How can screen readers be used in accessibility testing?

For digital content to be considered “accessible,” users with all types of abilities need to be able to interact with it successfully. For example, individuals who rely on assistive technology like screen readers or those who navigate the web using only a keyboard should be able to carry out the same tasks on a website as someone without a disability.

It’s wise to embark on accessibility testing to ensure that as many users as possible will have a successful experience on your website. Testing can take many forms:

But let’s start with the basics before diving in headfirst!

What is a screen reader?

People with impaired, limited, or no vision can use the internet thanks to an assistive technology called a screen reader. As the name implies, a screen reader is computer software that literally reads aloud what is on a screen. It is more than a simple text-to-speech tool, however. Today’s screen readers (like JAWS, a common screen reader) allow individuals to navigate the web and use various computer programs without needing to see the screen or use a mouse.

How does a screen reader “read” digital content?

While a screen reader can technically “read” almost anything on a screen, in reality, it is interacting with code. In order for a user to have a good experience, a website must use “standard controls,” or the code must include particular attributes called ARIA that will “translate” various elements into standard controls to the screen reader. For example, divs that are intended to be used as buttons will need an ARIA attribute; otherwise, a screen reader application won’t know it’s a button. Without proper code, a screen reader user will not be able to easily navigate the website; all they’ll encounter is a jumbled subset of the words, elements, and links, which will result in a frustrating experience for them and a potential lawsuit for the website owner.

Also, keep in mind that a screen reader cannot interpret images. Like a web crawler, it relies on alt text to share what the picture is portraying with the user.

Learn how a screen reader user experiences an accessible and inaccessible website.


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What are the benefits of testing web content with screen readers?

Testing for screen reader compatibility should be a critical part of your accessibility auditing process. When you conduct manual accessibility testing (such as by undergoing an audit), the testers will evaluate it to see how well it conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines provide near-universal standards for an accessible digital experience.

However, there is a caveat. Even content that is technically conformant to WCAG may still be inaccessible. Conformance does not equal useable!

If you test for accessibility using a screen reader, you’ll be able to get the same experience as a screen reader user, warts and all. You’ll identify the accessibility barriers to completing actions or instances where a poor user experience exists.

Conducting an audit and executing remediation is a great first step, but testing using a screen reader will get you much closer to an accessible experience.

Why is it important to test for screen reader compatibility?

Aside from the obvious—you want your digital content to be as accessible to as many people as possible—you should also consider the legal risks of inaccessible content. Many digital accessibility lawsuits are filed by screen reader users who were frustrated that they could not complete a critical task on a website or app.

A lawsuit will not only be costly, but it also damages your brand. Consumers today are more concerned than ever about inclusivity and diversity, and a digital accessibility lawsuit will be a black mark on your public presence.

To lower your risk and provide an inclusive user experience, it’s critical to include screen reader testing as part of your overall accessibility testing methods.

How to test for screen reader compatibility

The most obvious way to test for screen reader compatibility is by using screen reader software to navigate your digital content and run through the key user flows to fully understand the experience.

However, using a screen reader like JAWS for testing requires knowing how to use it properly. Its learning curve requires some time for users to become familiar with it enough to use it for testing purposes.
JAWS Inspect is a supplemental tool you can use to conduct JAWS screen reader compatibility testing without knowing how to use JAWS. It provides text output of the JAWS speech so QA testers can easily get an idea of a screen reader user’s experience and export bugs for remediation. JAWS Inspect has virtually no learning curve, so QA testers can start screen reader testing for accessibility issues almost immediately.

Learn more about how to use JAWS Inspect for manual accessibility testing.

Incorporating screen reader testing as part of a comprehensive accessibility check is critical for lowering your risk and ensuring the best possible user experience for as many people as possible. Whether it’s by using screen reader software, a testing tool like JAWS Inspect, or a combination of both, you will not regret including it.

If you need help conducting screen reader testing or would like to know more about JAWS Inspect, contact TPGi today.

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