Screen Readers: What Are They and How Do They Help With Digital Accessibility?

Screen readers have existed almost as long as the internet. However, it is surprising that so many people are unaware of them and what they do. That is why, in this article, we are going to talk about how this assistive technology helps in making digital content accessible.

Most people think that screen readers are devices that need to get plugged into the computer. But in reality, they are computer software that provides the output through other devices, such as speakers or Braille readers.

The software reads the written content on a website or a digital document and relays the information through the speakers or the Braille readers connected to the computer or any smart device. In the initial days, screen readers were mostly used by people who faced difficulty in reading the screen.

However, these days they are also used by people with learning disabilities who retain information better when they hear it. Screen readers are an indispensable part of website accessibility these days, and most solutions are optimized for their use. For people who are new to the world of website accessibility, these are some basic facts about screen readers and how they work.

How Does a Screen Reader Work?

The basic function of screen readers is to transform the text that is displayed on the screen into a format accessible to those who cannot see or understand it. Screen readers usually have two forms of output. They are:

  • Text to speech, where the software reads out the written information on the screen
  • Braille display for people who cannot hear or process spoken languages either

People who use screen readers often navigate digital content through keyboards or similar forms of inputs. Users can customize the screen readers according to their preferences. A user can use the verbosity settings to adjust the amount of information that they wish to receive from the website.

Screen readers notify a user if there is an image or any graphical representation on the website, but they cannot read the information unless it has been provided through alt texts. Screen readers can also translate different languages, as long as the language settings are present in the software. People can also use the settings to get different accents for the vocal speech.

Screen Readers and Accessibility

People who are new to digital accessibility might be aware that websites must meet some essential criteria put forth by the current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) to be deemed accessible. Business owners use different types of solutions to make their websites accessible. Some choose to do it during the web design phase, while others use new-age automated solutions.

However, no matter which solution they choose, the website must meet the current WCAG 2.1 guidelines, including optimizing for the use of screen readers. If a website does not allow the use of screen readers, it will violate Article III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with section 508 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Different Types of Screen Readers

People can choose from several types of screen readers according to their needs and budgets. Although screen readers are a type of software, these days people prefer using assistive devices that have the software built-in. That way, they can work on any computer as long as they have the assistive device with them. Each type of screen reader uses a different way of navigating through the website.

People who use assistive devices prefer to stick to one type and seldom wish to change it. It takes some time to learn the way each screen reader works. It means if a user changes the type of device, he or she would have to re-learn the process all over again. That is why websites need to facilitate compatibility for different types of screen readers so that users can access the information present in the web pages.

These are some of the most popular screen reader devices that are used by people with disabilities.

Job Access with Speech (JAWS)

JAWS is one of the most popular screen readers used all over the world. What makes JAWS so universally accepted is the fact that users can customize almost every aspect of the software. JAWS is compatible with Windows and can be used with both text-to-speech and Braille display devices.

Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA)

NVDA is a free screen reader that can be used on Windows. However, just because it is free does not mean it lacks features. NVDA allows users to navigate through websites and digital content with ease.


VoiceOver is a screen reader that has been built into Apple Inc’s operating systems, such as macOS, iOS, watchOS, and all others. It offers plug-n-play support for Braille displays.


TalkBack is Google’s screen reader software that has been built into all Android devices. Users can also enable it on Google Chrome and Chromebooks.

Screen readers have been helping users with disabilities since 1986 when Jim Thatcher created the first one at IBM. They have evolved a lot over the years and have become an integral part of digital accessibility. Therefore every business must ensure compatibility with screen readers while making their website accessible to users with disabilities.

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