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How a “Blind” Student Learned to See Computer Displays
by Using Features in Microsoft Office

Focus: Transition

Topic: Access Technology

Deborah Gilden

Senior Scientist

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center

The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute

2318 Fillmore Street

San Francisco, CA 94115


(415) 345-2114



An important academic decision that must be made for the student with very low vision is which approach to computer access would be more useful: visual access, or vision substitution access?  For a student we shall refer to as “JJ,” the latter was chosen years ago.  An examination by our low vision specialist* indicated that JJ has only light perception in his left eye and a Snellen visual acuity of 20/5000 in his right eye.  This extremely low acuity score was due to the fact that his vision consists of islands of vision scattered around the periphery.  Thus a letter must be large enough to span at least two such islands if it is to be identified.  Despite this deficit, we decided to re-examine the decision that JJ would not be able to access computers visually.  The applications within Microsoft Office have features that allow for easy modification of the appearance of both text and graphics.  This paper describes our exploration of how these features might be of benefit to JJ.

Accessing Computers as if Blind

JJ came to our Institute last year as a NIDRR Summer Scholar.**  He was an undergraduate college student, and used his computer extensively for schoolwork and e-mail.  Given his extremely limited vision, it was not surprising that he accessed his computer as if totally blind.  Instead of using the mouse to access Microsoft Windows’ graphical features such as buttons and menus for computer input, he used keyboard commands (on either a standard qwerty keyboard or a Braille keyboard).  To access the screen display information he used a screen reader with speech output.


JJ’s intelligence, motivation, tenacity, and computer skills, made him an outstanding student.  This was especially impressive in view of the fact that he had chosen a difficult major with a heavy visual focus: mechanical engineering.  JJ lost his vision at age 10, and his visual memory clearly serves him well.  It allowed him to mentally image the flow charts, graphs, and diagrams that sighted students could actually see at a glance.

Time to Consider Visual Screen Access?

Aware of JJ’s vision limitations, we were surprised that he included a monitor when setting up his computer for his first day of work at our institute.  When queried about this, he explained that he used the monitor only to see whether or not there was a dialog box on the screen when his computer seemed to crash.  Although he could not read its text, the mere presence or absence of the box helped him know if he might be able to fix the problem without rebooting the computer.  He stated that Windows could not make text large enough for him to be able to read it.

Computers have great capacity to display images in ways that enhance visibility.  The fact that JJ could visually identify a dialog box suggested that there might be a way to provide him with more visual access to screen information.

Image Enhancing Options

The most important image enhancers for people with low vision are magnification and high brightness contrast.  These are generally accomplished by using special software designed for low vision computer users.  This solution is extremely helpful for some, but difficult for others to learn.  Also, these programs are generally quite expensive, require installation, may interfere with other applications, often have software bugs, and require a fair amount of time to learn.


Another approach that some find useful and that avoids these problems is use of the accessibility tools that come with MS Windows.  These, however, offer limited options regarding magnification and color contrast, and do not provide fine, independent control of the appearance of images such as toolbars and menus, text in a document, graphics made by AutoShapes, clipart graphics, and background colors.  Also, the magnification feature often pixelates text and images – a most undesirable feature, especially for consumers with low vision.

In contrast to either special software or the Windows accessibility tools, MS Office applications have features that, although not intended for low vision access, are ideal for this purpose.  They require no additional installation or expense, do not conflict with other applications, and provide virtually unlimited options for flexible, easy-to-use ways of enhancing the appearance of text and graphics.  In addition, because they offer great control of the image-enhancing parameters, it is possible to finely customize the screen to meet the individual needs of low vision users.  Thus, MS Office provided us with an excellent opportunity to learn if JJ could see anything useful on a Windows screen.  We started by enhancing text in MS Word.

A Peek at Greek:  Enhancing Text Images

JJ was familiar with the shapes of Latin letters, but had never seen the Greek letters that he used in mathematical formulas.  Therefore, the first text we enhanced for him was the letter “alpha.”  We used Times New Roman font, 100 points in size, with a zoom value of 75% in Web Layout.  This made an image that nearly filled the screen between the toolbars on the top and the bottom of the Window.  Since JJ said he could read “Yield” traffic signs up close, we started with that color scheme:  black letters on a yellow screen (Figure 1).  JJ put his face close to the monitor, seemed to trace the shape with his head, smiled, and said “So that’s what it looks like!”


Figure 1.  Enlarged black letter against a yellow background, in MS Word

Buoyed by this success, we presented JJ with other letters of the Greek alphabet formatted the same way.  He slowly and patiently examined each and learned its shape.  Because working with such large letters in Word, an application designed for continuous text, was awkward, we switched to PowerPoint.  This allowed us to easily experiment with different text-background color combinations.  Yellow letters against a black background seemed to be best for JJ.  PowerPoint also allowed us to use only one click to display the letters full screen.  The result is seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2.  Enlarged yellow letter of against a black background, in MS PowerPoint

The issue of color-combination preferences is not a simple one.  If maximum brightness contrast were the only consideration, all people with low vision would choose black on white or white on black for text and background.  This is not the case, however – a fact recognized by various websites, as well as software, designed for low vision consumers, as they offer other color combination options.

Other Ways to Enhance Viewing

Magnification, high brightness contrast, and idiosyncratic color combinations, are not the only ways that images can be enhanced.  Making text bold, using certain fonts (e.g. sans serif), and outlining graphics with thick, high-contrast lines, might also be beneficial.

The overall design of what is presented on the screen is also important.  Simple displays with a small number of elements are easier to see than cluttered displays.  Grouping elements in meaningful ways, and surrounding the groups with negative space, is also helpful.

Animation can be used to direct visual attention.  Images that flash or move across the screen can help the low vision viewer know where to look on the screen.  Sound can also serve as a cue that something has changed and should therefore be attended to.

PowerPoint Opens the Graphics World to a “Blind” Student

Although designed as presentation software, PowerPoint can be used for many other purposes.  Students can use it as a digital medium for drawing, graphing, storing images (e.g. photographs, clipart, and Web images), etc.  They can also use it to make hardcopy materials such as book report covers, figures for geometry assignments, announcements, and posters.  This versatility, combined with PowerPoint’s ability to enhance images, its ease of graphics manipulation, and its multimedia capabilities, makes it an excellent tool for students with low vision.

We introduced JJ to PowerPoint graphics by having him look at an extremely enlarged clipart picture.  As he visually examined its various parts, we discussed what they were and talked about the way cartoon drawings often exaggerate certain features.  We then ungrouped the picture and clicked one of its elements to select it.  With just a bit of initial guidance, JJ was able to use the mouse to make the selected element move across the rest of the clipart image.  It was the first time JJ performed a drag and drop, and it marked the beginning of the development of new visual-motor skills.

To show JJ another way to accomplish the same thing, we selected the same clipart element, but this time had him use the arrow keys to move it.  It was the first time he saw anything on the screen change as a result of something he did on the keyboard.

To strengthen this skill, we introduced JJ to a PowerPoint feature designed to allow speakers to highlight features on the screen during a presentation.  This is PowerPoint’s drawing pen that can be used only in slide show view.  The slide we used had a black background with a very large, bright yellow AutoShape.  We set the pen color to red.  Using the mouse to control the pen, JJ methodically “drew” diagonal lines, slowly filling the screen from upper left to lower right.  He watched in fascination as he saw the red color appear across the screen in response to his moving the mouse.  This was an important eye-hand coordination milestone.

Encouraged by these successes, we wondered if JJ might be able to use the mouse on his own to work with graphics images.  To make it easier for him to see the cursor, we used Windows’ pointer modification feature to make his cursor “extra large” and “inverted.”  “Extra large” is not very large, but it is an improvement over the standard cursor size.  Larger cursors are available from other software, but we chose to use only what was already available in MS Windows and MS Office.  The inverted cursor displays the pointer in a contrasting color to whatever it “covers.”  If it covers multiple colors, then each corresponding portion of the cursor is displayed in contrasting multiple colors.

We gave JJ basic PowerPoint instruction, with special emphasis on using AutoShapes and keyboard commands.  JJ learned how to create, move, rotate, duplicate, and recolor AutoShapes, as well as modify their line thickness and line color to allow for variety, while at the same time ensuring that he could see them.  He also learned how to group multiple AutoShapes, and to modify, move, or duplicate these simultaneously.  The more JJ practiced working in this medium, the better he became at seeing or identifying what was on the screen.  He was soon using AutoShapes to create schematics and diagrams of an electronics project.  This was the first time that he was able to visually create graphic materials related to his work as an engineering student.

In the process of working with AutoShapes, it eventually became evident that JJ was able to see the small selection handles that are use to resize and reshape the figures.  In view of his limited visual acuity, this seemed all but impossible.  In reality, however, it demonstrates that objects for detection can be much smaller than objects for recognition.

Applying These Principles to Excel

JJ had been generating mathematical curves with mathematical formulas for years – but had never been able to see them.  Applying the principles that enabled him to see text and graphics in Word and PowerPoint to the displays he generated in Excel, allowed him to see these curves for the first time.  Figure 3 shows such a high-contrast, thick curve.

Figure 3.  Thick yellow curve with black background and large fonts, in MS Excel


Enhancing screen images simply with features found in MS Office had a profound effect on JJ.  Although he was pleased to be able to see the shapes of the Greek letters for the first time, as well as read English text on the screen, visual text access was too slow to be practical.  He therefore returned to using a screen reader and synthetic speech for text access.  Being able to see, and even create graphical materials, however, is opening new doors for this mechanical engineering student.  JJ stated that he was the only member of his class who did not show his work in a PowerPoint presentation last year.  He looks forward visually creating and analyzing diagrams, schematics and graphs in PowerPoint and Excel, as well as displaying them in PowerPoint presentations to his classmates and instructors.

Our experience with JJ indicates that MS Office applications contain features that are so flexible at enhancing screen images that even students with extremely limited vision can see them.  We urge low vision students and the professionals who work with them to explore their potential to make computer text and/or graphics visually accessible.

* The author wishes to thank August Colenbrander, M.D. for testing this student, and for his insights regarding JJ’s vision.

** NIDRR Summer Scholars are supported by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.  The author would like to acknowledge The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute for funding her work on this project.

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