What is a Screen Reader?


screen reader is exactly what it sounds like: it is a piece of software on a computer that reads what is on the (computer, phone or tablet) screen. The software is programmed to translate text and other computer codes into audio, using computer synthesized speech.

Screen readers can be useful for people who cannot access printed text or a standard (icon based) computer screen because of visual or learning disabilities.

Scroll to I Want More! #1 below for a few videos showing how screen readers work.

Think of how often we use computers, Smartphones, or tablets to share information and connect in our work, family, and social lives. That’s how important it is for our information to be screen reader accessible. Check outI Want More! #2below to learn more about accessible document design.

Some fun facts about screen readers

  • There is more than one kindSome screen readers are designed for people who cannot see the screen. These generally tell the user everything that is on a screen.) Some screen readers are for people with learning disabilities, and they highlight words as they read text. There are also different brands of screen readers.
  • Screen readers can’t read images (including photos, or charts, or logos…) UNLESS you make it accessible. Screen readers work by processing text and responding to specific programming cues in documents and on web pages. A screen reader cannot “understand” what an image or picture is UNLESS the person posting it adds text or programming to tell the screen reader what to say. (Remember May’s access tip about captioning images?)
  • You have a screen reader on your computer! There is a free (very basic) screen reader that is part of Windows 7 that YOU can turn on and explore for yourself. This YouTube video (link below) will show you how to turn it on and begin using it: How to Turn on Narrator in Windows 7.

There is also a screen reader for Macs and other Apple products. Check out how to turn on voiceover in an Iphone or Ipad and how to turn on voiceover on the Mac for more.

And you can even download this free screen reader for older Windows computers, the NV Access Screen Reader.

Remember, not every screen reader works with every program or document (that designing-for-access-is-important thing again). Also, people who routinely use a screen reader will generally need to pay for a more robust program, like JAWS, to meet their needs.

I Want More! #1

The Wondrous World of Screen Readers (Short videos, selected just for you!)

  1. How a blind person uses a screen reader (2 min):
  2. Accessible vs. Inaccessible (3 min)
  3. Screen reader for people with learning disabilities (4 min)

I Want More! #2

We have to intentionally design documents and programs to be screen reader accessible. It doesn’t happen automatically. Many of our usual ways of sharing information are not readable by screen readers.

Designing for access takes some learning and some practice. This isn’t something I can share in a bite-sized tip, but you can start learning by checking out this introduction on formatting accessible documents and this deeper dive on how it's done (check out page 5 for a bulleted list of formatting tips!)

Notes: you’ll find many places recommending “alt-text” for images. While this is a good practice, I have learned from screen reader users that alt-text sometimes gets read out of order or completely missed by screen readers in certain circumstances. Putting captions in the document text is important for more universal access.