How Screen Readers Are Used in Accessibility Testing

February 9, 2022

Is your website accessible for screen reader users?

A screen reader is a software application that converts text to audio or braille. Screen reader support is essential for digital accessibility, and screen readers play an important role in accessibility testing.

In this article, we’ll discuss why these applications are effective tools for finding accessibility barriers on websites and mobile content. 

Why Screen Readers Are Important for Accessibility

First, let’s dispel a common myth: Not all screen readers work the same way, and not all screen reader users have significant vision disabilities. 

The most popular screen readers include Apple VoiceOver, JAWS, and NVDA, but dozens of other options exist. These applications have different features and capabilities, but they’re intentionally designed as assistive technologies. Assistive technologies improve access for people with disabilities, and it’s true that most screen reader users have some type of vision-related condition. In a 2019 survey, WebAIM found that 76% of screen reader users with disabilities were blind, while about 18.5% had low vision or other visual impairments. 

However, some screen reader users have neurocognitive conditions or other disabilities that affect their browsing behavior — and about 12.4% of respondents said that they use screen readers, but not because of any specific disability. 

In recent years, screen reader usage has expanded outside the disabilities community: Products like Apple’s VoiceOver can be useful when accessing mobile devices in certain settings (for instance, when operating a vehicle). In other words, if your content isn’t accessible with a screen reader, you’ve got a problem. 

Related: 5 Myths About Screen Readers That Can Hurt Accessibility

Screen readers can expose serious accessibility issues

Fortunately, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provides a framework for designing content that works with screen readers — along with other assistive technologies and browsing behaviors. 

By accessing content with a screen reader, experienced testers can find WCAG conformance issues including:

Automated accessibility testing may identify some of these issues, but a manual screen reader test provides a more thorough evaluation of a page’s accessibility. 

You can perform a simple screen reader test by downloading an application like JAWS or NVDA. However, many people become frustrated when using a screen reader for the first time, and some usability issues may not be apparent to people who rarely use screen readers. 

Even if those issues don’t violate WCAG checkpoints, webmasters will need to address them in order to provide every user with the best possible experience. Additionally, experienced screen reader users can provide guidance for remediation and explain how the barriers affect people with disabilities. 

Related: Can You Check Web Accessibility By Downloading a Screen Reader?

Accessibility compliance audits should include several types of testing

While screen reader testing is essential for digital accessibility, no individual test can find every type of issue. Screen reader tests may not identify barriers such as improper color contrast ratios, inaccessible authentication processes, or missing visual focus indicators.

Your accessibility audit should test your content in several different ways, with oversight and remediation guidance from accessibility experts. BOIA uses a four-point hybrid testing methodology, which we believe offers the best path to achieving, maintaining, and proving conformance with WCAG standards. 

Our audits include screen reader testing performed by people with vision-related disabilities. BOIA testers are required to hold certifications in JAWS and NVDA, and each expert has at least five years of experience in accessibility testing. By working with experienced screen reader consultants, we’re able to accurately identify barriers that impact the experiences of real-world users.

The BOIA audit methodology also includes automated testing on our powerful  a11y® analysis platform. Subject matter experts (SMEs) review and validate each outcome from each test, then perform an additional round of testing. Finally, a senior developer reviews the information and finalizes a comprehensive report. 

To learn more, read about our WCAG 2.1 Level AA website audits or contact us to discuss your goals.

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