This article provides an overview of screen readers, the variety of screen reading tools, and their characteristics.
There are a number of screen readers available, some native to particular Operating Systems, others that work across most environments. The two most widely used (according to a 2019 survey carried out by WebAIM) are JAWS and NVDA, with approximately 40% of the audience of screen reader users each.
Let’s look at these two in more detail.
Screen reader services
JAWS, made by Freedom Scientific is the longest-established screen reader available. It works well with web content and Evolve courses. One great aspect when creating or testing accessible content is anyone can download the full application and use it in ‘demo’ mode for free — that means that after 40 minutes of use, you have to restart your computer to continue using.
The cost of the full application is significant, and it may not be practical for many learners and eLearning designers to purchase the full application. JAWS is updated regularly and has seen new editions appear in 2021 and 2022.
NVDA is the second most widely used screen reader, and again works well with web and Evolve content. It is an open-source application, which most importantly means it’s free for anyone to download. Being on an open-source tool means it’s also constantly being developed and improved, and indeed has improved significantly in recent years.
After the above two, the next most widely used screen reader is VoiceOver - which is native to Mac computers, as well as iPads and iPhones. It’s relatively easy to use and works well on those mobile devices.
Windows also has its own screen reader, called Narrator. Whilst some version of this software has been available in Windows for many years, it’s had a significant upgrade with the arrival of Windows 10.
Of the four screen readers mentioned so far, we found during our testing that Narrator had the most issues with Evolve content. Microsoft will continue to update this application, and we will continue to monitor how it performs. Whilst Narrator only counts for 1% of the audience who use a screen reader, it’s included here as it’s free and native to Windows, even though we would recommend NVDA as a better reader.
There are a number of other screen readers available, but the usage percentage is considerably less than JAWS and NVDA. The most notable is ZoomText, which comprises a reader and a screen magnification tool, and has recently released a new product called Fusion which incorporates JAWS as its reader.
ChromeVox (which is a free extension to the Chrome web browser) works a little differently as it can work alongside a user’s instance of JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver. When you are browsing the web with Chrome, ChromeVox reads out any text content available within the browser, but everything else on a computer, including the Chrome interface itself, is handled by the existing screen reader.
It should be noted that whilst Evolve and some other authoring tools’ content can be read by screen readers, the readers were not built with eLearning specifically in mind. As such, screen readers’ behavior might be occasionally unpredictable when navigating a course. Where possible, learners should be encouraged to run the latest version of their screen reading software, to incorporate the latest bug fixes and updates.
Screen readers in practice
Although navigation works slightly differently for each screen reader, they broadly work in a similar way. If in doubt, please refer to the list of keyboard commands for a particular screen reader. The main navigational controls are generally as follows:
Tab : Moves between the interactive elements on a page; e.g. buttons and active items that make something happen when activated. So this could cover everything from a submit button on a multiple-choice question, to navigating to the next page via navigation in the footer menu. If you use Tab in conjunction with the shift key, you can move backward.
Enter: Activates an active item. This means clicking on the submit button and then using the Enter key to press it, or using the Enter key to activate footer navigation, etc.
Arrow keys: This is used to navigate through text. If there is text to be read on the page, tabbing could miss this out and move straight to the next active item. Using the directional arrow keys (and it’s usually the down arrow to work through a page in a logical reading order, and the up arrow to go backward) allows the user to read through all the text on a page.
There are certain interactions that may require the user to do something slightly different, and switch to a different mode of operation. An example would be a slider component_._ To move the slider along the scale, the screen reader might need to switch to a different mode to allow say the left and right arrow keys to move the slider, and then click to switch out of that mode and return to regular navigation. JAWS and NVDA (for example) both alert the user via specific noises that a different input mode has been entered.
Each of the screen readers has a wide range of different keyboard commands for all kinds of actions, and your learners will inevitably have their own particular method for navigating content.
That said, you may want to consider an up front aria label in your course that describes how screen reader navigation will work in the course. For example, if you are building a page of Evolve content, there is a setting to populate an aria label at the top of the page (which can be found in Page > Edit Page > General). This could be a good place to provide some initial instruction. It could be something as simple as:
“Screen reader users: you can tab between active items on a page, and use the arrow keys to navigate through the text content. Please refer to your screen reader manual for a list of all available keyboard navigation options.”
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