Using the JAWS Screen Reader To Test Web Accessibility
JAWS is the world’s most popular screen reader. Here’s what designers and developers should know when using JAWS to evaluate web content.
According to a 2021 survey by WebAIM, JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech) is the world’s most popular screen reader, edging out competitors like NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) and Apple VoiceOver.
A screen reader is software that outputs text as audio or Braille. If you’re trying to build an accessible website, screen reader testing can play a key role in your strategy. However, it’s important to understand the features and limitations of screen readers — and to remember that web accessibility isn’t just for blind or low-vision users.
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the JAWS screen reader and share tips on how to test your digital content with JAWS.
Why JAWS Is the Most Popular Screen Reader
People prefer different screen readers for a variety of reasons. For some users, JAWS provides the most consistent output. For others, they may have learned how to use JAWS before encountering other options.
JAWS has a number of features that make it popular among screen reader users, such as:
- It’s highly customizable. Users can configure their own hotkeys (keyboard commands to trigger certain actions) or use the software’s built-in hotkeys for popular applications such as Microsoft Office.
- It includes two multilingual synthesizers that can be customized with different voices for a more pleasant listening experience.
- It works well with refreshable Braille displays, which people can use to type or read content without listening to audio.
While JAWS is a useful tool, it’s not free. The standard version costs $95 per year, and users can also pay $1,000 for a perpetual license.
Nevertheless, in WebAIM’s survey, 53.7% of respondents identified JAWS as their primary screen reader. NVDA, the second-most popular option, came in at 30.7%.
Using JAWS To Test Your Website’s Accessibility
Testing your website with JAWS can provide valuable insights into how users experience your content. However, it’s not intended as an accessibility checker — especially if you don’t have experience using screen readers.
For example, if you’re unfamiliar with JAWS keyboard commands, you might struggle to navigate a website that wouldn’t pose any difficulties to a more experienced screen reader user.
It would be a bit like testing your website with a smartphone, if you had no experience with touchscreens. You’d probably run into some frustrating issues, but how many of those would be due to poor website design? And how many would be due to your lack of experience with touchscreen control?
Tips for Using the JAWS Screen Reader
You shouldn’t rely on JAWS as your only tool for accessibility testing, but using a screen reader can still be a valuable experience.
This is especially true for web developers and designers. When you understand how screen reader users experience your website, you can make better decisions when building your content.
Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of JAWS:
- Start by familiarizing yourself with JAWS keyboard shortcuts. Review Freedom Scientific’s JAWS guides and print a copy to use as a reference when testing the software.
- Always open JAWS before launching your web browser or other software.
- Remember that visual content won’t always sync up with JAWS’ audio output. For example, JAWS may read content on a web page that isn’t visible without scrolling down the page.
Experiencing Web Content With JAWS
When using JAWS with a web browser, pay attention to how visual elements are presented. For example, if you focus on an image, JAWS will read the image’s alternative text — unless the image is missing alt text.
Once again, your goal is not to test your website’s accessibility, but rather to increase your understanding of how screen reader users experience your site. With that in mind, ask yourself questions while browsing:
- Does the web content appear in a logical, predictable order? Or do some elements seem out of place?
- Can I understand the content with all of the visual elements removed?
- Can I easily move between different types of content (such as form fields), without getting “stuck” on a certain element?
If you’ve never used a screen reader before, you’ll probably feel frustrated when using JAWS (or any other assistive technology). That’s okay — stick with it. As you learn the keyboard commands, you’ll gain perspective about the experiences of real-life users with disabilities.
Is JAWS Testing Enough for Digital Accessibility Compliance?
Accessibility testing has two primary goals:
- To ensure that content works well for all users, regardless of their abilities or the technologies they use to browse the internet.
- To meet established digital accessibility standards, most commonly the Level AA success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Of course, the first goal is the most important. However, WCAG provides a foundational framework for inclusive design — when content conforms with WCAG, it’s generally considered to be reasonably accessible for most people.
Screen reader testing is a type of manual testing, but it’s best suited to provide an overview of your website’s accessibility at a specific point in time. Additionally, this type of testing is primarily focused on a single type of disability (people who use screen readers typically have visual impairments).
Testing content with JAWS can be extremely helpful, but it’s not a comprehensive solution for digital accessibility compliance.
Building Your Strategy for Digital Accessibility Testing
The purpose of WCAG is to create a better internet for everyone — including screen reader users — by following four foundational principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
With an appropriate testing strategy, these concepts can help you build better content from day one. Screen reader testing can be beneficial, particularly during your website’s development — but for long-term compliance, you’ll also need to regularly test content against all WCAG success criteria.
At AudioEye, our automated technology can find up to 70% of common accessibility issues — and automatically fix about two-thirds of them. We also continuously monitor your site for new accessibility issues with every visitor, and our Accessibility Score updates in real time to reflect how your site is doing.
Want to see where your website stands today? Enter any URL to get a free scan for any accessibility issues on that page.
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