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Beyond Screen Readers: Understanding Assistive Technologies for Web Content

Jul 1, 2024

Screen readers are a type of assistive technology (AT) that converts text to audio or braille. They’re frequently used by people with vision disabilities (although a small but significant percentage of screen reader users have motor or hearing disabilities, per WebAIM’s most recent screen reader user survey). 

Screen readers are crucial tools, and if your website works well with popular screen readers like JAWS and NVDA, you’re in a great position to provide your users with an accessible experience. However, web accessibility isn’t just for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Other types of AT exist, and your website needs to work with all of them. Here’s why that’s an important — and achievable — goal. 

Assistive technologies are a crucial component of the. modern internet

As a web author, why should you care about AT? Put simply, it’s fundamental to the user experience. There’s a good chance that you’ve used some technology today that was originally developed as AT.

For example:

  • Voice assistants like Siri and Alexa utilize text-to-speech (TTS) technology developed to assist users with disabilities.
  • “Dark" modes, which exaggerate the contrast between foreground and background elements, were introduced to reduce eyestrain. 
  • Video captions are primarily intended for viewers with hearing disabilities. Today, about 50% of Americans turn on subtitles “most of the time,” and 80% of viewers are more likely to finish a video with captions. 

Broadly speaking, these tools are AT: They’re designed to improve the experiences of people with disabilities (even if they’ve found a broader audience over time). Other types of AT are less well known, but no less important for their users. For example:

  • Screen magnification software enlarges the text and graphics on a computer or mobile screen. Some screen magnifiers may enlarge content to 20 times the original size.
  • Speech recognition tools such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking enable people to control their devices by converting speech into commands. 
  • Refreshable braille displays are tactile interfaces that display content line-by-line, providing braille readers with an alternative to audio screen readers.
  • Joysticks, trackballs, and eye-tracking monitors provide people with physical disabilities with an alternative to a mouse-and-keyboard interface.

People use a wide range of technologies to browse the internet, and they develop a variety of habits and preferences that allow them to use those technologies effectively. If your website works with all of those technologies, you’re delivering a better experience.

Related: Understanding Assistive Technologies: What is a Head Mouse System?

By following WCAG, you can create a website that works with all types of AT

Thankfully, you don’t need to test your content with every type of AT to make sure that it’s accessible. Your goal is to create robust content: Your website should have a clear semantic structure and simple controls. If content is robust, it’s usable with various technologies and user agents (including future technologies). 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are written to help you build this type of content. WCAG contains simple pass-or-fail statements that promote the best practices of web design — which necessarily makes content more accessible for AT users. 

By committing to WCAG, you can address the most common barriers that impact AT: 

  • Missing labels for interactive elements, which might prevent users from navigating or interacting with your website. 
  • Missing semantic labels for websites and PDFs, which make navigation more difficult and confusing.
  • Content that doesn’t reflow when the user’s viewport changes.
  • Misused pop-ups, autoplay media, pop-ups, and other elements that may distract users and make content less functional. 

To be clear, you should still have an accessibility strategy that includes both automated and manual testing. If possible, manual audits should include review from people who use assistive technology regularly. AudioEye and the Bureau of Internet Accessibility employ experts with disabilities who regularly use screen readers and other AT, and their insights are invaluable for finding (and fixing) barriers that affect real-world users. 

But by using WCAG, you can build a website that works consistently for all users, regardless of the tools that they use to access your content. To learn more, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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