A screen reader is a software application installed on mobile devices and computers that makes it easier for people with visual impairments to use their devices. These pieces of software work with the device’s operating system to provide information on different things on the screen, including folders, files, icons, dialogue boxes, menus, icons, and web pages. While many people have heard of the term, they do not know much about screen readers, how they work, and how they are used. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about screen readers.

What Is a Screen Reader?

Screen readers belong to a category of software applications known as assistive technologies. Screen readers provide text and visual content as speech output or Braille. These technologies are crucial for people with learning disabilities and those living with visual impairments as they allow them to enjoy the benefits that come with being able to use a phone or computer.

As mentioned, screen readers sit on top of the operating system, providing it with extra capabilities that many operating systems do not have otherwise. The screen reader needs access to all parts of an operating system, including installed applications, to be useful for those who use it.

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How Screen Readers Relay Information

Screen readers provide users with information in two ways.

Speech

Screen readers make use of Text-to-Speech (TTS) engines to convert information on the screen into sound that you can hear through the speakers installed on the device. They can also hear it through external audio equipment such as earphones or headphones depending on the reader’s capabilities and features.

The TTS can either come bundled with the screen reader if you use a software solution or in the hardware that plugs into a computer to give users screen reader capabilities. In the past, when many computers did not have sound cards, the preferred option was installing hardware screen readers on computers. Remember that smart devices were not ubiquitous at this time yet. Once computers started coming with sound cards and smartphones became popular, software screen readers became the norm.

Braille

Some screen readers are also capable of providing information in Braille. These screen readers use an external tool called a refreshable braille display. The display has a matrix of cells, each of which can take the form of a single braille character, a series of dots that tell the person reading the Braille what the character is and what the information on the display is.

If the information on the screen of the device the user is reading changes, the refreshable braille display changes the characters on it to relay this new information.

Both speech and braille screen readers can work and be used independently, but many people prefer to use them together.

How Screen Readers Work

Most people who use screen readers do not use a computer mouse, so screen readers rely on keyboard input from their users. On mobile devices, they rely on-screen gestures, taps, and voice commands to know what to do. When users install screen readers on their phones, they have to learn the different gestures they will need and where to tap to ensure they can use them as they intend.

The inputs can direct the screen reader to perform numerous tasks, including scrolling pages, going to the next page when reading documents, telling users what an image is when on a website, opening and closing files, listening to music, opening and closing applications, and much more.

When a user issues a keyboard command, uses gesture controls, or taps the screen, the screen reader provides a command to the underlying operating system, and the operating system then does what the command says. Since every screen reader has different commands for similar operations, many people choose a model that is best for them and stick to it to avoid learning new commands like they would if they changed their screen reader regularly.

Screen Readers Work With All Operating Systems

To ensure accessibility on all devices and the internet, all operating systems support at least one screen reader.

Windows Screen Readers

Windows is the most popular operating system, so its screen readers are typically more advanced than those on other computer operating systems. Some examples of Windows screen readers include Windows Eyes, Hal, and Jaws for Windows.

Jaws is intended to be installed on a Windows computer, but it also has a portable version that users can take with them on a thumb drive.

The Hal screen reader was developed and is maintained by Dolphin, who started by building one for Portable Digital Assistants. They later ported their screen reader for use on Windows systems.

Windows Eyes has the largest market share in this segment and is developed and maintained by GW Micro. It does not have a portable version, so users must install it on their system.

MacOS Screen Readers

Windows users have to install the Windows screen readers discussed above, but Apple took a different approach. Their Voice Over screen reader is part of a standard macOS installation and uses the Cepstral Text-to-Speech engine.

Linux Screen Readers

Linux has two notable screen readers available for it: Speakup and Gnopernicus. Speakup runs on most of the popular Linux distributions, including Slackware and Debian, and you no longer have to install it. You can also install it on other Linux distros if you can compile it. If you decide to do this, note that the version on the Speakup website might be behind the version installed in Linux distros.

Smartphone Screen Readers

Android and iOS devices come with screen readers as part of their plan to make their devices as accessible as possible. Android devices come with TalkBack, while iOS devices come with VoiceOver. The gestures and taps used with these screen readers typically provide more functionality than you get with the swipe controls that people without visual impairments use.

Screen Readers Support Different Types of Applications

The types of applications a screen reader supports depend on the screen reader and the operating system it is used on. On most devices, they allow access to web browsers and word-processing documents that can be used in conjunction with voice dictation, email, and common applications.

On Windows, they support all applications built or owned by Microsoft, including Microsoft 360 and third-party applications like Firefox and Chrome, music players, and others.

On smartphones, they have specific capabilities too. For example, TalkBack on Android integrates features from Google Lens since Google owns Android. In doing so, they can help visually impaired users better navigate the world, understand images on the screen, and use their cameras to read instructions in books, papers, and other written mediums.

On iOS devices, VoiceOver gives you access to numerous parts of the operating system and first and third-party applications.

Screen Readers Understand Different Languages

If you are worried about the screen reader not using the language you use, you shouldn’t be, as it likely will understand it. Screen readers use and understand the primary language of the device they are installed on. It is important to remember that the languages the screen reader understands will depend on the ones its engine understands.

Screen readers can alter the pitch, speed, accent, and other speech patterns to match the language when reading or translating text. For example, the screen reader will sound very different when reading French compared to when it is reading Italian or English.

How Screen Readers Deal With Graphics

Screen readers can identify different graphics on your operating systems. For example, all Windows screen readers can identify common icons such as “My Computer” and will relay it as such. However, they can have difficulty when they encounter images they do not recognise, which happens very commonly on websites.

Web developers must always consider accessibility when building websites and web apps to ensure everyone can use their creations. For graphics, the best way to ensure screen readers can understand the image on the screen is by adding “alt” tags to images. These short, descriptive phrases tell screen readers what the image is.

Captions and descriptions work well for other types of graphics to ensure the website is accessible.

Accessibility: A Common Challenge

Graphics are not the only challenge screen reader users face when using websites around the internet. Website structures, especially navigation bars, can be particularly challenging for screen readers when developers do not develop their websites properly.

The good news is that the W3C consortium has worked very hard to create standards and guidelines for developers to make sure their websites and applications are accessible to everyone, including people using screen readers, whether those are braille or speech screen readers.

Apart from descriptions for various elements on webpages, developers must ensure users can navigate their websites using a keyboard and voice commands. Those are the primary ways the visually impaired navigate websites using screen readers and other accessibility devices.

Screen readers make the world more accessible for the visually impaired. They allow them to use their devices better and leverage all their features. They also allow them to navigate the internet, which has become a significant part of most people’s lives.