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What is a screen reader, and how do they work?

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

A screen reader is an assistive technology that turns visual content into audio. Imagine hearing the page described to you without seeing what the page looks like for yourself. That is essentially how a screen reader works. Now, most might assume that a screen reader is primarily intended for people with blindness or even low vision. Still, they can also be useful for people with difficulty focusing, comprehending, or understanding content.

Different screen reader options

There are many screen reader options available today, but in most cases, there are five main screen readers in use worldwide, they are:

  1. NVDA

  2. JAWS

  3. Voice Over on Mac OS

  4. Talkback

  5. VoiceOver on IOS

VoiceOver appears on this list twice, as it is built into all Apple devices, including iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, and Macs. The main difference between the two is the device type, one being touch devices and the other not being touch devices. Talkback is also a mobile screen reader that comes with any Android device.

In most scenarios, screen readers all work the same, with some minor differences in how they translate the content and how the content can be navigated. For example, one screen reader might require a single keyboard command. In contrast, another requires a combination of multiple keystrokes to complete the same action.

It is also important to note that specific screen readers work better on certain browsers and operating systems. For example, VoiceOver works best on Safari, while NVDA and JAWs work better on Chrome, Edge, or Firefox.

Screen reader statistics

To give a bit more content to the screen reader user base and how they are being used, let’s look at some data from the 2021 WebAIM survey.

  • The age of screen reader users varies from young children to the elderly. 38.3% of users who responded were between the ages of 21 and 40

  • 92.5% of respondents indicated that they use a screen reader due to a disability, and in most cases, it was a visual disability

  • 94.9% indicated that their proficiency with a screen reader was average or above, while only 5.1% said they were a beginner

  • 30.7% primarily used NVDA

  • 53.7% primarily used JAWS

  • 6.5% primarily used VoiceOver

  • The remaining 9.1% primarily use a different screen reader option

Try a screen reader out for yourself

If you’ve never heard of a screen reader, seen one in action, or are curious after reading this post, you can get your hands on a screen reader for free and experience it first-hand! Do a quick Google search for NVDA download or get the latest version of NVDA.

If experimenting isn’t quite for you, check out some videos on YouTube of screen readers in action. Also, keep an eye out on the KC & the Bandwagon for examples of the difference between non-accessible and accessible content can sound. Chances are you will be shocked at how they work!

A word for designers/developers/content authors

If you want to see how well your new website, application, or document, works with a screen reader, the best thing to do is to review with at least two screen reader options. As mentioned, screen readers have some differences between them. However, by testing with 2 of them, you can be confident that you have built something robust across most of the options available. I recommend reviewing with NVDA and VoiceOver for desktops and VoiceOver and Talkback for mobile devices.

It is essential to keep in mind the keyboard-only functionality. If the user cannot see what is on the screen, chances are they will not be using a mouse. This makes it extremely important that all content can be reached, interacted with, and moved away from with just a keyboard. Try using the tab key or the arrows to move between the content on the page and ensure that the user does not become trapped on specific sections or elements.

Final thoughts

When we build and design new websites, apps, and documents, we need to think of screen readers during the process and testing as we reach milestones. Unfortunately, many users are excluded from the beginning if assets are not tested with screen readers. The best way to ensure screen readers work is to bring in users who use them daily. Including people who use screen readers in the process yields a better end product and opens the door to innovation and advancement. Ensuring screen reader and keyboard compatibility with real users is a significant first step towards an accessible finished product and providing an equivalent experience to everyone.

Want to learn how to be more inclusive to your audience? Reach out via email at today!


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