Improving Access to Computer Displays: Readability for Visually Impaired Users


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Virginia Tech


In the field of human factors engineering the issue of how to present electronic text to people has been studied intensely for over 35 years. However, one major consideration that has largely been overlooked in these studies is how visual impairments affect reading of computer text. Specifically, the issue of how text can be modified to improve readability of CRTs for individuals with low vision. A 2x5x2x3 (visual capability, font size, polarity, and contrast) mixed-factor, repeated-measures experimental design was used to determine if changes in font size, contrast polarity, and/or contrast can improve reading speeds and reduce error rate for people with low vision.

The results of this experiment show that alterations in text can be made that do not affect unimpaired vision readers while dramatically improving the reading capabilities of the impaired vision population. For character size, 12 and 14 point font sizes were found to be too small for the visually impaired population examined. In general, 18 and 30 point font sizes were equal to each other and to the 24 point font size, but for some interactions these two were found to produce longer response times and higher error rates. Thus, a 24 point font size is recommended.

Unlike previous research with visually impaired participants, this experiment found that negative (white-on-black) polarity worsened reading performance. It is thought that this discrepancy is a result of polarity's interaction with small font sizes. For this reason, it is recommended that for font sizes of 18 points and below, positive polarity should be used. For 24 and 30 point sizes either polarity is satisfactory, though previous research (Legge, Pelli, Rubin, and Schleske, 1985b; NRC, 1995; Rubin and Legge, 1989) suggests negative polarity might be better for some visually impaired readers..

Contrasts of 3:1, 7:1, and 18:1 were used in this experiment and had no significant effect for either vision group. However, contrast did significantly interact with both font size and polarity. For font sizes of 18 points or below, it is recommended that contrasts of 18:1 be used for either polarity, but this is very important if negative polarity is used.

The above recommendations are based on a small group of impaired vision readers. Visual impairments vary widely and the sample used in this experiment represented only a portion of them, with respect to both cause and severity. Wherever possible, computer text should be tailored to the unique needs of its users.



contrast polarity, font size, readability, reading, CRT, accessibility, low vision, polarity, contrast