Screen readers are software tools that convert onscreen text to audio or braille output. They’re commonly used by people with vision disabilities, so some website creators assume that screen readers are effective testing tools for accessibility.
That can be true — but to a limited extent, and with plenty of important caveats. Testing your website with a screen reader may highlight issues that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, but it can also be a frustrating and disorienting experience that doesn’t give you many useful insights. Before downloading a screen reader, here’s what you need to know.
Screen reader testing requires a working knowledge of assistive technologies
Imagine teaching someone how to navigate the internet with a keyboard and mouse. They’ve never used those tools before, so they’re likely to make simple mistakes. They might blame those mistakes on the hardware peripherals or on the website they’re trying to access.
When you use a screen reader for the first time, you’re likely to make the same types of mistakes. Regular screen reader users know how to jump from one website heading to the next, how to find a relevant hyperlink, and how to operate website controls. They have those skills because they’ve often spent hundreds of hours using screen readers.
Needless to say, you probably won’t be able to develop much proficiency within a few hours. As a result, if you run into problems while using a screen reader, you might assume that your website is inaccessible. Alternately, your software might offer a better browsing experience than another popular screen reader, so you might miss issues that a vision-impaired user would identify right away.
In order to reach the widest possible audience, you shouldn’t depend on a single accessibility test, especially if you’re using screen reader software for the first time. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is an excellent resource for building an understanding of common issues that affect people with disabilities, and a WCAG Website Audit is a fantastic starting point.
Using a screen reader can still provide valuable insights
Testing your own content with a screen reader doesn’t make your site accessible, but it’s still a useful exercise. A screen reader can give developers perspective on how real people browse the internet, and developing the right mindset is a crucial component of accessibility. Even if you don’t have much experience with assistive tech, using a screen reader could highlight problems with missing alternative text (alt text), poor heading structures, and other common WCAG conformance issues.
Screen reader testing can also be useful when you’re checking fixes that you’ve implemented as part of a broader accessibility initiative. It’s also easy: Many operating systems have built-in screen readers, so you may not need to install additional software to perform a quick test.
If you’re considering this type of test, here are a few recommendations to keep in mind:
- Don’t draw broad conclusions. Without accessibility training, you won’t be able to determine whether your site is reasonably accessible by using a screen reader.
- Don’t assume that your experience with a screen reader will translate to real-world situations.
- Don’t rely on a screen reader as your only means of testing. Web accessibility isn’t only for people who are blind, and screen reader testing is limited in scope.
Finally, remember that different screen readers have different capabilities and limitations, and people use them in very different ways. Some blind users may read your entire website before clicking on a link — but most will search the page for pertinent information or jump around from heading to heading. That’s in line with how most people use the internet
Before testing with a screen reader, read the documentation
To get started, gain some basic familiarity with your screen reader. Look for a user manual or FAQ and write down keyboard shortcuts and other information to help you navigate more naturally. You may need to change the settings of your screen reader or operating system.
Here are a few resources for learning about the controls of the most popular screen readers. Remember, features vary from program to program.
Microsoft Narrator is built into modern Windows operating systems. Its features are limited, and many screen reader users prefer to install dedicated software like NVDA or JAWS (discussed below). Microsoft offers a detailed usage guide for Narrator, available in HTML, Word, PDF, and Braille formats.
Chrome OS includes ChromeVox, a built-in screen reader. Google provides ChromeVox documentation on its Chromebook Help store.
NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA)
NVDA is a donation-supported screen reader available for personal computers running Windows 7 or later (earlier versions of the software are available for older Windows operating systems). The NVDA User Guide contains detailed guidance, and the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) offers additional training resources.
Job Access With Speech (JAWS)
JAWS is a paid screen reader for Windows 7 or later. It requires a license, but free trials are available. Freedom Scientific publishes JAWS and offers free training resources in video, audio, and HTML formats.
While these are the most popular screen readers currently available, they’re not the only options. Web developers may want to download several screen readers to test more effectively (although as we’ve discussed, screen reader testing is just one aspect of digital accessibility).
Once you’re comfortable with the screen reader’s controls, access your website. Pay attention to how the software interprets image alternative text (or alt text) descriptions, navigation buttons, and other interface elements. Remember, the experience may be frustrating at first, and if you’re unable to navigate easily, you shouldn’t assume that your website has accessibility issues — the purpose of this exercise is simply to experience your content in a different way.
Screen reader testing isn’t a substitute for third-party accessibility testing
While screen reader accessibility is a crucial part of great web design, screen readers aren’t the only assistive technology available. People use touchscreens, eyegaze monitors, high-contrast filters, and dozens of other tools and techniques when browsing. A truly accessible website should make reasonable accommodations for everyone, not just people who have vision-related disabilities.
With the right approach, screen reader testing can be worthwhile, especially if you’re trying to understand how your design decisions affect your real-world audience. You can also perform other quick accessibility tests to build your knowledge of accessible practices. We outlined a few accessibility self-tests to help you get started.
However, in order to develop truly accessible content, you’ll need to thoroughly test your site for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Our four-point hybrid testing process combines the a11y® analysis platform with expert human testing to provide a roadmap for achieving, maintaining, and proving accessibility compliance.