Talking Images: A Screen Reader Revolution
Let’s talk about screen readers -- the revolutionary technology that reads computer text out loud to users! In our visual world of digital images, alt text makes it possible for screen readers to transmit visuals in audio form to people with visual, cognitive and mobility disabilities.
With that in mind, we think it’s a perfect time to explore all of the wonderful ways that screen readers help make the web a more inclusive space.
First – What is a Screen Reader?
A screen reader is an assistive technology program that transmits the text on a computer or mobile screen (including alt text) to the user through Text to Speech (TTS), Braille Display and Assistive Keyboards. With TTS, the words are read directly aloud through a speech synthesizer or computerized artificial voice. The Braille option translates the text into a format that can be read using a Tactile Pad. The pad has an Assistive Keyboard extension that consists of a refreshable display that raises and lowers pins to communicate through Braille.
Users either switch between TTS and Braille Display or use both simultaneously.
Screen readers offer different keystroke commands and shortcuts, providing users with the freedom to browse digital content how and where they please. These commands are accessible with the computer’s built-in keyboard using keys like “Tab” or “Enter” to navigate digital content. Similarly, the user can interact with the Braille Display using their keyboard through sets of input keys.
Screen readers are versatile and can be customized to fit user preferences. For instance, some users may choose to opt out of punctuation. Others may want to include an announcement of features like graphics or tables. If the screen reader has the capability, a user could even opt for the page to be read in a particular accent.
For further education, this link provides a video demonstration of how a screen reader can move through a web page.
Who Uses a Screen Reader?
Traditionally, screen readers are used by people with visual impairments. However, as the technology advances, more people are enjoying the benefits of using screen readers in their daily lives. In fact, anyone who enjoys virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa unknowingly benefits from the advancement of screen reader technology.
For those who like facts and figures, we recommend you check out WebAIM’s 2019 Screen Reader User Survey at this link. According to this study, the majority of screen reader users are people with visual impairments (94.5%). Survey participants also include people with cognitive disabilities (3.3%), people with mobility disabilities (2%) and people who are deaf and blind (4.7%). Some respondents reported having multiple disabilities (15.8%); others reported that their use of a screen reader is not due to a disability (12.4%).
Based on this research, we know that many people benefit from screen reading technology and it has the potential to help others be more independent, efficient and engaged.
Before we get into that, let’s talk about the most popular screen readers and their plethora of features…
Top Three Screen Readers
Created in 1989, JAWS is one of the original screen readers. It’s compatible with Windows and offers both Text to Speech and Braille Display.
Pros: Lots of customizations and options for a great user experience. Allows users the capability to input their own scripting to add further personalization.
Cons: Costs money. Ranges from $1000 for personal use to $1200 for commercial use. Student discount offered at $90/year.
From the Non-Profit NV Access – Michael Curran and James Teh created NVDA to be a free screen reader that is accessible to everyone. NVDA is also compatible with Windows and offers both TTS and Braille Display.
Pros: Free! Easy installation – with option to download to USB for transportation purposes. Program has an open source code so anyone can customize its features – AND share their code with others. Available in 55 languages.
Cons: Unlike JAWS, does not offer a shortcut to skip over tables. Instead, it reads through cell by cell with no opportunity to skip.
Apple fans, rejoice! VoiceOver is built into MacOS 10.4 and on. Like JAWS and NVDA, VoiceOver also offers both TTS and Braille Display.
Pros: Compatible across all iOS apps. No installation required.
Cons: Only available in 35 languages – much less than NVDA.
Just how popular are these screen readers? According to the WebAIM survey, 2019 marked the first year that NVDA was more popular than JAWS. For readers that love stats, here is a breakdown of primary screen reader preferences:
- 40.6% prefer NVDA
- 40.1% prefer JAWS
- 12.9% prefer VoiceOver
*It should also be noted that 72.1% of participants use Windows OS; 13.5% use iOS.
As for mobile devices?
- 71.2% prefer Apple products which offer the VoiceOver mobile screen reader
- 33% prefer Android which offers the TalkBack mobile screen reader.
Head to the WebAIM survey at this link to learn more about screen reader trends and statistics.
Widespread Benefits of Screen Reader Technology
We promised we’d get back to it and we are sticking to our word!
As you can see, all 3 popular screen readers offer both Text to Speech and Braille Display options. But did you know that most people already use TTS technology?
That’s right! Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant – they all use TTS technology. Virtual assistants have created a revolution and are making it possible for people of all abilities to use the same technology -- a major win for inclusion!
It’s easy to see how TTS can benefit a wide group of people. For starters, it’s an enormously helpful pronunciation guide. Anyone who is learning how to read or learning a new language benefits from hearing words read out loud. Furthermore, TTS has proven to greatly assist people with dyslexia.
Tony Wright, a parent of two children with dyslexia, mentions that schools should adopt different reading technologies to ensure that his children are “accommodated without disruption to their day”. TTS provides that seamless accommodation. This is known as multimodal learning, or learning that provides multiple types of communication like visual, auditory or gestural. The process of reading is visual; TTS provides auditory reading. The combination of these modes creates more success with reading comprehension and proofreading of a written work.
Remember our 3-part series on the benefits of Audio Description? One of our discoveries was that many people use Audio Description to help with multitasking; the same goes for people using TTS. It provides the freedom to check up on the news or listen to a podcast – all while engaging in other tasks. It also helps people be safe while driving and use voice commands instead of texting.
Picture this: you’re making a veggie burger… you have meticulously crafted the patty into a perfect shape… BUT you forgot the next step in the recipe. You don’t exactly want to use your sticky fingers on your phone or computer, right? That’s the perfect time to use TTS!
Perhaps one of the greatest advantages that TTS offers is providing alternative formats for education. Students with visual impairments or learning disabilities use TTS in their studies so they can be more independent and productive. Students of all abilities and learning styles can use TTS as a helpful study guide when commuting between classes. For more information on how audio is revolutionizing education, head over to our blog post here.
So now you know the important role that screen readers play in our digital world. Above all else, screen readers empower people with freedom and independence. For that reason, businesses must recognize the critical role they play in ensuring the screen reader accessibility of all of their web-based content.
Curious about your website’s accessibility? Follow this guide from WebAIM to test your site’s compatibility with screen readers on a Mac. Or, you can run an accessibility test through WebAIM’s WAVE tool at this link.
Interested in learning more about how the experts at Scribely can help you meet your accessibility goals? Contact us today for more information!