IT resources for disabled staff

If you are finding it difficult to use your computer, tablet or phone because of a disability or health condition, explore ways to work differently.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.  Any support provided by the University is subject to operational requirements and depends on the nature of the role.

Changing your display settings

If you are a PC user, start with the Ease of Access Centre which you can find within Settings (or use the search function on the taskbar to find it). Here you can customise text size, brightness, background, colour and more. AbilityNet has further information on making your computer, tablet or phone easier to use and also produces a range of factsheets.

DSE assessment

All staff who use computers should complete a regular Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessment. An online self-assessment tool is available here. If you are experiencing discomfort when using your computer, this is something you should raise, either through the regular assessment, or by contacting your line manager directly. We are all different sizes and shapes, and may need our workspace set up differently. Your department DSE co-ordinator can help with alternative equipment, such as computer mice, mouse mats, keyboards and document holders. Also raise any issues about your chair and desk. 

If you are using work-provided equipment such as a laptop or tablet, remember that you need a good ergonomic set-up for these too. The following are recommended for use with a laptop:

  • Mouse (consider vertical mouse to reduce shoulder strain)
  • Keyboard
  • External screen (possibly with a docking station)
  • Additional cabling to connect external screen

Assistive software

Here you will find details of free technologies to support reading and writing.

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We recommend using OneNote, which is free and integrated into University systems.

New natural voices

Microsoft has introduced new high quality natural sounding voices in multiple languages. They are available across various applications and devices but require and online connection.

Look for the Read Aloud feature in Microsoft Office.

Note: You should use Microsoft Office 365 to get all the latest features. They are also available in the online apps and mobile apps.

Microsoft Edge to listen to Web pages or PDFs

You can use the free Microsoft Edge browser to read both web pages and PDFs. You can access this in many ways:

  1. Click on the Read Aloud button in the URL bar
  2. Go to menu and choose Read Aloud to listen to the whole page
  3. Select any text, right-click and choose Read Aloud Selection
  4. Use the Ctrl-Shift-U keyboard shortcut

Once you start listening, a menu bar will appear at the top. You can use it to:

  1. Play/Pause
  2. Skip back and forth by a sentence
  3. Change Voice Options

a.Voice (prefer Natural voice when available)

b. Speed of reading

Microsoft Word to listen to documents

You can access Read Aloud in Microsoft Word in one of two ways:

  1. Click on Review tab and choose Read Aloud
  2. Use the Ctrl-Alt-space keyboard shortcut

Microsoft Outlook to listen to messages

In Outlook, you can listen to:

  • Messages you received
  • Messages you typed before sending them

To launch Read Aloud in Outlook, you can either:

  1. Use the Read Aloud button which is either in:

a. Messages you received: Under three dots at the end of the Tool bar

b. Messages you typed: under the Review tab

      2. Use the Ctrl-Alt-space keyboard shortcut anywhere

What is Immersive Reader

Immersive Reader is a feature introduced by Microsoft that will enable more productive reading in a number of applications. It will:

  1. Remove distractions from web pages (Edge only)
  2. Allow larger font and increase space between characters
  3. Line focus
  4. Syllabification
  5. Highlighting of parts of speech (Edge and OneNote only)
  6. Read Aloud (can work outside Immersive Reader, as well) 

Immersive Reader is available across most Microsoft applications. However, the features and interface are not always the same.

Microsoft Office: Word, Outlook, Onenote, Teams

Immersive Reader is built into the key Microsoft Office applications used for dealing with large amounts of text.

  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Word Online
  • OneNote
  • Outlook
  • Teams Chat

It has a slightly different interface across different applications.

To launch it, click on the Immersive Reader button under the View tab.

Microsoft Edge

The main purpose of Immersive Reader on Microsoft Edge is to simplify the reading of complex web pages. By default, it only works on pages with articles, not on lists. However, it is possible to select any text on any page and display it in Immersive Reader.

There are three ways to launch Immersive Reader:

  1. Click on the Immersive Reader icon [insert screen shot] in the URL bar
  2. Type the keyboard shortcut F9
  3. Select any text, right click and choose Open selection in Immersive Reader

To close Immersive Reader, you can either:

  • Click on the Immersive Reader icon in the URL bar again
  • Type the keyboard shortcut F9

Note: Immersive Reader only works on web content, not PDFs.

Alternative for PDFs: Adobe Acrobat Fluid mode for PDFs on Mobile 

Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to read PDFs in an Immersive Reader style mode. Some PDF reading applications offer reflow mode that allows the reader to enlarge text without having to scroll left to right but the quality is variable.

However, it is now possible to achieve a similar experience on mobile devices with Adobe Acrobat reader app using its Liquid mode feature. It uses a machine learning algorithm to transform the PDF into a more readable format and to create an outline.

Liquid mode in Acrobat Reader has several limitations:

  • it requires an online connection
  • it does not work on some very complex documents
  • it does not work on very long documents
  • it does not allow highlighting
  • read aloud feature built into Acrobat Reader doesn't work in this mode

To help you organise your Word documents and navigate more easily around them, you can benefit from using two powerful but under-appreciated features:

  1. Heading styles
  2. Navigation pane

An equivalent to these features can be found in most other word processing software.

Heading styles

To take advantage of the outlining features in Word, you have to mark all section headings with Heading styles. Doing this will enable the automatic creation of Table of Contents as well as the Navigation Pane. It also has the added benefit of making the document accessible for blind readers using a screen reader.

What are styles: Every paragraph in Word has a style which is set to Normal by default. A style contains information about formatting of the paragraph such as, font size, line spacing, indentation, etc. You can change the style from the Styles section on the Home tab. 

There are nine built-in styles called Heading 1-9. Each number represents the level in the outline.

There are three ways in which you can mark a section heading with a style:

  1. Click anywhere in the text of the heading, and then click on Heading 1, 2, 3, or 4 in the Styles section on the home tab 
  2. Use a keyboard shortcut:

a. You can choose a keyboard shortcut to choose the number of the heading level directly: Ctrl-Alt-1, Ctrl-Alt-2, Ctrl-Alt-3, etc.

b. You can promote or demote the level of the heading of the paragraph you are on with the keyboard shortcut: Alt-Shift-Left Arrow or Alt-Shift-Right Arrow

Navigation pane

Microsoft Word has a feature called Navigation Pane that shows all the headings in the document. You can use it to manage the document outline:

  • Collapse sections or subsections
  • Only show sections at a certain level of the outline
  • Promote or demote selected sections in the outline (this will change the heading levels of all subheadings)
  • Select the heading and all the text in subsections belonging to it
  • Drag and move sections up and down in the outline (only in Microsoft Word on Windows)

How to use the Navigation Pane:

  1. To open the Navigation Pane click on the View tab
  2. To access the main features of the Navigation Pane right click anywhere inside it.

Other advantages to using Heading styles

If you've marked all your section headings with Heading styles, you can also:

  • create an automatic table of contents based on headings
  • export the document into PDF with a clickable table of contents and headings as bookmarks
  • change the font style, size, colour and other formatting by redefining the style to ensure consistency across the whole document.

Marking headings with styles is also necessary for accessibility. 

Overall, using styles has many advantages and makes it worth the investment in learning how to use them.

Alternatives: Google Docs

Heading styles are also available in Google Docs with many of the same features including a Navigation Pane called Document Outline and keyboard shortcuts.

However, it is not nearly as full featured as what is available in Microsoft Word. The only features available are:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to mark section headings with Heading styles (Ctrl-Alt-1, 2, 3)
  • Show document outline 
  • Generate automatic table of contents
  • Change the formatting of headings at different levels

For more sophisticated outlining, you should consider using a dedicated outlining tool. There are options of both free and paid software for this. There are two types of outlining tools:

  1. Outliners: Display outline as a list of headings and subheadings
  2. Mind maps: Display outline visually as branches from a central field

Mind maps can be converted into outlines and vice versa.

Features to look for in an outlining tool

Most outlining and mind-mapping tools should have these features:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to quickly generate new items and move items around; typical keyboard shortcuts are:
    • Enter: Create new item
    • TAB: Move item down one level in the outline
    • Shift TAB: Move item up one level in the outline
  • Collapse and expand levels of the outline
  • Export the outline into a word processing application or presentation

Many mind-mapping and outlining tools also have these additional features:

  • add images and/or icons to items in outlines
  • make checklists
  • add dates to items on outlines and display them as timelines (this can be used for efficient project management)
  • collaborate and/or share outlines or maps online


There are many free and professional outlining tools available. These three all offer sufficient free features for most uses:

  1. Checkvist: Fully online tool 
  2. Dynalist:  Online tool with associated apps for most platforms
  3. Obsidian: Note taking app with strong outlining features 

Mind mapping tools

There are dozens of free and commercial mind mapping tools available at all kinds of price ranges. Free or inexpensive mind mapping tools will be sufficient for most needs. These four represent major types:

  1. XMind 8 (Classic): Free tier of a powerful mind mapping tool for all platforms.
  2. Mindomo: Online mind mapping tool with an outline view with apps for desktop and mobile (free for three maps with a low monthly subscription).
  3. Free Mind: Entirely free basic mind mapping tool for desktop.
  4. WriteMapper: Paid mind mapping and outlining tool focused on creating long documents.

How to get the most from outlining tools

To take advantage of the power of outlining and mind mapping tools, you should spend time learning to use them more fluently and productively. You should especially focus on:

  • Learning the keyboard shortcuts for fluent creation of outlines to remove the barrier between the brain and the screen
  • Becoming proficient in moving between different levels of the outline
  • Developing a workflow of moving information between the mind map and your documents or notes

Concept mapping tools

There are not nearly as many tools available for creating concept maps as there are for mind maps. If you want to create a concept map, you should consider one of these two tools:

  1. CMap: Free dedicated tool for creating concept maps (works online and on desktop)
  2. Mindomo: Primarily a mind mapping tool and outline tool with concept mapping functionality


Key features of modern speech recognition

Dictation is now available for free in all major word processors and on both mobile and desktop operating systems. The key features of modern dictation are:

  • Positives
    • Does not require training
    • Is responsive to all types of voices and tolerant of accents
    • Does not require special headset or microphone
    • Supports multiple languages
    • Does not have to be installed
    • Is free
  • Negatives
    • Requires an online connection
    • Cannot create custom vocabularies or adapt to individual users
    • Has limited editing capabilities
    • Expects input in complete sentences
    • What is dictated can change as more input comes in

These pros and cons apply to all the systems described below; they do not apply to the only commercial alternative, Dragon.

Microsoft Office: Word, Outlook, PowerPoint

Where it is available

All new versions of Microsoft Office now support dictation when you are connected to the Internet, including the online version.

Note: You must be a Microsoft 365 subscriber.

Dictation works in:

  1. Microsoft Word (Office 365)
  2. Outlook (Office 365)
  3. PowerPoint (Office 365)
  4. Word Online (Office 365)
  5. Word Mobile application 

Dictation is not available in Office 2016. You should install the latest version from

How to launch

To start dictating, you can either: 

  1. click on the Dictate button on the Home tab and start speaking.
  2. use the Alt-` keyboard shortcut.

Available commands

You can click on the Question mark button on the dictation interface to get a list of commands.

Most common commands are:

  • Punctuation: full stop, comma, question mark
  • Document control: new line, start list, start numbered list
  • Editing: delete, backspace, bold, italics


Dictation is also available in Windows 10 and Windows 11 using the same kind of speech recognition engine. To launch it, simply type Win-H and start speaking anywhere you can enter text.

You can use this to dictate even in a Word document.


Dictation is also available on MacOS. See more details on how to use it:

Dictate messages and documents on Mac – Apple Support (UK)

Google Docs

Dictation in Google Docs is free without any subscription. It is of similar quality to Microsoft Office but supports more languages. To start it, you can either:

  1. Go to Tools, select Voice Typing
  2. Use the Ctrl-Shift-S keyboard shortcut

The commands are similar to Microsoft Office.

Comparing free dictation with Dragon

Dragon is the only commercial alternative to the free dictation options. It is only available for Microsoft Windows. It is the only alternative for people who require complete voice control over their computer and/or who want to dictate while offline. 

Key features only available in Dragon:

  • Spell out unknown words
  • Set up a custom vocabulary
  • Train speech recognition based on own writing 
  • Have full control over editing the document 
  • Control any part of the computer interface with voice

The main downsides of Dragon:

  • very high cost
  • requires some training to get the best results
  • cannot be used by different people on the same computer without loading a separate profile
  • is relatively resource intensive (may not work well on very slow computers)
  • more sensitive to signal quality (trained on particular microphone) 

Note: Dragon used to be called Dragon Naturally Speaking and Dragon Dictate. 

New apps are constantly being developed that disabled people may find useful, so we are unable to maintain a list. However, we list here a number of free or low-cost apps that can be used to listen to documents on a mobile device. All of these applications can be used while reading or simply for listening with a phone or tablet closed.

iPad and iPhone

  1. Speak Screen: Feature built into iOS that can be enabled in Accessibility settings
  2. Acrobat Reader: Free PDF application with Read Aloud features
  3. VoiceDream Reader: Paid application designed for listening to documents
  4. Microsoft Edge: Can be used to listen to web pages


  1. @Voice Aloud: Free app that will enable listening to any PDF, ebook, or web page (supported by advertising which can be disabled for a small fee)
  2. Acrobat Reader: Free PDF application with Read Aloud features
  3. Moon Plus Pro: Cheap app for reading and listening to PDFs and eBooks


Assistive software generally comes with good instructions, often using short video clips to explain features. If you are getting support through Access to Work they recommend training too, which is carried out at your workplace by a visiting trainer.


Digital highlighters or scanners may be suitable for staff or students primarily dealing with printed materials. They can:

  1. Convert printed text to audio
  2. Copy text from books

Many of these features can be replicated by phone apps such as Microsoft Lens but the hardware may still have advantages when it comes to handling printed material.

Some options include:

  • ReaderPen | C-Pen - £250
    • Stand alone
    • Portable
    • Expensive
  • C-Pen Connect - £120
    • Connects to phone/table via bluetooth
    • Requires another device
    • Cheaper
  • OrCam Read - £2,000
    • Only reads out text
    • Very expensive
    • Only suitable for people with severe needs
    • More expensive version available for blind people to help them navigate including face recognition
  • Clover Book Pro – £2,400
    • Laptop sized magnifier
    • Can serve as a second screen
    • Can be used for reading whiteboards
    • Includes OCR functionality
    • Portable but not hand held
    • Aimed at readers with limited sight


If you work for a department that is directly supported by IT Services, such as UAS departments, order through IT Purchasing to benefit from the discounted prices negotiated by the University. If you work elsewhere in the University, ask your local IT support to liaise with IT Purchasing.  This covers equipment and software.

Contact us

Disability Advisors contact details here

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