Screen readers are continuing to emerge as an important tool for accessing digital content. While they’re a new thing for some of us, screen readers have been used by many people for accessible web browsing for a long time. But a screen reader is often only as useful as content allows it to be – meaning that if content is not formatted to be compatible for a screen reader, it won’t be accessible for a user who relies on one.

Screen readers were the focus of our most recent Tooltime session – here are five key points we learned. 

1. What are screen readers?

Screen readers are a form of assistive technology, which are tools that enable people with disabilities to engage with digital content. Screen readers convey to the user what is on the screen, primarily via audio. They are commonly used by people who have vision-related conditions, such as blindness, low vision or eye fatigue. However, screen readers may also be useful for neurodivergent people (for example, people who have ADHD, autism, brain injury, dyslexia, or other conditions).

2. Some popular screen readers

There are many different types of screen readers available, and users can choose the one that best suits their unique accessibility requirements or preferences. Some of the most popular screen readers are:

While each of these platforms offer some variations in their benefits, generally content formatting requirements are similar across all of them.

3. Seeing and hearing a screen reader in action is a great way to understand how they work

At the Tooltime session, we used NVDA to read through a page containing basic text, images and links. After the first example, which was a page that had not been formatted accessibly, attendees were asked whether or not they had been able to understand the content without seeing the page. Out of the three answers available (‘Yes’, ‘sort of’, and ‘I was completely lost’) the vast majority of responses were ‘sort of’.

After this, we tried using a screen reader with a different version of the same page that had been formatted according to accessible practices. This made an enormous difference – in this version, the screen reader was able to identify subheadings, describe images and overall present a much clearer interpretation of the content.

4. Using a screen reader requires a different set of skills

While everyone will have their own way of using assistive technologies, there are some typical ways that most screen reader users will browse the web. This includes using only a keyboard to navigate through content (and often not using a mouse at all), playing the screen reader audio at a very high speed to maximise efficiency, and relying more on memory to navigate pages. This process will be significantly slowed down if the content on the page is not formatted in an accessible way.

There are certain ways that a screen reader will navigate content:

  • Will read text verbatim
  • Identifies interactive elements on the page
  • Does not identify different colours
  • May not identify bold or italicised text
  • Requires alt text tags attached to images

Knowing this can be a great help in seeing how you need to format your content.

5. Different screen readers offer different features

We also took a look at Read & Write, another assistive technology with a built in screen reader. Read & Write is available to all UTS staff and students, can be used on PC or Mac, and is often used by neurodivergent people. Read & Write offers text-to-speech as well as a few extra features that can be really helpful, like reading screenshots or ‘screen masking’ to help with visibility. This is also a good reminder that while accessibility requirements can be similar, they are often not the same and will be unique for each user based on their needs and preferences.

Learning more about screen readers

Want to learn how to create accessible content for all of your students? Get started with our Inclusive and accessible practices resource collection, which features helpful guides and advice from students with lived experience.

Join us next time to learn about Mentimote

At this Tooltime the presenters used Mentimeter, which offers some great tools for enabling collaboration and participation. Next Tooltime, we’ll be exploring Mentimote, a remote control for Mentimeter. You can register for our next Tooltime below, and sign up to the LX Digest to stay in the loop about future Tooltime sessions.

Feature image by Tima Miroshnichenko.

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