Introduction to Screen Readers – Fundamentals of Accessibility in the Digital World

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In a world where up to 90% of the information we receive is visual, losing one’s sight might seem like a tragedy, and it does mark the end of ordinary life we are so accustomed to.

My name is Sergey. Having lost my vision in 2014, I faced the initial challenges of adapting to a life without sight, just like many others who have found themselves in this complicated situation.

However, thanks to persistence and a drive for self-improvement, I have mastered numerous technological tools that offer new ways of communication, learning, and working. By thoroughly exploring my computer’s and smartphone’s capabilities, I learned to utilize specialized software and features that make using tech not only feasible, but comfortable and efficient.

Perhaps my experience can be invaluable to those who are just embarking on their journey in a world without sight. I have decided to share my knowledge and experiences to help newcomers learn digital technologies and to show that these can be powerful tools for self-realization and social activity. In my articles, I will strive to explain how to set up specialized programs for working with text and audio as well as how to use voice commands and haptic feedback.

Introduction to Screen Readers: Everything You Wanted to Know

Screen readers are powerful tools that allow visually impaired people to start using smartphones, computers, and other digital devices.

Let me share how I got acquainted with screen readers. I learned about these miraculous programs thanks to my sister who found information about NVDA online. I then asked a friend to help install and initially set up NVDA. After that, I embarked on the challenging journey of understanding the principles of working with a screen reader and its keyboard shortcuts. I learned everything through trial and error, since the idea of searching for manuals or even a list of key combinations online did not cross my mind back then.

What are “screen readers,” and how do they work?

In short, screen readers are programs that assist individuals with visual impairments or cognitive differences (e.g., people with dyslexia) in audibly perceiving text data. Screen readers generate textual messages, which a speech synthesizer (voice engine) then converts into spoken words.

Screen readers can also be used in conjunction with a screen magnifier – software designed to enlarge images on a computer or mobile device’s screen. A screen magnifier can be beneficial for people with low vision who find it difficult to read small text or discern certain details.

What are screen readers used for

  • Accessing Information. Screen readers allow blind and visually impaired individuals to access a wide range of information, including websites, electronic and paper documents, emails, applications, and much more;
  • Learning and Working. Screen readers play a pivotal role in educational and work-related purposes by enabling blind individuals to read, study, research, and interact with digital data;
  • Communication. Screen readers allow blind individuals to participate in online communities, use social media, send and receive messages; they facilitate social integration and interaction.

Are there any accessibility barriers and challenges?

Unfortunately, there are certain barriers and accessibility challenges for the blind in the digital world. Speaking of difficulties and inconveniences that arise most frequently, from my experience these are:

  • Images without descriptions. This is the most common issue. Screen readers can read image descriptions as alternative text. If no alternative text is provided, the screen reader simply states the web element type, i.e.”image,” which provides no information;
  • Unlabeled elements. The second most significant hurdle. Unlabeled or incorrectly labeled links and buttons make it difficult and slow down interaction with a website or application. When activating such links or buttons, I either do not know where it will lead me or end up somewhere I did not intend to go, forcing me to backtrack;
  • Absent headers. I actively use shortcut keys to move between elements of the same or different types. If a page features extensive text that does not separate individual sections with headers, navigating it grows cumbersome and time-consuming;
  • Inaccessible web forms. Most websites have registration or feedback forms. If the edit fields and dropdown lists are unlabeled or labeled incorrectly, I simply cannot use them.

Now, after several years of utilizing screen readers, I use both NVDA and Jaws because one of them may perform better in specific situations than the other and vice versa. Everything depends on a particular task, software, or webpage, making it a continuous process of trial and error: there are moments when one screen reader might not voice anything in a given program’s window, but upon launching the other, you gain the ability to interact with said application.

Popular Screen Readers for Various Operating Systems

For Windows:

    • NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) This is a free, open-source screen reader that offers a broad range of features and is actively developed by its community. Official website: NVDA
    • JAWS (Job Access With Speech) This is a paid screen reader with extensive capabilities, providing numerous features to enhance computer accessibility and usage. Official website: JAWS

Narrator. This screen reader is built into Windows and provides basic features for people with vision impairments. The software is readily available without any additional installation.

For MacOS and iOS:

  • VoiceOver A built-in screen reader for MacOS and iOS that offers extensive accessibility features and provides the user with information about what is happening on their screen.

For Linux:

  • Orca A built-in screen reader and one of the most popular and widely used screen readers for Linux.

For Chrome OS:

  • ChromeVox A built-in screen reader developed by Google specifically for the ChromeOS operating system and the Google Chrome web browser. ChromeVox facilitates navigation through web pages and the ChromeOS graphical interface.

For Android:

  • TalkBack A built-in screen reader that is among the most popular and widely-used screen readers for Android. Developed by Google, it offers on-screen navigation and voice command support.

Conclusion

The world today is incredibly dynamic and interesting thanks to the unprecedented development of digital technologies. Screen readers serve as a bridge between the digital world and those users who cannot rely on standard methods of accessing information. They play an important role in creating an inclusive culture everywhere, allowing people with various disabilities to participate in online discussions, work, and receive an education.

The general advice from me to those who are only beginning to explore ways of using their computer with a screen reader – you should start out with NVDA.

Its advantages are:

  • it is free;
  • does not strain your operating system;
  • works well with most programs;
  • has a large and active community of users and developers, meaning that you can easily find help and guidance;
  • has a relatively simple menu structure.
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