For individuals with disabilities, using websites, online software, and apps can be difficult. However, the development of assistive technology (AT) has played a large part in helping those individuals navigate through the web and understand the information that is being presented. Today, we wanted to talk about one kind of assistive technology in particular; so we’re answering the question: what are screen readers?
Assistive Technology Overview
Assistive technology is defined by the Assistive Technology Industry Association as “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” These technologies help individuals of different types, combinations, and severities of disability. They can be low-tech, like homemade communication boards, or high-tech, like a special purpose keyboard or computer. They can even be a piece of hardware, such as a prosthetic, power lift, walker, or positioning device.
To sum it up, assistive technology is any piece of software, hardware, or device that helps disabled individuals with learning, working, and living their daily lives.
What Are Screen Readers?
A screen reader is a type of assistive technology. It is a software program that allows blind or visually impaired web users to “read” the content of a page with either a speech synthesizer or braille display. They act as an interface between a user and a computer’s operating systems and applications.
Screen readers can be used with a variety of systems, including Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and IOS. While each screen reader has a different command structure, most will support several different speech synthesizers.
How does a screen reader work?
A screen reader user will send commands to the screen reader interface by pressing different keys on their keyboard or braille display. These commands instruct the speech synthesizer what to say, and to speak automatically when there is a change on the computer screen.
Screen readers can read a wide variety of text combinations, including single words, single lines, or full sections of text. They can also be used to spell words, find a specific word or group of words on a page, or announce the location of a cursor.
Additionally, screen readers can help users perform more advanced commands, like finding text on a page that’s a certain color, reading highlighted text, finding the active choice on a menu, or reading the cells of a spreadsheet.
Example Video of Someone Using a Screen Reader
Below is a video that was taken during one of our accessibility user testing sessions with Macy, a young woman who is relatively new to screen reader user. Macy has been blind since infancy and is used to browsing the internet on her phone but recently started learning how to use screen readers and a computer to browse the internet.
In the video, you can observe Macy navigating one of the websites we built using the NVDA screen reader, attempting to find information and perform various tasks that have been outlined for the testing session, and hear what the screen reader says as she moves through the site. Macy also has a discussion with Chris, who is leading the session, about how certain accessibility features on the site help her, and they have a good laugh over how NVDA pronounces “FAQs.”
(Chris, off-screen): So, go back to the sidebar and find Workforce
Solutions Panhandle Staff.
(Screen reader): Skip to Primary Sidebar.
(Macy): OK, I was looking at Board Staff. That makes sense.
(Chris, off-screen): Uh, reverse tab two.
(Chris): There it is.
(Macy): I went to the wrong staff; I went to Board Staff.
(Screen reader): Workforce Solution Panhandle Staff Workforce
Solutions – Link Skip to Main Content.
(Macy): I should probably do that.
(Screen reader): The Workforce Solutions staff are located
in Borger – several times –
[Unintelligible screen reader skipping through content]
Heading level – Graphic
Trent Morris. Director. Contact.
Graphic Monica Martinez.
Graphic Ray Flores.
Graphic Frances Garcia.
Graphic Carmen [unintelligible – background noise]
Heading Level 2 Child Care Services
Button contact Carmen
Graphic Tina Maloney
Graphic Tyra Clark
Graphic Sherry Martin
Graphic Elsa Cordero
Graphic Francis Garcia
Button Graphic Georgette Bedolla
Graphic Jennifer – Graphic Jenny Ratsaboud.
Graphic April Slatter. Graphic Beverly Holly.
Graphic Britiney Spruell. Graphic Kristen Luke.
Graphic Deanne Jurasic
Heading Level 2 Employment & Training Services
Graphic Noelle Salizar
Heading Level 2 Workforce Services
Graphic Amber Hinds
(Macy): Found her!
(Screen reader): Heading Level 3 Amber Hinds
Test job title
Button contact Amber Hinds
Test job title Link direct phone number 512-942-5858.
(Macy): Found it.
(Chris): Cool, so how was that over all experience finding Amber’s phone number?
(Macy): That was good and I liked how the people, like, were under headings of like where they worked.
(Chris): Yeah, the departments?
(Macy): That helped organize ok, I’m looking for this. Because I figured she wasn’t under child something or other so I was like, OK, I’m going to keep going down.
(Chris): OK, cool.
(Chris): Um, so the next thing we’ll have you do is, um, navigate to the FAQ page so that will bring you – you’ll want to go back to get to the
sidebar again and find the FAQs for this section.
(Macy): It’s so funny how NVDA says it because it sounds like it’s saying the F-word.
(Chris – laughs): Oh really?
(Screen reader): List with 5 items, link skip to primary naviga-
skip to primary sidebar
Primary Sidebar Complementary landmark
Heading level 2. In This Section.
List with 10 items
Workforce Solutions Services link.
Mobile Career Services –
Panhandle Strategic Plan Link
Workforce Solutions Panhandle Staff visited link
Panhandle Workforce Development Board link
Panhandle Board Staff visited link
Open Procurements link
FAQs link. [Sounds like Faa-Qu ‘s]
(Chris – laughs): That’s actually pretty funny.
Alright, let me check these next instructions here.
(Macy): It sounds like it’s saying F-You, which I tell my computer is rude.
(Macy): It just yells at me.
I really like how accessible this is because I’m very new to using my computer for searching on the web, I normally my iPhone.
(Chris): Oh, right because of the voice input and stuff?
(Macy): They’re trying to convert me to the computer and I’m very happy that this is turning out like I can do things.
(Chris): Well, that’s awesome, I’m glad that in some way maybe this is helping you.
(Macy): It is.
(Chris): And you’re not just helping us.
(Macy): It’s sort of a training both ways.
Popular Screen Readers
There are a lot of different screen readers, and they range in price from free software options to $2000 options. While there are a large number of options, there are some screen readers that have become popular for their features, price range, and more.
The screen readers below are from WebAIM’s 2019 Screen Reader User survey.
JAWS, or Job Access with Speech, has been one of the most popular screen readers for over a decade now. This screen reading software provides speech and braille output for some of the most well-known applications on a PC.
JAWS offers home, business, and school licenses. These licenses can be purchased for single users or multiple users. Single-user plans start at $90 per year for a home or student license, and can reach up to $1200 per year for a professional license. There are also 90-day licenses available for $250. Multi-user licenses vary in price, and are available on request.
Out of the 1224 WebAIM survey respondents, 487, or 40.1% of the respondents, said that they used JAWS as their primary screen reader.
- Two multi-lingual speech synthesizers
- An OCR feature for image files and inaccessible PDF documents
- A skim reader and text analyzer
- The JAWS help center with support and training
- An easily accessible information search with Research It
- Voiceovers for more than 30 languages
NVDA is a completely free screen reading software that works with Windows 7-10. Its popularity has been growing steadily since about 2014, even slightly surpassing JAWS as the most popular screen reader. Its small footprint allows for a simple download and installation process, and ensures a stable and reliable software. NVDA can even be saved on a USB, so it can be used at home, work, school, or anywhere else a visually impaired user may use a computer.
While the software itself is free, you can make a donation as a part of your purchase. There is also an NVDA Productivity Bundle available for $300, which combines popular training modules and telephone support in one place.
Out of the 1224 WebAIM survey respondents, 493, or 40.6% of the respondents, said that they used NVDA as their primary screen reader.
- Supports Firefox, Google Chrome, email, online chat, music players, and Microsoft Office programs
- A speech synthesizer that supports over 50 languages
- Reports textual formatting, such as the font name and style, where available
- A talking installer for easy set up
- Supports many different refreshable braille displays
VoiceOver is a screen reading software that comes built-in with a Mac. It is the third most popular screen reader, behind NVDA and JAWS. It provides assistance with Mac systems and included applications, like the calendar, calculator, and more. VoiceOver also has some unique features, such as hover text, dark mode, and Siri.
As this screen reader is built-in, it is technically free, however, the prices of Mac computers range anywhere from $1000 to $5000 depending on the model.
Out of the 1224 WebAIM survey respondents, 157, or 12.9% of the respondents, said that they used VoiceOver as their primary screen reader.
- Hover text, which allows for instant magnification of text on a page
- Supports over 100 plug-and-play braille displays
- Auditory descriptions of what’s happening on a web page or in a movie
- Rotor virtual controller for customizable commands
- Dark mode, which changes the screen to a dark color scheme to provide relief on the eyes
- Siri voice commands for sending messages, finding files, creating reminders, and searching the web
You Should Test Your Website with Screen Readers
It is important that you test your website with a screen reader in order to fully confirm its accessibility to blind and visually impaired users.
There are many accessibility features, such as skip links and ARIA labels that can be coded into your website to make it easier to use, however without testing the site, you cannot fully confirm that it is accessible. Many screen readers read things differently and it’s important to be aware of how JAWS vs NVDA vs VoiceOver read the content on your website. That means testing the site with all three of these most-used screen readers. You may realize that language needs to be tweaked in order to better accommodate the specific tendencies of one particular screen reader.
As a part of our commitment to accessibility, we partner with organizations like the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to test websites for screen reader useability with real users who rely on screen readers in their daily lives. We highly encourage everyone to have native users of screen readers test their website following internal testing. Having non-sighted users test the site is key because they will likely be more experienced in screen reader use and, because they did not help to build the site, will also be approaching it from a “fresh” perspective of someone who doesn’t already know the sitemap or general layout of elements on the page.
If you want to go above and beyond when it comes to accessibility on your website, our services can get you there. At Equalize Digital, we specialize in website development from an accessibility-first perspective, accessibility training, and accessibility audits and remediation, all of which include accessibility user testing with screen readers. Let us know how we can help your organization make a difference on the web.