Chromebook and Low Vision: Maximizing Success

Since learning has gone online in most places across the country, I am getting many questions about what the best Chromebook setup is for a student with low vision.  The challenges the wrong Chromebook can pose for a student with low vision have become even more evident as students who are used to having a mix of screen time and engagement time in the classroom are now on-screen for 100% of their learning.  While every child with low vision is different, here are some general tips that I have found increase success for students with low vision while accessing Chromebooks.

  1. Start by setting the students' preferred accessibility features.  From the main screen you can either click on the time of hit ALT+Shift+S and then click the Settings menu (looks like a Gear Icon).  Within Settings hit “Advanced” to see Accessibility settings.  From that menu make sure you select “Always show accessibility features in the system menu.”  Now when you hit ALT+Shift+S you will see a shortcut to the accessibility features. 
  2. Speech to Text: Chromevox has grown-up into a pretty great screen reader.  However, it can be too much for some students with low vision who only need occasional speech to text support.  You can turn it on in settings and can either hold the Search key and click a line of text to have it read or hold the Search key and draw a box around text you want read.  Pro Tip: If you are working with a younger child consider buying additional TTS voices from the Google Play Store and look for one that sounds more like a child. 
  3. Change the color, contrast, and temperature: Once enabled in settings CNTRL+Search+H will toggle High Contrast on and off (note only inverse contrast is available).  You can also adjust the Chrome theme to a color combination that works better for the student when High Contrast mode is not on.  Many Chrome apps have a “night mode” built in that can be turned on in settings that will flip contrast to white text on a black background. 
  4. Don’t forget about night shift!  For students who struggle with brightness and benefit from a warmer color scheme you can change the night shift settings so that night shift is on all of the time. 
  5. Screen Magnification: You can CNTRL+ and – to increase and decrease font size in most environments but for magnification of the entire screen turn on screen magnification and use CNTRL+ALT+Brightness Up or Down to increase and decrease magnification.  On a touchscreen you can use the two-finger pinch to zoom in and out. Pro Tip: When using CNTRL+ and – to increase and decrease font size CNTRL+0 will take you back to neutral. 
  6. Cursor: You can change the cursor size and highlighting in the settings menu.
  7. That 5-year-old 10-inch Chromebook that all the other students are using probably isn’t going to work for the student with low-vision!  A Chromebook device is not “one-size fits all” for students with low vision.  The device features need to be carefully selected.  In the same way that you will likely run into issues running a program like JAWS or ZoomText on a low-end out of date laptop the same is true for Screen Magnification and Chromevox on the Chromebook.  I have found that school Chromebooks tend to have the most basic specs available for Chromebooks which works for most students in general educaiton but for students who need to use screen magnificaiton more proccessing power is needed.  Otherwise, I have seen screen magnification crash, have a great deal of lag, and interfere with student success.  
  8. Ask the school to enable Google Assistant!  It can be really helpful, and many tasks can be completed via voice to take some pressure of the eyes such as sending an e-mail or creating a calendar event or reminder. 
  9. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.  I have found that people often want to automatically buy a 15-inch Chromebook for students with low vision.  I only really find the increased screen size makes a difference for students with mild visual impairments (in the 20/60-100 range) who just need that little bump for visual access.  For students with more significant low vision I actually prefer a 12-13 inch Chromebook.  Why?.......
  10. Touchscreen is king (or queen)!  I find many students with low vision do better with a more tablet sized Chromebook in a convertible format (can fold in half into a tablet).  This way it is easier to hold in the hands and position closer to the face similia to an iPad or Android Tablet. 
  11. Stylus support is key!  Some Chromebooks have a built-in stylus that pops out of the side which is even better.  Students then can handwrite onto the screen and go completely digital with the Chromebook. 
  12. Look for a rear-facing camera.  When back in the classroom this allows students to snap photos of the whiteboard from a distance. 
  13. Even with the best Chromebook you will probably still need an external monitor setup!  For longer writing or reading assignments it is best jus to plug that Chromebook into a 24+ inch monitor and possibly have an external large print keyboard as well.  This makes it so that the Chromebook is flexible enough to lay on a couch with but also can do the heavy-duty lifting of a long assignment. 
  14. Don’t forget the Android apps!  Modern Chromebooks allow you to download Android apps as well so all your favorite Android apps for low vision can exist on your Chromebook as well! 

Finally, remember, the most successful VI students always have a tech tool kit!  Many tasks can be completed on a Chromebook, but it is likely that most students with visual impairments will benefit from access to a range of accessible and assistive technologies!