Digital Accessibility: Screen Readers

Published August 9, 2022

With more people relying on screen readers, businesses need to provide compatible websites and applications. But where do you start? Let’s take a look at the most important things to know about screen readers.

What are screen readers?

Screen readers are software tools that provide an alternative way for users to access digital content. They usually convert content into audio or braille. For users living with blindness or low vision, audio output may suffice, but some users, such as those who are Deafblind, need content to be converted into braille. Screen readers are often used in conjunction with braille displays for this reason. However, screen readers are useful to many people, such as those living on the autism spectrum, and not just those with vision loss.

How to make sure your content is screen reader-ready

One of the great things about screen readers is that there are free options available for most platforms, and you can use these to experience your content the way screen reader users might. 

And screen readers don’t just convert text from articles and other pages on your site; they also translate alt text. The purpose of alt text is to convey the meaning of what’s shown in an image in the context of the rest of the content that it’s a part of. Alt text should provide enough detail to clarify meaning while being as brief as possible.

You also need to test screen readers with your site in different browsers,

To see if there are any compatibility issues. How does your site perform with a screen reader on Chrome, as opposed to Firefox, for example?

Screen readers for Windows, Android, and Apple

Most modern computers, tablets, and phones come with a screen reader as part of their base operating system. Some popular screen readers include:

  • JAWS, NVDA, and Narrator for Windows: Job Access With Speech (JAWS)  has a free 40-minute trial. It costs a fee to continue to use after that, but it is one of the most popular screen readers and is compatible with most refreshable braille displays. Narrator, which is built into Windows provides a text-to-speech function, but it’s not a popular screen reader. Narrator and NVDA are both free. NVDA only functions with PCs running Windows 7 or later, but it comes in over 55 different languages. 
  • TalkBack for Android: TalkBack is built into Android devices, but you’ll need to turn it on from the Settings menu. It’s part of the Android Accessibility Suite. Developed by Google, TalkBack is immensely popular. 
  • VoiceOver for Apple: you can find this under Accessibility settings on your iPhone. VoiceOver is the most popular screen reader for iPhones. It’s well worth testing, as almost everyone using a screen reader on an Apple device will be using this one. 
  • Other downloadable screen readers: Other available screen readers include: 

Serotek System Access (Windows), ORCA (Linux), BRLTTY (Linux), Emacspeak (Linux), WebAnywhere (all operating systems and within web browsers), Spoken Web (Internet Explorer), ChromeVox (Google Chrome), and ChromeVis (Google Chrome).

Most screen readers are free, but some, like JAWS, require a subscription fee. But since JAWS is one of the most popular screen readers, it’s worth paying the fee to have it available for testing.

Formatting for screen readers

If you’re trying to make your site more compatible with screen readers to improve accessibility, make sure to follow accessible content best practices and perform thorough cross-browser testing.

Content that is accessible through screen readers will be more accessible for everyone, resulting in a better user experience and a better ability to connect with your audience.

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