The workplace can be difficult to navigate for those with visual disabilities.
Approximately 1.3 billion people around the world have some form of vision disability. And things that many of us take for granted at work, like being able to see our computer screens and our keyboards with clarity, are a significant challenge for those on the blindness spectrum.
Fortunately, innovation in new technology for blind people promises to make the workplace more accessible for low vision and blind individuals.
As the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) explains, these types of technologies can be divided into two groups:
- General technology: Tech designed specifically for those with low vision or blindness.
- Assistive technology: Tech that facilitates the usage of already existing devices.
Technology can’t be avoided in the workplace. These devices — both general and assistive — are tantamount to providing accessible workplaces where the blind can contribute just as much as their sighted peers. And that’s good news, both for those with low vision and the companies that will be able to better benefit from their engagement in the workforce.
Here are some of the best examples of technology for blind and low vision individuals that are already transforming workplace accessibility.
General Technology for the Blind
Most of us rely on the same types of technologies to get through our work days. And with advancements in general technology for the blind, those with visual disabilities don’t have to worry about not being able to access the tech that they need.
These technologies include:
Computers are inherently tough on the eyes. And if you have a visual disability, your screen can be almost impossible to see clearly. Enter computers created specifically for the blind, with built-in software options that vary depending on an individual’s degree of low vision or blindness.
Types of computers for blind people include computers that use voice to audibly guide users through menu options, computers with magnification programs that enlarge components on the screen, and computers with software that converts all text to spoken word. A key feature of these devices is that they work within the confines of an individual’s blindness to accommodate where needed, instead of trying to offer a one-size-fits-all approach that might not work for everybody.
- Focus on training. All computers for blind people don’t work the same, so employers will likely need to provide some degree of initial training and support for users.
- Stay up-to-date with assistive software updates so that you’re always aware of ways to bring more utility to your computers.
A computer keyboard for low vision employees looks a lot like a standard keyboard, with some important alterations. Depending on where a person falls on the blindness spectrum, they may benefit from a keyboard enhanced with braille, or they may use a keyboard optimized for their unique needs, including keyboards with larger keys, colored keys, or backlit keys. Some computer keyboards for the blind also feature intuitive designs that nix the traditional keyboard layout for one that is easier to navigate with less sight.
- Shortcuts are one of the most useful features of these keyboards, but are not supported by all websites. If a blind employee is on a website and the keyboard shortcuts aren’t working, it’s likely due to the backend of the site and not the keyboard itself.
- One-handed keyboards can provide additional ease of use. If purchasing one for an employee, be sure to verify first whether they use their right hand or their left hand.
Cellphones and smartphones present two challenges for those with low vision. They use screens, which can be very difficult to see, and they are small. Combine these variables and it’s easy to understand why someone with even a small degree of blindness would have trouble.
A key feature of cellphones and smartphones for the blind is voice-assisted use. Phones like the Kyocera Kona and the Odin VI allow users to do everything from send a text message to browse the internet with the use of voice commands, and also alert users of incoming calls and texts through voice. Other features include tactile, oversized keys, and dedicated shortcuts in case a user has to call 911 or an emergency contact.
- As you might expect, cellphones and smartphones for the blind differ widely in features and cost. Do your research first so you can know you’re making a smart investment.
- Practice makes perfect. Work with low vision employees to learn the basics of their phone, including how the different functions work and how they can navigate the screen.
Braille printers do exactly what you’d expect. They take information sent to them from a computer and print it out in braille. They do this through the use of heavy-duty paper and control embossing pins, which allow braille to be put onto a page without sacrificing its integrity or readability.
- Not all braille printers can handle large volumes. When making a purchasing decision, determine whether you’ll need a braille printer that’s optimized for high-production usage or if a smaller volume printer will be adequate.
- If you want a printer that everyone can use, choose a braille printer that also allows for standard printing.
Assistive Technology for the Blind
Assistive technologies are enhancements that make existing tech products easier to use for those with low vision. These devices are particularly useful in workplace environments, since they can be applied to various technologies around the office as needed — a good alternative to having just one set of devices a person can use.
These technologies include:
Screen readers and magnifiers
This add-on software connects with existing computers to either turn text on a screen into speech or to allow users to magnify their screens. Purchasing the software itself — instead of purchasing a computer with the software already built in — is an affordable option for most businesses, and enables those with low vision to use their computers with significantly fewer impediments.
- For employees who will be using screen readers, make sure to provide headphones as well so that they can listen without distraction.
- Both Windows and Mac offer built in magnifier options. Before buying separate software, see if a computer’s existing solution will be enough.
Dictation software is similar to screen reading software, but instead of turning text on a page into voice, it turns a user’s voice into text on a page. Note that it’s important to purchase screen reading software and dictation software that are compatible with each other, since they usually go hand in hand.
- Dictation can be quite time intensive if you’re starting from scratch. Work with low vision employees to secure an outline before they get started to minimize edits and rewrites.
- You may want to consider providing low vision and blind employees with a private office so that surrounding voices do not interfere with their dictations.
Braille transcription software
Braille transcription software transcribes text into braille which is then embossed onto paper through a braille printer. Advancements in this type of software mean that not just letters and numbers but also special characters can be transcribed so that users don’t miss out on any crucial information.
- Be sure to purchase software that is compatible with your existing braille printer. Most will be, but it never hurts to double check.
- There are some free braille transcription software options on the web. Take a look at these first to see if they meet your needs before making a purchase.
Refreshable braille displays
These portable devices work with existing interfaces to make reading and writing braille on computers and on the internet significantly easier. Refreshable braille displays work almost like a braille typewriter, raising and lowering pins to create different characters. And because of their portability, users can operate them to work on any computer in an office.
- Refreshable braille displays vary in how many letters they can display at a time. Determine if you’ll need a large display or if a smaller display will suffice.
- A refreshable braille display could eliminate the need for a braille printer. Evaluate all of your needs when purchasing these devices to see if one or the other will suffice, or if you’ll need to purchase both.
Optical character recognition (OCR) systems turn scanned documents into computer files that can then be printed in braille or optimized with a screen reader. Because they retain the format of the original text, users can read documents exactly as they exist, without having to worry that anything is getting lost in translation.
- Today’s OCR tech is highly accurate, but it’s still a good idea to have a seeing employee look over documents to ensure they’re communicating the right information.
- Look into portable OCRs, which employees can take with them if they need to get work done at home.
For office managers in need of accommodations for low vision employees, a good place to start is by asking the employee directly what they need in order to do their job most efficiently. In today’s digital age, most people are already familiar with the devices that make tech more accessible and will be able to guide purchasing decisions.