page and I could write on my assignments using colored pens without worrying about the ink blending into the background color.

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My favorite paper colors- light blue and light yellow

When I have to read a lot of text, my favorite paper colors/background colors to use are light blue and light yellow, and these were the most popular options amongst the people I surveyed for my high school science project as well. Yellow backgrounds with black text are a popular high contrast color scheme, but I prefer lighter yellow shades for backgrounds over the saturated canary yellow, because it is less sharp on the eyes.

My least favorite paper colors

Neon colors and darker saturated colors like the ones on construction paper are more difficult for me to read from, especially if they are printed with black text. Like sharp white paper, neon paper has a strong glare effect that can hurt my eyes if I am reading for long periods of time, and darker colors may not provide sufficient contrast against black text. People with color vision deficiencies may have trouble reading paper colors that have red tones, such as pink or purple, though this varies from individual to individual.

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Using acetate sheets

Instead of having content printed on colored paper, acetate sheets and page overlays are colored films that lay on top of a page, changing the color of the page without affecting the original document. They come in a variety of sizes ranging from standard computer paper to smaller sizes that cover one section of a page at a time, and can be reused infinitely. One downside is that the user will need to lift the film if they want to write on the page, but this is still a helpful tool for quickly changing the background color of a page.

Changing the page color in digital documents

If I am going to be writing or looking at my screen for a long period of time, I will change the paper/page color of the document I am working on to an off-white color so that I don’t get as much eyestrain while writing. If I’m going to be printing the document or submitting it for an assignment, I’ll change the page color back to white first. For notetaking apps like Notability and Microsoft OneNote, I have the page color permanently set to a color that isn’t pure white.

Another option for adding a tinted background to mainstream technology devices is to reduce the white point of the display in settings, or to add a color filter. This can be configured in the device’s accessibility settings menu.

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What about dark/inverted color schemes?

I haven’t met any students who received physical copies of classroom materials printed in white ink on black paper, though dark mode and inverted color schemes are another popular choice for reading digital materials. For many people, dark mode has the advantage of helping to reduce eyestrain and making it easier to read in environments with lower lighting, and many reading and productivity applications support dark mode as well. I have an entire post about dark mode linked below.

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Changing the page color of websites

Another strategy for making digital content easier to read is to use simplified reading displays or applications to change the color and formatting of web content so it has a consistent, simplified display. This can be done with a web extension like Microsoft Immersive Reader, an offline reading application like Pocket, or an accessible reading application like Capti Narrator. Simplified reading displays are my favorite way to read digital text with low vision, and have additional customization options such as font size, style, and spacing as well.

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Other thoughts on paper colors and low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published April 2017

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