Screen Readers & How They Help Blind and Low-Vision People
Technology has made profound strides in improving accessibility for individuals with disabilities. One of the crucial advancements is the development of screen readers. Screen readers have opened up a world of possibilities for blind and low-vision individuals. These assistive tools revolutionize the way people with visual impairments interact with digital content.
In this article, we outline what screen readers are, how they work, and the role they play in the lives of the community.
What Are Screen Readers?
Screen readers are software applications or devices. Their function is to read aloud the content on the screens of digital devices. They use text-to-speech (TTS) technology to convert on-screen text into audible speech. Additionally, screen readers provide keyboard navigation and other auditory cues, allowing vision-impaired users to interact with and understand digital content.
How Do Screen Readers Work?
Screen readers work by analyzing the structure and content of a webpage or document, extracting the text, and converting it into synthesized speech.
Here's how the TTS process unfolds:
1. Text Recognition
The process begins with text recognition, a pivotal step in a screen reader's operation. The screen reader scans the digital landscape, identifying textual content wherever it resides. Including text displayed in web browsers, documents, emails, photo descriptions (alt text), and various applications. It meticulously extracts the text, ready to convert it into audible or tactile form.
Navigation is the digital compass in the hands of the user. Users interact with the screen reader through keyboard commands and shortcuts. They can navigate through the content, and move between headings, links, lists, and other elements to explore the page efficiently.
3. Speech Output
The screen reader converts the identified text into spoken words, making it more accessible to the user. Users can customize the voice, speed, and other settings to suit their preferences. Providing an experience both accessible and comfortable.
4. Auditory Cues
Screen readers also provide auditory cues, such as tone variations or spoken descriptions of interface elements. The cues aid users in understanding the structure of a webpage and the context of the content.
5. Braille Support
For users who prefer Braille as their mode of reading, certain screen readers offer support for Braille displays. These displays use tactile feedback to render text, providing an alternative method for interacting with digital content. Users can feel the words, sentences, and symbols as raised dots on the display.
Who Uses Screen Readers?
As technology becomes increasingly integrated into our daily lives, the need for accessibility has grown more urgent. While Braille is a valuable tool for reading text on paper, it falls short when it comes to digital screens. This is where screen readers can be of assistance.
Screen readers are primarily used by individuals who are blind, visually challenged, or face challenges when trying to access on-screen content. Visual impairment can arise from a variety of causes. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 2.2 billion people worldwide experience some form of blindness.
Several factors contribute to vision loss and the need for accessibility tech. The most common ones are age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma, refractive errors, eye trauma, chronic illnesses, congenital conditions, and other causes of blindness (full or partial).
Screen readers offer a lifeline to individuals with varying degrees of visual impairment. From mild impairment to total blindness (complete lack of light perception). Allowing them to access and interact with digital content bridges the accessibility gap in an increasingly digital world.
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Why Are Screen Readers Essential for People with Blindness?
Screen readers are indispensable for visually disabled individuals, breaking down barriers and empowering them to immerse themselves in the digital world.
Screen readers provide:
Accessibility to information
Screen readers help users access information, read documents, browse websites, and use applications. Blind and low-vision people can access digital textbooks and educational materials, participate in online courses, and conduct research, thus promoting inclusive education.
They also encourage individuals to enter the workforce, easing the process of job applications, online training, and performing computer tasks in various professions. Last but not least, screen readers promote independence and self-reliance. They allow users to perform everyday tasks (online shopping, banking, scheduling appointments) without sighted assistance.
Readers for Computer Screen: Product Suggestions
Finding the right software for computer users with visual impairments can be a real challenge. Below, you will find a list of some useful screen reader applications (some are for mobile):
JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is one of the most popular screen readers for Windows. JAWS supports various braille displays and is compatible with many popular applications.
NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free, open-source screen reader for Windows. It offers a range of features similar to commercial options, an affordable and accessible choice.
VoiceOver (Mac OS/iOS) comes built-in with Apple's macOS and iOS devices. It provides comprehensive screen reading and voice commands to assist users in navigating their devices.
Narrator (Windows) is Microsoft's built-in screen reader. It may not be as feature-rich as some third-party options, but it's a valuable choice for users on a Windows platform.
TalkBack (Android) is Google's built-in screen reader for Android devices. It assists users in navigating Android interfaces, apps, and web content.
Orca (Linux) is an open-source screen reader for Linux users. It provides text-to-speech and braille support and works with various Linux desktop environments, such as GNOME.
Dolphin Supernova is a screen reader and magnification software for Windows. It features speech and braille support, along with screen magnification features for users with both visual and hearing impairments.
System Access to Go is a web-based screen reader that runs in your web browser, offering an accessible interface for navigating websites and online content. It doesn't require any installation and is suitable for on-the-go accessibility.
Screen readers play a major role in breaking down digital accessibility barriers. They enable individuals with restricted or low vision to independently access and interact with a wide range of digital information. Ultimately fostering a more inclusive online world. If you want to learn more about how to take care of your eye health, check out our ophthalmology blog.