Using the NVDA Screen Reader to Test Web Accessibility

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Using the NVDA Screen Reader to Test Web Accessibility

Posted April 10, 2023


Posted April 10, 2023

A stylized website, with an icon representing a screen reader announcing page content out loud.
A stylized website, with an icon representing a screen reader announcing page content out loud.

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NVDA is a free screen reader for Windows. Here’s how to start using NVDA as part of your digital accessibility strategy.

NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free screen reader developed for Microsoft Windows operating systems.

Screen readers — also known as screen-reading software — output text as audio or Braille. They’re most commonly used by people with visual impairments, but a 2022 survey by WebAIM found that about 8% of screen reader users do not use the software due to a disability.

In that survey, about 30% of respondents identified NVDA as their primary screen reader, which made it the second most popular option behind JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech).

In this post, we discuss the basic features of NVDA and share some tips for using the software to help evaluate web content for accessibility.

A graphic representation of a screen reader, next to an audio icon.

NVDA: A Popular, Free Screen Reader for Windows

Michael Curran, an accessibility consultant and software engineer, started the NVDA project in 2006. Curran, who has a vision disability, recognized that most screen-reading software was prohibitively expensive — and many free programs had frustrating limitations.

NVDA has a number of features that set it apart from other screen readers:

  • NVDA is portable. It can be installed on a USB stick, enabling users to launch the software on virtually any Windows computer, including public-use computers at libraries and colleges.
  • NVDA is customizable. Users can configure hotkeys and maintain their settings when using NVDA across multiple machines.
  • As open-source software, any developer can access the NVDA source code to contribute to the project.
  • NVDA supports refreshable Braille displays and works well with popular applications like Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox.

Unlike JAWS, NVDA is supported entirely through donations and grants. Anyone can download the full version of NVDA via the NV Access website.

Can I Use the NVDA Screen Reader to Test My Website’s Accessibility?

Screen reader testing plays an important role in web accessibility. However, this method of testing is best performed by people who have substantial experience with the software in question — or who use a screen reader in their daily life.

If you’re new to NVDA, you probably won’t have the same experience as a long-time user.

For example: If you’re used to browsing websites with a mouse and keyboard, using a keyboard alone may feel frustrating. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your website has accessibility issues. Additionally, you may miss some issues that would be apparent to a long-time screen reader user.

With that said, downloading a screen reader can provide useful insights to help you create accessible content. Since NVDA is free and flexible, it’s an excellent option — but to create accessible content for every website visitor, you’ll need a more comprehensive testing strategy.

In order to conform with accessibility standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — and help your website comply with accessibility laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — we recommend using a combination of automated and human expert accessibility testing.

Download our white paper on Building for Digital Accessibility at Scale to learn why a hybrid approach provides the best path to web accessibility →

Tips for Getting Started With the NVDA Screen Reader

After downloading NVDA, you’ll need to install the software. If you’re not a regular screen reader user, we recommend unchecking the option to start NVDA automatically when logging into Windows.

Like many screen readers, NVDA uses a modifier key that enables users to quickly trigger certain commands.

By default, NVDA recommends using the Caps Lock key as a modifier. You can assign this functionality to any other key during installation, but for basic testing we recommend keeping Caps Lock as the modifier.

Sighted users may wish to change several other settings during installation:

  • In the Preferences > Settings menu, select Vision, then “Enable Highlighting.” This tells the software to highlight text as it is read. 
  • In Keyboard, uncheck “Speak Typed Characters.” This allows you to type without hearing audio for every character.
  • In the Speech category, you may change the text-to-speech (TTS) voice under the Synthesizer setting.

After installing NVDA, launch the program before opening your web browser. Familiarize yourself with basic NVDA commands — or print off this NVDA quick reference guide.

A stylized webpage that shows a user tabbing through different elements on the page using a keyboard.

Finding Common Web Accessibility Barriers With NVDA

As we’ll discuss in the next section, WCAG isn’t just about accommodating screen reader users — but testing your content with a screen reader may highlight certain accessibility issues.

It’s also important to note that NVDA’s output may change depending on your web browser. According to WebAIM, most screen reader users prefer Google Chrome, but a sizable percentage use Microsoft Edge or Mozilla Firefox (Apple’s Safari is also popular, but NVDA is only available on Windows).

Using your preferred web browser, open your website and use the Tab key to scroll through content. Pay attention to the voice output and ask questions:

  • Does the content appear in a logical order? In other words, does NVDA’s output match the visual presentation of the content?
  • Do images have accurate alternative text (also called alt text) that describes their content and purpose?
  • Can I navigate through forms and other interactive elements?
  • Do form fields have accurate labels and instructions?

When testing your content, remember that your experience is limited. NVDA’s output may change depending on your browser settings, and without a working knowledge of WCAG, you may miss some accessibility issues.

Four icons representing the acronym POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

Why Web Accessibility Testing Isn’t Just for Screen Readers

Screen readers are a type of assistive technology (AT) designed for people with vision disabilities. However, not all users with low vision use screen readers (and as we discussed earlier, not all screen reader users have vision disabilities). 

To comply with the ADA and other non-discrimination laws, you’ll need to consider the full spectrum of disabilities. That includes people with conditions that affect their hearing, mobility, and cognition.

Your website’s design can affect these users in profoundly different ways. For example, Deaf users may be unable to understand video content with missing captions, while people with color vision deficiencies (also called color blindness) may be unable to read low-contrast text.

WCAG accommodates a wide range of abilities by basing its guidelines on four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Read more about the four principles of WCAG.

By testing content against WCAG, you can provide a better experience for every user — regardless of whether they use screen readers or other AT — and enjoy the substantial benefits of digital accessibility.

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Creating a Testing Strategy for Website Accessibility

AudioEye’s platform combines powerful automation with expert guidance from human experts. Our solution performs over 400 unique tests on web content as the page loads, fixing many issues automatically. 

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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