To create accessible web content, you'll need to consider screen reader users. A screen reader is software that converts text to audio or braille output — but dozens of popular screen readers exist, and each application has different capabilities and limitations.
ChromeVox is a free screen reader developed by Google and introduced in Chrome OS version 56. While it’s not the most popular screen reader on the market, ChromeVox has gained popularity with the widespread use of Chromebooks in educational environments.
As part of our series on popular screen readers, we’re providing a basic overview of ChromeVox’s features. We’ll also introduce some important points to keep in mind when using a screen reader to test website accessibility.
ChromeVox Screen Reader: Features and Limitations
ChromeVox allows users to navigate complex sites and apps, including those that utilize Web Accessibility Initiative's ARIA (Access to Rich Internet Applications). ChromeVox is enabled with simple keyboard commands. Users move their focus with either a mouse or keyboard.
The screen reader was developed by the Chrome Accessibility Team. In 2017, developers enhanced ChromeVox with new features including speech customization and improved navigation. The team also implemented a voice switching feature, which automatically changes the screen reader’s voice when the language of the text changes.
ChromeVox is popular with some screen reader users for several reasons:
- ChromeVox is a free screen reader. It’s built into ChromeOS and doesn’t require a license to use.
- ChromeVox is compatible with most braille displays. Chrome OS supports refreshable braille displays via USB, and the operating system can be controlled from a braille keyboard (without switching back to a traditional keyboard).
- A version of ChromeVox is available as a Google Chrome extension. This version of ChromeVox is limited compared with other screen readers because it can’t control applications other than the Chrome web browser. Still, it’s useful for people who are accustomed to ChromeVox’s controls.
ChromeVox is less powerful — and less customizable — than other assistive technology applications, and its popularity is limited. In a 2021 screen reader usage survey performed by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), about 4.7% of respondents said that they used ChromeVox regularly, but only 0.3% said that they used ChromeVox as their primary desktop/laptop screen reader.
Even so, ChromeVox is useful for testing content for screen reader accessibility. For people who don’t use screen readers regularly, the program is fairly easy to use, and it’s completely free.
Can I use the ChromeVox screen reader to test website accessibility?
While ChromeVox can be used for testing WAI-ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) markup and for identifying basic accessibility barriers, it’s important to remember that different screen readers may interpret content in very different ways.
In other words, testing your website or web application with ChromeVox cannot guarantee that the content is accessible for all screen reader users. Declaring your website “screen reader accessible" after a single test would be similar to declaring the site “web browser accessible" after loading it in Internet Explorer — and as every developer knows, testing with one web browser isn’t ideal.
To create a truly accessible site for screen reader users, you’ll need to audit your content for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). We recommend using a combination of manual and automated tests to evaluate WCAG conformance. For more information, read about our four-point hybrid testing methodology.
Tips for Testing Website Accessibility with ChromeVox
While a single test can’t find every accessibility issue, we still recommend using assistive technologies throughout the development cycle. By testing, you can gain perspective on how screen reader users experience the internet, which might help you make thoughtful decisions when building your content.
Here’s how to test your content with ChromeVox:
- Familiarize yourself with ChromeVox commands. For a complete list of keyboard shortcuts, visit this Chromebook support page.
- Turn the screen reader on. On laptops and desktops, you can enable ChromeVox by pressing Ctrl + Alt + Z. On tablets, press and hold the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons for 5 seconds.
- Move your keyboard focus to browse your page. The Tab key moves to the next focusable item, while the Shift + Tab key moves to the previous focusable item.
- Make notes about your experience. Does your keyboard focus move predictably? Can you complete forms without getting stuck?
- Pay special attention to visual content. Can you understand the purpose of images, graphs, and infographics by listening to ChromeVox?
When testing content with a screen reader, understand your limitations
Accessing a website with a screen reader can be confusing and frustrating if you’re not comfortable with the controls. Here’s the good news: Experienced screen reader users will be more adept at using ChromeVox or other tools like NVDA, Jaws, and Apple VoiceOver.
If you notice accessibility issues when testing your content with ChromeVox, you’ll need to remediate them as soon as possible. Depending on your site, this could mean adding alternative text (alt text) to images, changing navigational features, or adding WAI-ARIA markup.
However, it’s also important to fix issues using the best practices outlined in WCAG. Poor remediation tactics can introduce new accessibility issues, so work with an experienced accessibility partner to limit your costs while providing the best possible experience for users.
For more guidance, read about the importance of screen reader accessibility or contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility to speak with an expert.