Everything You Need To Know About Screen Readers
Posted by Rob Mineault on
Screen reading software has been around for many years as a solution for the visually impaired to access computers and digital devices, but they often remain essentially unknown among people until the day they need them. And once that day comes and they’re faced with diving head first into the screen reader market, they often find it can be quite intimidating at first.
Quite often at Canadian Assistive Technology we are approached by people unfamiliar with screen readers who are unsure where to start in terms of research and really don’t have any idea of what screen reader would be right for them. So we thought -- ‘what are we going to order into the office for lunch?’ And then -- once we figured that out -- we thought, ‘what better topic for a blog post?’
So let’s start with a fairly simple definition of just what a screen reader is. A screen reader is simply a piece of software that runs alongside an operating system that uses text-to-speech technology to voice what would normally be displayed on the screen. Screen readers essentially allow for the visually impaired to operate digital devices as well (if not better) than their sighted counterparts. Screen reading software also acts as an intermediary between a device and another piece of Assistive Technology such as a Braille Display.
So with that taken care of, let’s dive down and look at the various options when it comes to choosing what screen reader will work for you. There are many different options these days, and most of the time your choice will come down to what you need out of your screen reader and how much you can spend on it.
Any discussion of screen readers will usually begin with JAWS. And no, we’re not talking about that big fake looking shark from Spielberg’s magnum opus. This particular JAWS stands for Job Access With Speech, is made by Freedom Scientific, and has been the premiere screen reader for over 20 years.
JAWS was first developed for computers using the DOS operating system in 1989 and since then has supported almost every version of Windows. Recent surveys have placed it at the top of the screen reader pile, with over 46% of the surveyed claiming to use it as their primary screen reader, and 66% saying that they use it often.
The biggest strength of JAWS is the fact that has been around longer than any other screen reader and, as a result, features the longest list of powerful features and comprehensive customization options. JAWS has the ability to attach shortcut keys or key combos to almost every Windows function. It also includes a distinct mode for Browser software, making it an extremely versatile way to access web content.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of JAWS however comes in the form of its proprietary scripting language, that can be used to further customize the software and give it to make other aspects of Windows or Windows based software accessible.
But being such a powerful piece of software comes with a price, literally. While JAWS may currently dominate the market share of screen readers, its powerful features means that it is among the highest priced Screen Readers on the market. With a hefty price tag , some people may find the cost of JAWS and the premium screen readers like it a bit prohibitive. As well, because of the feature rich nature of JAWS, the learning curve can be fairly unforgiving, with many people needing a certain level of training to ensure that they are getting the most out of the software. It wouldn’t be uncommon to require tens of hours of tutorials across all its different functions to really get a new user up and running and comfortable with using the software -- and even more so if they wanted to dive into programming using its scripting language. While a deep knowledge of the inner workings of JAWS isn’t required to use its more basic functions (such as using the Internet, checking email, and utilizing Windows basic functions), for a user that is only interested in basic functionality may be better served at a better price point with some of the other screen readers discussed further down.
DOLPHIN SCREEN READER
Dolphin Screen Reader is comparable in feature set to JAWS, at a very close matching price point. Much like JAWS, Dolphin is highly customizable, supports multiple languages, multiple braille displays, and has OCR (optical character recognition) built in. Dolphin is probably the closest in relation to JAWS, with the exception that it does not have its own scripting language to make as versatile as JAWS. That being said, it does offer a very deep level of customization that a user can utilize to tailor their experience to fit their needs.
Fusion is also made and distributed by Freedom Scientific and includes the JAWS Screen Reader, but is also bundled with ZoomText Screen Magnification software. This combination is perfect for those people with degenerative eye conditions, who may only require a Screen Magnification software at the current time, but will likely need a full fledged screen reader at a future point. Given that both ZoomText and JAWS are both among the top solutions for both Screen Magnification as well as Screen Reading technology, Fusion is a powerful, comprehensive package that can service any visual impairment. However, much like JAWS, this premium package comes with a premium price tag.
System Access is made by Serotek and has offered a mid level screen reading solutions for its customers for years. System Access allows visually impaired users to access their email, internet and word processing programs at a lower price point than software packages such as JAWS or Dolphin but also is not as robust or versatile as those more expensive screen reading packages. Braille support is limited to certain manufacturers, so your mileage may vary if you are looking to connect a specific Braille Display using System Access. As with any of the screen readers we’re talking about, it’s always a good idea to check and ensure your Braille Display is supported by the screen reader.
One of the things that makes System Access unique in terms of pricing is clients have the option to buy the software outright as a standalone version or as a lower priced monthly subscription service.
And now we come to the screen reader that has one of the most popular price points -- free! NVDA is a passion project started in 2006 by a pair of young visually impaired students who saw a need for a low cost screen reader for the community. NVDA has been in development since then and is Open Source, meaning that the original source code for the program is released to the community, who can then modify and improve upon the code. This can be a real advantage since users in the community who have programming knowledge can make addons or otherwise enhance the capabilities or compatibilities of the product. Updates to the program are also free, which means as a user you are always up to date.
However, being an open source and free product does have its downsides. Companies and businesses can be hesitant to install open source products on their network due to security concerns.
Narrator is the built in Screen Reading app that comes with Windows 10. While it’s been included in Windows releases since Windows 2000, it’s really only been in recent years that it’s usability has improved to the point where it can stand on its own as a viable solution for basic Windows functionality.
While it wouldn’t be recommended to use Narrator as a single screen reading solution for a Windows PC, it does act as a very useful companion to a third party screen reader. Being developed by Microsoft ensures that Narrator works with even the most inner workings of Windows -- especially functions that other screen readers may miss. Quite often, visually impaired users will use Narrator’s basic functionality to get a new PC up and running until they have a chance to install their screen reader of choice.
The ability to walk up to any Windows 10 computer and get instant speech with a simple keystroke does make the Windows environment the most accessible it has ever been, and a big leap forward for the platform in terms of accessibility. While this new and improved Narrator may not be powerful or versatile enough for power users, for the casual computing community it may well be all that is needed to enable day to day computing tasks.
Much like Microsoft’s Narrator, VoiceOver is Apple’s built in screen reading app for their macOS, iOS, and watchOS operating systems. VoiceOver has been included in macOS since 2005. Historically, Apple has poured more resources into the development of their built in accessibility features than Microsoft (although recently that has been changing),and as a result, VoiceOver has been better at such things as Braille Display support. Again, much like Narrator this bundled app within Apple products is an integral accessibility component that makes many Apple products instantly accessible for its users. Whether or not VoiceOver would be a complete solution would again depend on what the user needed, but many visually impaired casual MAC users are able to rely on VoiceOver to perform what they need for any daily tasks.
With computers and digital devices now ubiquitous in our society, screen readers are more important than ever. And, as you can see, these days visually impaired individuals have easier access and more choices when it comes to screen readers than ever before. Before you dive in and choose one that’s right for you, it’s important to take your time and get to know each and every choice since there may very well be a time when one product alone won’t do everything you need it to do.
If you still aren’t sure which screen reader may be the best for you, feel free to reach out and contact us at 1-844-795-8324 or email Ryan Fluery firstname.lastname@example.org