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Can You Detect Screen Reader Users?

Aug 12, 2023

 

Every website has users with disabilities — and if your website attracts significant traffic, part of your audience probably uses screen readers or other assistive technologies (AT).

But you can’t reliably determine which visitors use screen readers. Screen readers like NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) and JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech) do not have unique user agent strings. That means that they’re not trackable with conventional analytics tools like Google Analytics.

 

Screen readers don’t send information about the user to your website

 

Screen readers work “on top" of web browsers, which have their own user agent strings. The screen reader program receives data directly from the browser, not from the website’s server.

Consequently, the user agent string doesn’t have information about the assistive technologies that the visitor is using — just as the string doesn’t contain info about other types of applications installed on the user’s device. 

Including that data in the user agent string would be a privacy nightmare. Ethically, it’s a bad idea.

Tracking AT could also cause compliance issues with various non-discrimination laws: Some websites might refuse to serve content to AT users under the (mistaken) assumption that this would provide protection against web accessibility lawsuits.

 

Is there any way to determine whether website visitors have disabilities?

 

Not really. You could potentially use Javascript to determine whether users have disabled images — but that’s not a reliable approach, since some screen reader users may keep images enabled. 

With some creative scripts, you might also determine the visible viewport size for different users, or whether the user uses a keyboard alone (with no mouse) for navigation. 

All of these methods are extremely limited, however, and they won’t provide an accurate count of AT users. It’s also important to remember that web accessibility isn’t just for people with visual impairments — if you focus too much on screen reader users, you might ignore people with hearing disabilities, neurocognitive differences, and other conditions.

Finally, disabilities don’t always change browsing behavior in predictable ways. Some people with low vision use screen readers; others use screen magnifiers. Others may use their computer’s default browser with a keyboard and mouse.

Your goal is to create a great experience for all of these users. That’s the ultimate goal of inclusive design — and you can take immediate steps towards that goal. 

Related: Five Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Design

 

Instead of trying to track users with disabilities, focus on the basics of digital accessibility

 

Ask yourself: Why would you want to track your website’s users with disabilities? What are you hoping to accomplish? 

Most likely, you’re looking for ways to enhance your user experience. You want to track behavior flows, find potential barriers, and make the necessary improvements.

Analytics might be helpful here. However, the fundamental concepts of accessible design are much more valuable. When you build content for accessibility, you don’t need statistics — you’re delivering the same excellent experience to every user, regardless of their technology or preferences. 

You can take clear steps to adopt an accessible mindset: 

 

Accessible design makes the internet a better place

 

Over 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability. In the United States, an estimated 1 in 4 adults have a disability, and that percentage will probably grow over the next few decades.

At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we believe that the internet should work for everyone. The best practices of WCAG can help you create robust content for AT users — and improve the on-page experience for every user, regardless of their abilities. 

Learn more by visiting our Compliance Roadmap, which includes free tools for testing and improving web content. To determine how your website stacks up to WCAG 2.1 Level A/AA success criteria, get started with a free automated analysis.

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

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