What Is a Screen Reader and Why Is It Important?

Updated 12/20/2023

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. Assistive technology called a “screen reader,” speaks aloud the text on a digital screen using a speech synthesizer. It is an important tool for people with visual impairments because it improves their user experience, and helps make your organization’s websites, applications and other digital products accessible to all.

Screen readers are also used by people with other types of disabilities, such as cognitive impairments–in fact, anyone who finds it easier to have screen content read out to them.

Here you’ll find answers to many common questions people have about screen reader software, including how they work, the types of devices that are compatible with screen readers, and tips for making your site and software more accessible.

How do screen readers work?

Screen reader software translates written text into audible speech played through a device’s speakers, whether that’s the text on the page, alternative text for images, or video captions. Unlike text reader software or 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 for the blind, like JAWS, can also convert text information into a Braille output onto 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 enable the use of keystrokes to move through page content.

How do you use a screen reader?

Technology aside, the way screen reader users navigate is not all that different from how someone without a visual impairment would. But instead of using their eyes to skim a page, they use their fingers and a keyboard.

Let’s look at an example of how someone might use a screen reader to read a web page.

They may start by paging through the top navigational elements, then jump down through the page reading the headers and links to find the information relevant to them. Through each step of the navigation, from header to sub-header to the main text, the screen reader will read the element aloud or convert the text to Braille.

But what happens when the screen reader encounters something on the page that isn’t text, like a video or image? To answer that question, it helps to understand how screen readers work with coding and page elements, like HTML.

How a screen reader interacts with a page

While a screen reader can technically “read” almost anything on a screen, in reality, it is interacting with code. For a good user experience, a website must use “standard controls,” or the code must include particular attributes called ARIA that will “translate” various elements into standard controls for the screen reader. For example, div tags 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 ensure that pages are structured properly and include logical headers and sub-headers for easier navigation. Website and app coding should also include descriptive alternative text for images. Screen readers cannot interpret an image; they can only report that an image exists or read the alt text. By using alt text, the screen reader can provide a description of the image and context.

A screen reader user must be able to access–and submit–forms using only a keyboard. They’ll need to know what to input in each form field and be alerted about form fill errors in a way that lets them fix the problem, or else they’ll be stuck.

How screen reader software work on different devices

Digital devices today run using different operating systems and rely upon various apps to provide a good user experience. For a website, software or device to be accessible, it must have functionality that allows people to interact with them using screen readers. Here are a few examples:

Desktop and laptop computers: On computers, screen readers use keyboard commands or gestures to interact with the operating system and apps. They read aloud the content, such as web pages, documents, and emails, allowing users to navigate using keyboard shortcuts. The most commonly used screen readers–compatible with Windows devices–are JAWS (Job Access With Speech) and NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access). VoiceOver is the native screen reader for Mac OS devices.

Mobile devices: Screen readers on mobile devices provide similar functionality to those on computers. Users can navigate through the touchscreen interface using specific gestures, and the screen reader will announce the contents of the screen, including text messages, emails, apps, and websites. Apple’s VoiceOver is available on iPhones and iPads, while screen readers for Android devices include TalkBack or Voice Assistant.

Ebook readers: Screen readers are also available on dedicated ebook readers, such as Amazon Kindle. These devices use text-to-speech technology to read aloud e-books, enabling visually impaired individuals to enjoy reading independently. Users can navigate through the book’s content, adjust the reading speed, and customize other preferences.

ATMs and kiosks: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that ATMs and kiosks be accessible to people with disabilities, including those with visual impairments. This includes providing features such as tactile keypads, audible instructions, and text-to-speech capabilities through screen readers.

Why are screen readers so fast?

Screen reader speech often sounds like an old-fashioned record 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.

Tips for screen reader accessibility

To ensure your website, mobile app or software is accessible to everyone, there are a few best practices to follow. Avoid problematic errors that can disrupt the functionality of the most commonly used and popular screen readers. This includes poor or complex navigation, exclusive mouse dependency, and not making error messages accessible to end users. Here are a few more tips to help you ensure your site or app is screen reader accessible.

Proper HTML tags: Screen readers need semantically-rich tags to understand web content and the elements on the page. It makes it easier for screen readers–and humans–to read content on a web page and navigate through the site when HTML tags concisely convey their message. While it’s possible to make a div act like a button by using ARIA, it’s always better to use a semantic button element in the first place. The first rule of ARIA is, “Don’t use ARIA–unless you have to”.

Expressive headings and lead sentences: People who use screen readers consume content the same way most people do: by skimming headlines, headings and images. Writing headings that represent the main points of your message is not only a best practice for creating accessible content, it is also a best practice for copywriting and SEO. Wherever possible, use semantic headings from level 1 to level 6, and structure them hierarchically.

Alt Text: As mentioned above, alt text is essential to a good user experience for people with visual impairments and disabilities. It should be descriptive, including not just the literal description but also any context a person might need to understand why it’s included on the page. Omit the phrases “image of” or “picture of.” Because it’s being read as alt text, the user will already know it’s an image. Finally, check for spelling errors. Screen readers will read alt text exactly as it appears, which could be confusing if there is incorrect spelling. When images are purely decorative and have no semantic meaning, use null alt text, that is, alt=””. This tells screen readers to ignore the image.

Correct Punctuation: Screen readers stop at periods, pause at commas and new paragraphs, and follow other grammatical rules to simulate human speech. Similar to spelling errors, grammatical and punctuation errors can lead to confusion.

How to conduct screen reader testing for compatibility

Before launching a website or application, your organization should include accessibility testing into its review and quality control process. The first step is to make sure you are testing compatibility with commonly used tools, like the JAWS screen reader.

One way to test your site for screen reader compatibility is to use one yourself and manually navigate the site. Have people within your team–preferably including people with visual impairments–to review the site using a screen reader and document any errors and confusing navigation or text. Another option is to use a third-party user testing service, like JAWS Connect. This puts your development site or app in the hands of people who commonly use screen readers for more authentic feedback.

Another testing tool is 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 comprehensive, you should use both text-based and user testing to review your site. You can check out our guide to testing for JAWS compatibility using JAWS Inspect for more details.

If you have any questions, contact one of our accessibility experts today!

Categories: Business, World of Accessibility