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Visual Accessibility of Text

Before you Begin

This document looks at the various presentation options for text on modern computers. It can be used as a method for self-assessment or to learn about some of the benefits that computers can bring to people who struggle to read text. This document is based around text viewed and edited in Microsoft Word as this is the currently the most popular word processor and has a wide range of text accessibility features.

A Method for Assessment

I often use a two-box approach for assessing someone's preferred text format. This is similar to an optician's technique of giving you two options, asking which you find clearer to see, and then building upon that information. In most of my assessments I draw two boxes on the screen (using tables or textboxes) and then set large margins. Each box can then be quickly configured to contain text using the range of visual properties listed below.

Text Presentation Options

Font Styles

Font Style

Letters, books and journals are traditionally produced in a serifed font called Times New Roman. It looks like this:

Times New Roman Sample

Recently sans-serifed fonts such as Arial as becoming more popular. It looks like this:

Arial Sample

To most people sans-serifed fonts like Arial look clearer and are easier to read than Times New Roman.

To change the font style of all the text in a document first you should select all text:


Then go to the font list on the toolbar:


and select a font using the arrow keys or by typing in the font name and pressing:



Format Painter

Format Painter CTRL+SHIFT+C

Font Size

Before you make a decision about font sizes, and especially enlarging them, you should consider experimenting with Word's zoom feature. This is a similar solution to bringing a piece of paper closer to your eyes.

A person who can't read small text may simply need it pushed up a couple of points (pt) from, for example, 12pt to 14pt. A 'pt' determines the size of a font with 72pt being equal to one inch when printed.

Make sure that when you are testing your preferred font size that you are sitting in a comfortable healthy manner as peering close to the screen can have consequences on your back and neck.

There are two font sizes I try to assess for: the minimum size the client can possibly read and the minimum comfortable size.

To change the font sizes in a document select all the text by pressing:


then use the following key presses to make all fonts a little larger:

CTRL + ]

or the following to make fonts a little smaller:

CTRL + [

This method will make all fonts bigger or smaller but will maintain the any existing differences. So for example a 16pt header may increase to 22pt while at the same time 12pt body text will increase to 18pt. To force all text to use the same font size you should press:


and enter the desired font size.


Font Color

Font Color

Shading Color

Shading Color

Font Colour & Background Colour

The correct colour combination can have an enormous effect on the legibility of text and can aid a wide variety of difficulties.

Choosing subtler colours (such as dark blue on light blue) can reduce the glare of a computer screen and consequently reduce eye fatigue, stop migraines associated with computer use and potentially lengthen computer sessions. This is especially useful for people who have photophobia but really can apply to everyone.

Certain colour combinations work well for people with Scotopic Sensitivity and it’s worth experimenting with some classic combinations such as yellow-on-blue and white-on-blue as well as any other combination that you think might work. Text that is perceived to move, wobble or swirl can become extremely clear and static.

For people who need text to appear as clearly and boldly as possible I have found combinations like yellow-on-black or white-on-black can yield good results.

Don't assume that you or your client needs or would benefit from an alternate colour scheme - but always try and always give enough time to let one's eyes adjust to the colours.

First you'll need to set your preferred colour. The easiest way to do this is click on the tiny arrow next to the Font Colour icon on your Word toolbar.

To set the font colour across your entire document you'll need to press:


to select all text and then to apply the current preferred colour to all your text:

CTRL + ALT + 5





Font Weight

Many prefer to read and write using a bold font. Additional font weight can make text stand out but it can also lead to letters running together.

Some students I have worked with can see bolder text at smaller font sizes and have preferred this option.

Increase the weight by highlighting all the text in your document:


and use:


to toggle bold on and off.


Line Spacing

Line Spacing

Line Spacing

This is a great idea for people who find it hard to locate the start of the proceeding line when they are reading blocks of text. It also has a startling affect on some people with dyslexia as the added space can stop or reduce their perceived movement of the words on the screen, such as found in cases of Scotopic Sensitivity.

The most common line spacing options are 1.0 (normal line spacing without any extra space), 1.5 (an additional 50% of the font's overall 'pt' size is allocated as space beneath each line) or 2.0 (double line spacing). Anything greater than double line spacing involves a lot of vertical scrolling in order to read relatively small pieces of text.

To select all the text in your document:


then for 1.5 line spacing press:

CTRL + 5

or to try double line spacing press:

CTRL + 2

or to return to single line spacing press:

CTRL + 1


Character Spacing Options

Character Spacing

This is an underused feature but has proven to be very effective for people with visual impairment and specific learning difficulties. It allows extra gaps to be placed between the letters of words and often makes blocks of text far more visually accessible.

I find that 1pt of space is almost always appropriate for people who need it. Any extra and it can become less clear how the groups of letters are forming individual words as the space between words becomes less visually significant.

Open the Format menu and select Font.

On the Font dialog select the Character Spacing tab. The dialog should appear similar to the one pictured here.

Change the value in the Spacing: drop-down box to Expanded and you should see "1pt" appear in the By: box. 1pt is usually enough but you might want to experiment with larger gaps.

Applying your preferences

Now that you've experienced the benefits of personalised visual text accessibility you will probably want to apply these settings to your computer.

Microsoft Windows

The first place to start might be with Windows itself. Unforunately there are restrictions on what you can do and where it can be applied. In Windows' menus, icons and dialogs you can format you text's Font, Size, Colour and Background Color but not any other options... [more]

Microsoft Word

Changing the font options in Windows does not affect the font options in Microsoft Word except for one, or perhaps two, important changes. The Font Colour and Background Colour will be displayed as you have specified in your global Windows settings but will be printed as black on white. Likewise if you email the file to someone else it will appear as black and white on their computer.

Microsoft Word allows you to change all the aspects of text visual accessibility using the methods above. Whether you are writing a new document, have scanned in a document from paper, or have received a document from someone else you can go through the above processes to make it accessible for yourself. You can greatly accelerate the procedure by recording a Macro or defining your own styles.

The Web

The Web part of the Internet (which is actually widely referred to as 'the Internet') is often not affected by changes made to global settings. You need to tell Internet Explorer (or Firefox) to use your preferred colours instead of those specified by the author of the site ... [more]


There are essentially two types of email access: web-based (such as hotmail) and POP mail. The accessibility of web-based mail is determined by your web settings. The accessibility of POP mail in Microsoft's popular Outlook application is determined by your global Windows choices. Other POP email applications may vary.

Other Text Accessibility Improvements

You can also improve the accessibility of text by:

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