TL;DR: To accommodate for the visual parts of roleplaying, either abolish them or prepare for them in advance. The majority of roleplaying is oral. You can do that.
I've now been playing RPGs for 2 months now.
I can now say wholeheartedly: Yes, roleplaying if you are visually impaired is possible.
This is entirely subjective, so I'll list out my background:
- I am not fully blind. I am incapable of reading words, but can still see colors and navigate a screen decently well.
- I am very familiar with navigating my computer. I think this gives me a major advantage. I have a moderately quick response time.
- I use a screen reader to read text to me. I use NVDA. I have no clue how other screen readers work. If you are using a magnifier and that works for you, I think you have an even easier time than someone who needs a screen reader.
- I am only playing online via voice chat. I still have no experience with playing in-person and don't think I can. The process might be entirely different.
This is my conclusion in the 3 months since I asked this question: No matter your level of visual impairment, if you're savvy enough with your computer, I think you'll be fine. If you can find & read this post, I think you're well enough on your way to be able to play RPGs.
My goal with roleplaying was to not be a burden on the other players. I wanted them to feel like I'm just a new player rather than a visually impaired new player. I wanted to be able to keep up with the action without people going out of their way to accommodate for the fact that I'm disabled. I think I've accomplished this well enough.
Here's what made it possible...
Before Playing The Game
You need lots of preparation time.
Read the manual, maybe multiple times. Get a PDF manual of the game and read it however you can. (I use NaturalReader, free PDF-to-speech.) This is hard. This is genuinely hard. PDFs aren't usually accessibility-friendly. There are multiple columns that read in the wrong order & plenty of images to throw you off. So, read it multiple times, take notes in any way that helps you retain that information, try to understand it as well as you possibly can before your game. The goal here is to be on as even of a ground as possible as someone who read it in the way it was meant to be read.
Take the time to translate your Character Sheet PDF to a text file. I tried an Excel sheet, it just didn't work as well for me as a plain text file. I've uploaded my Character Sheet for my Dungeon World Paladin here. I'm aware that Dungeon World is a relatively simple game, but I think with the right amount of preparation, this could work with any game. Character Creation seems to be the most difficult thing. You're going to be referencing this file all the time. It took a while for me to make beforehand, but it's seamless during actual gameplay.
Make sure the game is being played in a way that works for you. There's two aspects to this: 1) Are you okay with the game system? and 2) Are you okay with the method of play? You need a concrete yes to both of these before committing.
You'll have to figure out what game systems work for you on your own time. Try reading the game's manual & seeing if it fits your playstyle. If this is your first game and you don't know if it fits your playstyle yet, try any of the systems recommended in the answers below. I've played Dungeon World/Fate Accelerated/Roll For Shoes with great success.
Personally, I think D&D and especially AD&D are way too advanced if this is your first time. This has little to do with your visual impairment and more to do with being a new player in general. It's hard to keep up with a ton of mechanics for any new player, so games that are easier to pick up for new players are naturally easier for visually impaired new players. If you want to play something more mechanical down the road, it's perfectly possible. I just wouldn't recommend it first off.
You need a method of gameplay (that works with a screen reader).
This is tough. This is what separates games that I can play and games that I can't play. Again, I'm playing primarily by voice chat and I use a screen reader most of the time.
I tried Roll20 and Rolz.org. They did not really work for me. Both are completely incompatible with my screen reader.
Skype or Hangouts would probably work fine. I don't know how people using Skype handle dice. I know that Hangouts has some RPG-friendly extensions that people use. I don't know if those extensions are accessibility-friendly. Here is an online dice roller that is accessibility-friendly. I think Skype/Hangouts is perfectly possible as long as you have a test session with a friendly person to iron out the kinks.
I've used Discord and I love it. There's TTS right in the settings, dice bots that work perfectly once you get them set up, and cross-platform voice chat. Discord has been extremely pleasant and allows me to just have one app to fulfill every aspect of the game. I can be up and ready to go in 5 minutes.
The major issue is simply that you will have a larger learning curve than someone who has visual access. I think every platform except Roll20 is technically possible to play on. It's just going to take some time to learn and navigate around.
You need a friendly & patient group of people to play with.
I've considered joining games and not telling the people involved that I am visually impaired. Personally, I'm very shameful of it & I delude myself into thinking mentioning it is a cry for help. You should tell your fellow players that you're visually impaired. This has little to do with asking for help. You need to tell them so they can relate to you as a person better, and in case a hiccup occurs during a session and you just need a few minutes to get your bearings.
I feel confident enough to be able to approach any campaign group after spending a few months with a very nice group. But, without that first good impression, I probably would have quit the hobby completely. If you don't know where to go to find a group (I didn't, and somewhat still don't) head to the StackExchange RPG Chat. People are very nice there and can point you in the right direction, or even invite you to join their group.
First impressions are extremely important. I was very stressed the first month of the campaign, to the point where I considered ditching the first gameplay session and never coming back. So, try to find friendly & accommodating people. It makes all the difference in how enjoyable & stress-free your experience is. Talk to them before agreeing to a long-term campaign with them.
During The Game
This is the part none of the other answers prepared me for. There's one key problem with roleplaying as a visually impaired person:
While everyone else is using their hearing to follow along with the other players and using their vision to reference their character sheet and the manual...but you have to accomplish both of these with just your hearing.
I don't really know a way around this. This is always going to make roleplaying harder for you than other people.
The only thing that can reduce the stress of this is to be as prepared as possible. If I already know what moves are available to me and how they work, I don't need to use my hearing to flip back to the manual and can spend most of my time listening to everyone else and following along with the group's flow.
If you only need to make occasional references, the only time you'll have your screen reader interrupt everyone else is to hear the results of a roll. People are normally quiet for a few seconds while waiting for the result anyway, so I found this didn't interrupt the gameplay.
By the second gameplay session, I felt pretty similar to everyone else because I only had my TTS interrupt everyone else when a roll occured. I could devote my brain energy to being creative rather than flipping back to the manual and hearing my screen reader slowly narrate to me and talking over all the other players.
Ask for a character creation session and a separate first gameplay session.
In Dungeon World, a game that's relatively light in the character creation department, I was unable to complete my character creation in the 2 hours we were all talking. I just couldn't keep up with listening to everyone develop the setting and filling out the mechanics of my character at the same time. That required way too much manual referencing & text file formatting.
I took the week between the character creation session and the first gameplay session to take my time and finish my character. I really found I needed to do this on my own time, at my own pace.
If your group is doing character creation and gameplay on the same day, talk to your GM and see if you can schedule something one-on-one beforehand to make your character before everyone else does.
Try to avoid games that require maps.
We couldn't figure out a way to make this work in the gameplay. It's not required in games like DW, Fate, etc.. I already think it takes a huge frontload of work to participate in RPGs as a visually impaired person, and you really don't need the extra stress.
This is all I found that was an impediment in the gameplay. Every other issue was related to being a new player in general (character development, choosing a playstyle). After a certain point, there was no difference between me being a new player vs. being a visually impaired new player.
It's very possible. I found the preparation to be drudgery, but when playing in a real-time improvisational environment... I had loads of fun. I think it's worth the drudgery. It's an extremely creative outlet that has a lot less barriers for someone who is visually impaired than other outlets.
Remember, at its core, roleplaying, especially through real-time voice chat, is mostly oral storytelling. You can already do that! All you have to do is take the time to work around the logistics.
(Special thanks to nitsua60, BESW, Shalvenay, and Sandwich.)