How Screen Readers Make Digital Content Accessible

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How Screen Readers Make Digital Content Accessible

Posted September 14, 2023


Posted September 14, 2023

Website screen readers with braille displays open
Website screen readers with braille displays open

Screen readers are software applications that output text as audio or braille. Here’s an overview of how screen readers work, with tips for improving website content to make it more accessible for screen reader users.

Originally Posted: 04/05/19

What is a screen reader, and why is screen reader accessibility important?

Screen readers are software that enables those who cannot see the screen to access information on computers and smartphones. The technology reads the screen aloud or converts it to Braille.

While screen-reading software is primarily designed for users who are blind or have low vision, they’re also used by many people who have learning disabilities and people who prefer not to view visual content for various reasons.

When creating a website or other digital content, organizations should keep screen reader users in mind, which is best achieved by adhering to (and conforming with)  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 guidelines. Screen readers function best when a website is specifically created with its needs in mind, which also ensures you’re creating a website that is usable by a greater number of people.

Here’s everything you need to know about screen readers and how to design content that works well with assistive technologies.

A screen ready with braille display and text-to-speech

How Do Screen Readers Work?

Screen readers convert text that is displayed on a computer into a usable format for those who cannot read it. Users navigate their devices through a variety of keyboard commands and unique shortcuts. They work in one of two separate forms:

  • Text-to-Speech Output, where the words are read directly to the user, or
  • Braille Display, where the user can read the output through a tactile pad that translates the words into Braille.

In addition to reading text from the computer screen, screen readers can also translate pictures and tables to help the user make sense of every element on the page.

Screen Reader Customization

Screen readers can be customized based on the user’s needs.

For example, users may choose the verbosity settings on their device that directs how much page detail they would like to receive. A lower verbosity level may omit some punctuation and detailed information about the page’s structure, which may provide a more natural experience for some users.

Since screen reader output can change depending on the user’s settings, it’s extremely important to build content that works for every type of user. That means following the principles of semantic web design (in this context, “semantics" means defining each element so that it can be identified by different types of technologies).

Language and Accent Modification

Screen readers typically support more than one language, so they can switch to a different language as long as that language is encoded in the site’s metadata.

That also means that screen readers can read content in an appropriate accent. For example, if a website is from the United Kingdom, the screen reader can use U.K. pronunciation rules to output the content accurately.

Scripting Functions

Screen readers can be tailored to the user’s unique needs through scripting. Scripting is the ability to write programs that automate tasks in certain environments.

Users can use scripts for a more natural browsing experience, and they can also share these customizations with other users. Many screen readers have an active script-sharing community to help all users get the most from their software.

Laptop open with JAWS, NVDA, and ZOOMTEXT highlight

How Do People Use Screen Readers?

Contrary to a popular misconception, screen readers are not web browsers. Screen-reading software works “on top" of web browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome) and other applications.

The most popular screen readers support braille output, but not all people with vision disabilities can read braille. In a 2019 survey of screen reader users performed by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), only 3.9% of users said that they “primarily rely on braille output,” while 71.3% said that they “exclusively rely on screen reader audio.” 

Usually, a screen reader will start announcing text at the top of a website and read text in order. However, users typically skip to important content — they’ll search for subheadings, hyperlinks, and other elements that are important. 

If a website isn’t designed for accessibility, using a screen reader can be frustrating. The software might read text out of order, or the user may be unable to fill out forms or navigate the content. 

For an example of how screen readers output content, read A Screen Reader User’s Take on Google’s Homepage, written by A11iance Advocate Charles Hiser.

What Kinds of Screen Readers Are There?

Screen readers are available on both desktop and mobile devices. Android and Apple iOS have built-in screen readers (TalkBack and VoiceOver, respectively). 

While many desktop operating systems also have built-in options, most screen reader users prefer dedicated software such as NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) and JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech). We’ll address the differences between those applications in the next section of this article.

Typically, users decide on one type of screen reader and stick with it. Why? Each application has distinct features, and developing skill with the software takes time. Most users initially utilized software that they could load onto their devices, but now many devices are built with the assistive technology included. This allows all users to access information on their computers without additional burdens.

Built-in and Online Screen Readers

Most operating systems have built-in (or native) screen readers. For example, all Microsoft Windows operating systems after the year 2000 include Microsoft Narrator. While Narrator has come a long way, it has limited functionality, and most users prefer third-party software.

Apple products (macOS, iOS, and tvOS) include a feature-rich screen reader called VoiceOver. VoiceOver (Zoom) can also magnify the screen for users with low-vision. Google Chrome OS features a native screen reader, ChromeVox, which can be added to the Google Chrome web browser via a free extension.

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) voice assistants (such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa) also have certain screen reading capabilities, which can improve experiences on mobile operating systems. However, dedicated mobile screen readers like Android TalkBack and VoiceOver (for iPhones and iPads) provide improved usability and more options than standard voice assistants.

In addition to built-in screen readers, there are also screen readers that can be accessed online. Web pages such as WebAnywhere and Spoken Web allows users to access screen reading capabilities through an online portal.

These tools feature a simple interface, which allows users to navigate easily between elements hear article content in a clear manner. Although their capabilities are somewhat limited, these portals are especially useful for individuals who do not have the capability to download software onto a computer.

Native applications and web-based screen readers serve an important purpose. However, third-party screen readers generally provide more options, better usability, and improved compatibility with refreshable braille displays.

Some of the most popular third-party screen readers include:

This computer is connected with a refreshable braille display that is powered by a screen reader.

JAWS (Job Access with Speech)

Developed by Freedom Scientific, JAWS is the most widely used screen reader in the world. The application supports Windows operating systems and features multi-screen support, integration with Microsoft applications (such as Microsoft Office), touch screen and gesture support, and compatibility with braille displays. 

JAWS is highly customizable, with support for script sharing between users. However, it’s relatively expensive: At the time of writing, a home license for JAWS costs $95 per year, but free licenses are available for students and educational institutions.

NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access)

NVDA is a free, open-source screen reader for Windows operating systems. According to WebAIM’s screen reader user survey, NVDA is currently the second-most popular option.

Like JAWS, NVDA supports braille displays and is compatible with Microsoft applications. The software can output audio in 55 languages, and the NV Access website includes tutorials and other training resources to help users configure the software.

NVDA can also load from an external storage device (such as a USB drive), which makes it an excellent option for students and people who use public computers.

ZoomText for Windows

Designed for users with low vision, ZoomText is an integrated screen magnification and reading program.

It is available in three versions: magnifier; magnifier plus reader; and magnifier with all the screen reading software.

In WebAim’s 2021 survey of screen reader users, 4.7% of respondents said that they used ZoomText as their primary desktop/laptop screen reader.

Website with accessibility errors popping up

Should My Employees Learn to Use a Screen Reader?

Organizations that are new to digital accessibility may want to make sure that their website is compatible by checking it on an actual screen reader.

However, developing skills with a screen reader takes time. If you don’t use screen-reading software regularly, testing your content with JAWS or NVDA may lead to false negatives (missing accessibility issues) and false positives (finding issues that aren’t problematic for regular users). 

Additionally, screen reader output can vary depending on the user’s web browser, operating system, verbosity settings, and other factors. Screen reader tests should be performed by experienced accessibility experts — ideally, people who have spent years working with JAWS, NVDA, and other popular screen readers. Learn how AudioEye performs manual tests for digital compliance.

Designing a Website for Screen Reader Accessibility

The best practices of web design improve experiences for all users — and that certainly includes people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies.

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the international standard for web accessibility. It’s also an excellent primer on the essentials of web design. 

WCAG addresses the most common issues that impact people who use assistive technologies to browse the web:

Many of these issues can remediated automatically, although some require human judgment. For example, A.I. can generate captions for videos, but human-created captions are still more accurate (and more useful for screen reader users).

It’s important to note that WCAG is written to improve experiences for all users with disabilities — not just blind people and individuals with low vision. By testing your content against the guidelines, you can improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws.

And because WCAG supports the best practices of web design, conformance has other benefits: Accessible websites tend to perform better in search engine rankings, attain higher conversion rates, and provide a better experience for all users.

Moving Toward Comprehensive Digital Accessibility

To build accessible content, you need a strategy. Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance with the latest version of WCAG (learn about the differences between WCAG’s Level A, AA, and AAA conformance levels). 

AudioEye’s digital accessibility platform is designed to help organizations of every size meet their digital compliance goals. Our technology scans content for common accessibility barriers, remediating many issues as the page loads.

We also provide options for manual testing, expert-led remedations, and a 24/7 help desk to help you find (and fix) the barriers that impact your users.

To learn more, book a free demo.

Ready to test your website for accessibility?

Scan your website now.

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