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JAWS Screen Reader: An Overview for Developers and Content Creators

Mar 31, 2022

Freedom Scientific’s JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a popular screen reader. The software converts onscreen text to audio or braille, enabling users to browse the web, use Windows applications, and navigate their operating systems. While JAWS was developed for people with vision-related disabilities, screen readers are useful for people with a wide range of conditions. 

If you’re developing a website or a Windows application, screen reader support is crucial for reaching the widest possible audience. By following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can make sure that your content is perceivable when accessed with JAWS and other assistive technologies — and you’ll improve the on-page experience for all users, regardless of their abilities.

As part of a series of articles on screen readers, we’re providing a quick overview of JAWS’s features. 

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

Why JAWS Is Popular with Screen Reader Users

Each year, non-profit WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) surveys screen reader users to collect information about software usage and preferences. In the organization’s 2021 survey, 53.7% of respondents identified JAWS as their primary screen reader (NVDA, a free screen reader, came in second with 30.7%).

The primary disadvantage of JAWS is its price: A home license for JAWS costs $95 per year (or $1,000 for a perpetual license).  Licenses are restricted to three computers, and unlike NVDA, JAWS does not currently have a portable version. 

While JAWS is expensive, it’s popular with the disabilities community for several reasons: 

  • JAWS is powerful and customizable. It can be used with virtually every Windows application and has built-in commands and hotkeys for Microsoft Office, Google Docs, and several popular web browsers.
  • JAWS has two multilingual synthesizers for clear, understandable audio output.
  • The software has a “Skim Reading" feature, which can save time when browsing the web and performing other tasks.
  • JAWS includes drivers for all popular refreshable braille displays.

JAWS has been thoroughly tested for compatibility with Windows, and many screen reader users say that the software is faster and easier to use than other screen readers. However, JAWS requires a relatively large amount of processing power, so it might not operate predictably on older machines. 

Can I use the JAWS screen reader to test website accessibility?

Freedom Scientific offers a free trial of JAWS for PC users. The trial version is limited to 40 minutes of operation, at which point you’ll need to reboot to keep using the software.

Testing your content with a screen reader can help you find usability issues that affect your audience. However, if you’ve never used JAWS before, remember that you’ll have less aptitude with the program than experienced users. 

To put this in perspective, imagine that you’re using a keyboard or a mouse for the first time. You would need time to understand how the tools operate, and you wouldn’t be able to navigate as comfortably or quickly as an experienced computer user.

Likewise, you won’t be able to use a screen reader naturally until you’ve built some experience. For that reason, it’s a good idea to involve people with disabilities when testing your content. Experienced screen reader users will be able to provide useful perspectives, which can make remediation much easier.

Related: What Is a WCAG Audit?What to Look for When Testing Web Accessibility

Tips for Reviewing Web Content with JAWS

To accurately test your content for WCAG conformance or for compliance with digital accessibility laws, we recommend using a combination of automated and manual evaluations. Read more about our four-point hybrid testing methodology here.

With that said, JAWS can be useful for reviewing web content, and using a screen reader can give content creators valuable insights about the experiences of real-life users. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Open JAWS before opening your web browser. Many JAWS commands use a modifier key, which you’ll need to identify in the settings. By default, the modifier key is “Insert.
  • Get comfortable with the basic functions of the software. Review JAWS hotkeys and keep a reference list of the keystrokes nearby.
  • Ask yourself questions while browsing. Does JAWS accurately identify images, buttons, and links? Are you confused by the speech output — and if so, how could you make your website more intuitive for screen reader users?
  • Pay close attention to forms and other interactive elements. Make sure you can complete forms without encountering errors or keyboard traps (which occur when the user is unable to move their keyboard focus from a form field or other interactive control).
  • Don’t draw conclusions. Your goal is to learn how your website works for people who use screen readers, but remember that experienced screen reader users may have an entirely different experience.

For more detailed guidance, check out WebAIM’s “Using JAWS to Evaluate Web Accessibility,” which is written for developers and designers who may not be familiar with screen readers. 

To create better content for all of your users, you’ll need to audit your site for conformance with the latest version of WCAG. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers training, WCAG testing, and remediation guidance to help your organization enjoy the benefits of accessible web design. To get started, talk to a digital accessibility expert.

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