Screen Reader

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

A screen reader is a software application designed to assist people with vision impairments by converting digital text into spoken words or braille output. Its primary function is to enable interaction with computer screens, mobile devices, and other digital interfaces without the need for visual cues. By interpreting and verbalizing content, menus, controls, and even graphical elements, screen readers provide a critical bridge between digital content and users who rely on auditory or tactile feedback. Screen reader technology has been ‌pivotal in making the digital world inclusive by facilitating everyday tasks, such as browsing the web, reading emails, and accessing online documents. 

How screen readers work

The core functionality of screen readers involves parsing the content displayed on a screen, including text, graphical elements, and interactive controls. Screen readers interpret the structure and semantics of web pages and applications, such as headings, links, lists, and paragraphs, and present the information in speech or braille output form. This process makes it possible for users to comprehend the content they are engaging with, along with its layout and organizational structure.

For graphical content, screen readers rely on alternative text (alt text), which provides a textual description of images and other non-text elements. 

In cases where alt text is not provided, screen readers may only indicate the presence of an image without describing its content, which highlights the importance of incorporating accessible design practices into digital content creation.

Screen readers also offer various navigation techniques, enabling users to efficiently move through content. Keyboard shortcuts and touch gestures allow users to skip to specific elements, such as links or headings, without having to navigate through all content linearly. This functionality is crucial for providing a seamless and efficient browsing experience for users with vision impairments.

Screen readers’ role in ensuring accessible website

Screen readers play a critical role in aligning websites with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered the gold standard in web accessibility, and websites and web-based applications that conform to it (at specific levels) are deemed accessible. While complex and quite lengthy, WCAG is ultimately based on four guiding principles:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

The Perceivable principle ensures that all website visitors, regardless of sensory abilities, can access information. Screen readers support this by converting web content, including text and images (via alt text), into speech, making digital information accessible to those with vision impairments.

ARIA and screen readers

Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) is a technical specification published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that specifies ways in which  to make web content and web applications more accessible to people with disabilities. To that end, WAI-ARIA plays a crucial role in enhancing the functionality of screen readers by providing a framework that allows web developers to make complex web content and applications accessible. This includes dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with HTML, JavaScript, and related technologies.

ARIA attributes offer detailed information about elements on a web page, such as their role (e.g., button, link, tab), state (e.g., aria-expanded, aria-checked, aria-busy), and properties (e.g., aria-labelledby, aria-describedby). This additional layer of information helps screen readers convey an accurate and meaningful representation of ‌web content to users with vision impairments.

Implementing ARIA correctly can significantly improve the screen reader user experience. For instance, by marking up a dynamic content section with the appropriate ARIA roles and properties, developers can ensure that screen reader users are aware when content changes without needing to refresh the page. Similarly, ARIA landmarks can be used to define regions of a page (like navigation, main content, or search), enabling users to easily navigate and understand the structure of web pages.

However, it's important to note that ARIA should be used as a complement to semantic HTML, rather than a replacement. Proper use of HTML elements and attributes remains the foundation for accessible content. ARIA comes into play when standard HTML elements cannot convey the necessary information about interactive or dynamic content.

Screen readers across various platforms and operating systems

There are a number of different screen reader types, each typically compatible with specific operating systems, devices, and browsers. The following are some of the most prominent screen readers

Screen readers for Windows

On Windows operating systems, users can choose from a variety of screen readers, such as NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), JAWS (Job Access With Speech), and Windows Narrator. Each screen reader provides distinct features and integration levels to accommodate the varied preferences and requirements of users.

Screen readers for macOS

Apple integrates VoiceOver directly into macOS, ensuring deep compatibility with the operating system and its applications. 

Screen readers for Linux

For Linux enthusiasts, Orca serves as a versatile screen reader compatible with numerous desktop environments and applications. Orca's adaptability, including customizable speech and braille outputs, positions Linux as a practical choice for individuals with vision impairments.

Screen readers and mobile devices

  • VoiceOver on iOS: VoiceOver is a gesture-driven screen reader that enables iPhone and iPad users to hear descriptions of everything on their screen. Users navigate using swipes and taps to interact with apps, websites, and device settings. VoiceOver offers detailed feedback on text, images, and interactive elements, with customizable voice settings for speed and pitch to enhance user experience
  • TalkBack on Android: Android's answer to screen reader technology, TalkBack, offers spoken feedback and vibrations to help users navigate their devices. It supports a wide range of gestures for managing apps, settings, and web browsing. TalkBack's settings are adjustable, allowing users to tailor the feedback to their preferences.

The evolution of screen reader technology is closely tied to advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and natural language processing (NLP). These technologies are set to revolutionize the way screen readers interpret and present digital content, making the web more accessible for users with vision impairments. Here a number of emerging trends:

Enhanced natural language processing

Improvements in NLP will allow screen readers to offer more nuanced interpretations of digital content, differentiating between main texts and side information more effectively. This will enable a more natural and context-aware user experience.

Integration with AI and machine learning

AI and machine learning will personalize and enhance the screen reader experience, adapting to user preferences over time. This could lead to better content interpretation, especially for complex visual elements like images and videos.

Advanced gesture control and voice commands

Future screen readers will likely expand gesture and voice-command functionalities, making navigation more intuitive and reducing reliance on keyboard shortcuts. This will be particularly beneficial for mobile device users.

Greater emphasis on multimodal interaction

Upcoming screen readers may offer a combination of speech, braille, and haptic feedback, catering to diverse user needs and preferences for a more inclusive digital experience.

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