What is a screen reader, and why are they important?

There are about 12 million people living with a vision impairment in the United States alone. Worldwide, there were approximately 250 million people who have difficulty seeing in 2015, 36 million of whom are entirely blind. Today, that number has only grown.

You may know someone with a visual disability—perhaps you have one yourself. But did you know how such individuals access the internet? They use assistive technology called a “screen reader,” which speaks aloud the text on a digital screen using a speech synthesizer.

How do screen readers work?

Screen readers are sophisticated technology. Unlike a “text-to-speech” function on a computer, they have the ability to do more than just read the text out loud from top to bottom. Screen readers like JAWS can also convert it Braille output (if you have a Braille display) and allow users to jump to different elements around the screen. Since most visually impaired people cannot use a mouse to navigate a computer screen, screen readers rely on keystrokes to move through page content.

How do screen reader users navigate a page?

Let’s look at an example of how someone might use a screen reader to read a web page. Technology aside, the way screen reader users navigate is not all that different from how someone with a visual impairment would. But instead of using their eyes to skim a page, they use their fingers and a keyboard.

They may start by paging through the top navigational elements, then jump down through the page reading the headers and links. Like everyone else, they often rely on headers and sub-headers to skim the page, then drill down into content they find especially useful.

Why is knowing how a screen reader interacts with a page important?

Without proper structure and possibly some additional code, a screen reader user will face a website that has all the organization of a TJ Maxx after a particularly frenetic Black Friday sale. They will find it disjointed and hard to understand—essentially a big ‘ole jumble of 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.

Developers should also include alternative text for images. (Screen readers cannot interpret an image; they can only report that an image exists or read the alt text.) They should also ensure that pages are structured properly (e.g., with logical headers and sub-headers).

If there are forms or other interactive elements, a screen reader user must be able to access (and submit them, if relevant) using only a keyboard. They’ll need to be alerted about form fill errors in a way that enables them to fix the problem, or else they’ll be stuck.

You can test your website for screen reader compatibility errors by either using one yourself and manually navigating, or by utilizing a tool like JAWS Inspect. JAWS Inspect provides a text output of JAWS audio, so you don’t actually need to know how to use JAWS to understand what a screen reader user’s experience would be like.

However, if you want to be super comprehensive, you should use both to test your site. You can check out our guide to testing for JAWS compatibility using JAWS Inspect for more details.

What does screen reader speech sound like?

Screen reader speech often sounds like an old-fashioned record (remember them?) spinning at 10x its normal speed!


Because screen reader users get so used to hearing the synthesized speech, they often play the screen reader audio at much higher speeds than what would be considered understandable by non-screen reader users. This way, they can consume content much faster and find the information they need quickly.

What are the most popular screen readers?

JAWS and NVDA are the most commonly used screen readers. Many mobile phones have built-in screen reader-like capabilities, which makes them indispensable to those with vision impairments. Apple offers VoiceOver and Android has TalkBack.

Screen readers are an essential tool for the millions of people with vision difficulties who want to take advantage of all the benefits offered by the internet. However, it’s up to companies to ensure their websites are compatible with screen readers. If you’re looking to make your website or digital content accessible, contact TPGi today!

Categories: Business, World of Accessibility

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