Screen Reader 101: How Advice from a Blind Person Helps a Deaf Person

August 2, 2021
The screen reader reads the title of an article to Knomo

“What is a screen reader anyway?” I remember asking this very same question when being introduced to the wonderful world of assistive technologies. The person told me that a screen reader is a computer that talks. For the life of me, I could not comprehend how a blind person like me can use a computer, regardless if it talks or not. Eventually, I learned that it happens through a screen reader software.

To add context, a screen reader is a text-to-speech app that allows people who are blind or have low vision to use devices such as computers and mobile phones. It converts screen elements such as images, buttons, icons, and so on into audio outputs that are perceivable to the blind person.

A Quick Overview of Screen Readers

Actually, WebAIM Screen Reader User Survey No. 9 states the bulk of survey respondents who say they use a screen reader are blind or have low vision. However, they’re not the only ones using screen readers.

Here are the types of disabilities people using screen readers have:

  • Blindness: 80%
  • Low vision / visually-impaired: 22%
  • Deafness or hard of hearing: 7%
  • Cognitive or learning disability: 3%
  • Motor: 2%
  • Other: 4%

Additionally, almost 20% have multiple disabilities and 6% report being deaf and blind. Some people with dyslexia and processing disorders find it easier to use a screen reader than to read.

Screen readers come in different versions and brands as well as paid and free. WebAIM says 54% of the respondents say they use Job Access with Speech or JAWS, a paid software. Non-Visual Desktop Access or NVDA comes right behind at 31% making it the most popular free open-source version. Screen reader apps come in multiple voices in different languages called synthesizers.

If you or you know someone who wants to use a screen reader for whatever reason, this article will help you get started with screen readers as it answers the most frequently asked questions.

What is the best advice for getting started with screen readers?

Just like any other skill, the best place to start is with the basics. The most important first step is to master your keyboard. People who regularly rely on screen readers don’t use a mouse. The keyboard and all of its shortcuts become your best friend.

Speaking of shortcuts, a good way to master the keyboard and its functionalities while running a screen reader is to use the keyboard help to learn the basic NVDA commands. When you turn on keyboard help, it announces what a specific key or key combination can do. This is a good way to practice and to get familiar with the app.

You can access NVDA’s Commands Quick Reference by pressing Insert+n. The Commands Quick Reference shows shortcuts such as NVDA+n, NVDA+s, etc. The default shortcut for NVDA is the Insert key. So, press Insert+n to open the NVDA menu and select “H” for help and “Q” for quick reference.

Another useful tip is to select a voice or a synthesizer that you like. You have a rich collection of screen reader voices out there. Test a few voices to assess which is most understandable and comfortable for you. It makes a world of a difference when you choose the right synthesizer. You’ll perform actions more effectively when you understand what it says.

You can further enhance your screen reader experience by opting for a high-quality speaker or headphones. Since the output is audio, the sound quality will depend on the output device.

How do you jump to the part you want read out loud?

If you are a beginner, the tab key and the arrow keys are your first friends. Whether you’re on the web or in an app for a laptop or desktop, these keys will help you navigate the app’s accessible content. Yes, only the accessible ones. When the content isn’t accessible, it will be harder or impossible to navigate.

Once you get more familiar with the first steps, you can move to the next step of more advanced navigation styles. These use shortcuts, which involve two or more keys pressed at the same time or in succession. These can be commands built into the operating system as well as special commands for your preferred screen reader.

When it comes to web browsing, single key navigation can also come in handy. These are single-letter hotkeys that move the focus from one element to the other. For instance, “H” moves through all the headings on a page. “T” recognizes the tables. “G” finds graphics and the list goes on.

The tab key, arrow keys, shortcuts, and hotkeys are your allies.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a screen reader user? What’s the biggest pain point?

It is not the screen reader per se that frustrates me. The frustration is with the accessibility issues that I encounter, which don’t work with a screen reader. A screen reader is a powerful tool. It is empowering. However, when accessibility barriers get in the way, they magnify our limitations and difficulties.

What command do you use most often?

These are the two commands I often use:

  1. “Say title” command (Insert + T)
  2. “Say focus” command (Insert + tab)

The “say title” command is one of the first screen reader commands I learned that I still use every day. This instantly tells me where I am on the screen. When properly tagged on websites, “say title” announces the title of a web page. It tells me where I am and gives me mental clues on how to proceed browsing or navigating an app or web page. In short, it provides perspective.

The “say focus” command is most useful for filling out forms. It announces the form field labels and the actual input value. Filling out forms is one of the most crucial yet challenging tasks on the web. So, having a way to validate each form field is a game-changer.

Which screen reader command would you show a first-timer as the most useful function?

That’s the “say title” command. It works with all screen readers. This sounds dull for seasoned screen reader users but it makes a big difference for newbies. This is like a trigger. Once the screen reader announces the title or the location, it provides a mental picture of what’s going on and will eventually help the person a way to create an action plan to accomplish a task.

How does the screen reader experience on a browser or website compare to the experience in desktop apps that aren’t web-based?

Because of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), web-based applications have a higher chance of being fully accessible. Also, there are accessible rich internet applications (ARIA) which developers can use to tweak the web page markup into something more accessible. Having said this, websites are more likely to be screen reader-friendly as compared to desktop applications.

How Digital Accessibility Affects Screen Readers

To wrap up, when we talk about what the user encounters less likely depends on the screen reader brand. It is more about the accessibility of the products and apps that the screen reader scans.

If a website is not designed with accessibility in mind, it no longer matters. Yes, even if the person is a pro at using the screen reader. No screen reader can overcome the barriers put up by an inaccessible website. The same goes for different desktop applications and computer programs.

A screen reader is a powerful tool and life-changing. But it can only do so much. Once accessibility hurdles pop up, it defeats the purpose its purpose. The screen reader user will return to square one and won’t be able to interact with the web or the app. In essence, a screen reader’s experience depends on the accessibility of the website, app, or device.

A Little Backstory

I’m Meryl Evans, a digital marketing handler and accessibility consultant with Equal Entry. I’ve been trying to learn how to use a screen reader properly. It’s a little challenging for me because I can’t hear what the screen reader says.

Fortunately, NVDA has a speech viewer or captions as I like to call it. Still, I struggled to figure out what I should do first. I kept referring to the list of NVDA shortcuts to no avail. The only shortcut I learned was how to shut down NVDA. And boy, did I use that with verve as it got on my nerves at times. It felt good to Insert+Q! This is the shortcut to quit NVDA. I also learned Insert+S, which turned off the speech.

One day on Twitter, I asked people what questions they had about the screen reader experience. An idea started brewing in my mind. A few questions came. One from an artist who wanted to start using a screen reader, but worried it would read the wrong parts.

Ding! The bulb went off. The idea materialized. I asked Rhea if she would write an article on how to get started with a screen reader. She obliged and I gave her the questions that came in.

A Screen Reader Newbie Applies These Tips

After reviewing her article, I decided to give it a go! And this is the result. I already knew how to navigate with a keyboard. The next step per Rhea’s suggestion is to use Insert+T and Insert+Tab. That helped a lot!

Once I mastered that, I used “H” hotkey for a list of the headings or using “2” to browse the headings. Hey, I could finally jump around. Rhea is spot-on in recommending learning how to navigate a website using only a keyboard. For this one, learn the different ways to navigate with Windows keyboard shortcuts or Mac keyboard shortcuts.

Just pressing Tab moves the focus forward. Use Shift+Tab to go in reverse. Alt+Tab browses open windows. NVDA lets you know which window you have selected. When it announces the right one, let go and you’ll land on that window.

Ctrl+Tab moves from browser tab to browser tab. To go backward, select Shift+ Ctrl+T. I use Ctrl+W to close a browser tab and Ctrl+T to open a new tab. That should be plenty to get you started in web browsing with a screen reader.

Try out Rhea’s tips and let us know how it goes for you. Ask your questions in the comments.

Consultant | Manila, Philippines
God's Warrior, Accessibility Ninja, Health and Wellness Enthusiast, Writer...

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