Writing if you’re physically impaired

Writing if you’re physically impaired

 Although computer engineers have an annoying habit of being healthy young men, they’re not ignorant to the needs of people with physical impairments. The computer science called accessibility is a branch of ergonomics but whereas ergonomics examines how to create the ideal working setup for just about anybody, accessibility is all about addressing specific issues such as sight or motor limitations.


Before we dig down into software settings, let’s look at what can be done to make inputting easier. However, please note that in this article we’re looking at tools to help those who might have impairments like worsening eyesight, or arthritic joints. It’s not the intention here to describe tools for people with severe impairments. Visit www.inclusive.co.uk if you or somebody you know could benefit by learning more about this area, which often requires bespoke and specialist adaptations.

Let’s start by looking at pushing the cursor around the screen. If you struggle to use traditional mice then try a trackball. These require your fingers or thumb to rotate a large ball around the size of a snooker ball in order to move the cursor on-screen. Your arm, wrist and palm do not need to move and can rest on the table. Be aware that, when switching from a mouse, a trackball can be a little frustrating until you’ve got used to it.

A company called Kensington manufactures a good range of traditional trackballs of various designs: goo.gl/PpGeri. Logitech’s Wireless Trackball model allows the hand to rest on top of the device: goo.gl/2lw82G, while its Trackman Marble model is cheaper but requires you to rest your hand on the desk so might not be as comfortable: goo.gl/L6HvcW. All of these are plug-and-play, so should just work upon being connected via USB, although some include add-in software to let you make use of the additional mouse buttons they typically feature.

If you have problems either seeing the keys of a keyboard, or hitting them accurately, a keyboard like the Geemarc Multimedia Big Letter Keyboard can help: amzn.to/2ecMNUH. This features bright yellow keys that are significantly larger than a standard keyboard. An all-black version is available if it’s simply larger keys that are required: amzn.to/2eLvndH. On a fundamental hardware level these are no different from any other keyboard so will work immediately after you plug them in.

If you can, audition any hardware before buying. If buying online the Consumer Contracts Regulations let you return an item within 14 days if you get it from the likes of Amazon (although these laws might change once the UK leaves the EU). Be careful not to break the paper seal on any CDs or DVDs included in the box, which will mean you can no longer return the item.

Mousing around

A mouse or trackball can be avoided entirely by tapping keys on the keyboard to move the mouse cursor, via a tool built into most operating systems called Mouse Keys. This can be especially useful if your limbs judder or physical co-ordination isn’t perfect. It uses the numeric keypad, which is the calculator-like set of number keys at the right of a full-sized PC keyboard. Numeric keypads aren’t common on laptops although you can buy inexpensive external numeric keypads that connect via USB — for an example, see amzn.to/2eLCeUM. Intended to be used by accountants for rapid number entry, these simply attach to the computer’s USB socket and require no setup in and of themselves.

To enable Mouse Keys, click the Start menu, then click the Settings icon. In the window that appears, click the Ease of Access icon, and select the Mouse option in the menu at the left. Then click the Mouse Keys switch, and consult the diagram below to learn what keys do what. You’ll see instantly that Mouse Keys is really very simple. Indeed, the use of Mouse Keys is so common that the keys of numeric keypads often feature arrows to indicate cursor movement.

While setting up mouse keys you’ll notice separate options in the Ease of Access window for increase the mouse cursor size, and also its colour. This can be extremely helpful if your eyesight is not as good as it was. Another useful option is informally referred to as mouse ping, and will mean that pressing Ctrl on the keyboard draws concentric circles around the mouse cursor to indicate its position — useful if you frequently lose sight of it. To set it up, click the Start menu and type “mouse” into the search field. Then click the Mouse & Touchpad Settings heading that appears, and click Additional Mouse Options in the dialog box that subsequently appears. In the all-new dialog box that you see, click the Pointer Options tab and put a tick alongside Show Location of Pointer When I Press The CTRL Key.

Another useful option within the Pointer Options tab is Snap To, which will automatically move the mouse cursor to the default button in dialogue boxes — avoiding the need for you to try and click the button each time, which can be frustratingly difficult if you have fine motor limitations.

Magnificent magnification

Overcoming issues caused by poor eyesight when using a computer can be as simple as turning-up the brightness of the screen and also increasing the contrast. This will make words stand out better from their background. Usually these adjustments can be done by fiddling with a monitor’s controls, which vary radically from model to model. The best plan is to consult the manual — and if you don’t have one, you might be able to find an online version by searching Manuals Online: www.manualsonline.com.

As a quick aside, eBook readers such as the Kindle Paperwhite (amzn.to/2edC78e) or the Kobo Aura HD (goo.gl/7vI4As) are ideal for bookworms with worsening vision because their electronic paper plus backlighting makes for impressively high-contrast lettering.

The Screen Magnifier app built into Windows does exactly what you might expect, which is to say it causes the area surrounding the mouse to appear bigger. It can be activated by clicking the Start button, typing the word magnify, and then clicking the Magnifier entry that appears in the list above. The app has three modes: full-screen (which is default), lens, and dock. You can switch between them by clicking the magnifying glass icon that remains at the top left of the screen, and which summons the Magnify toolbar, before subsequently selecting the option from the Views dropdown list. The lens option is a little like holding an traditional magnifying glass over the cursor, in that the magnified area appears in a small window at the cursor position, while the dock option turns the top part of the screen into a larger magnified area (you can make this bigger or smaller by dragging its black bottom edge). Full-screen is perhaps most useful and simply makes everything larger around the cursor but can be bewildering at first.

Talk to me

The Windows Narrator tool is able to speak via a pretty good quality synthesised voice whatever you see on screen. For the writer with limited eyesight, this is perhaps most useful for reading aloud text you’ve written, or speaking the letters and/or words you type. Obviously, narrator requires desktop speakers, or for you to be wearing headphones. Note that laptops include built-in speakers.

To activate Narrator, open the Start menu, click in the search field, and type its name. Then click its entry from the list that appears above. As soon as you activate the app it’ll start talking, reading the contents of any dialogue box that you click on. However, click the General option and then remove the ticks alongside everything aside from perhaps Hear Characters As You Type, or Heard Words As You Type — if you require those options.

In future, once Narrator is running you can highlight text using the mouse cursor within your word processor and it will then be read out to you automatically. For more details of what is a very fully featured tool see Microsoft’s guide to Narrator: https://goo.gl/NynCHh