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NVDA Screen Reader: An Overview for Developers and Content Creators

Jan 28, 2022

Developed by registered charity NV Access, NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free, portable screen reader designed for Microsoft Windows. It can output visual content as audio or braille, and it’s completely free.

The project was launched by Michael Curran and James Teh, who are fully blind, and within several years of its introduction, NVDA became one of the most popular screen readers available. It’s widely used in digital accessibility testing, as NVDA is an excellent tool for finding barriers that affect real-life internet users.

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

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

Why NVDA Is Popular with Screen Reader Users

In a 2021 screen reader user survey published by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), NVDA was the second-most popular screen reader for desktop-laptop use (JAWS, or Job Access With Speech, was the most popular). 

Several key features explain NVDA’s popularity:

    • NVDA is a free, open-source project. The software is regularly updated with new features, and since its introduction in 2006, it has remained 100% free.
    • NVDA is remarkably robust. The software provides reliable control of web browsers, login screens, and many popular Windows applications.
    • NVDA is portable. Users can install NVDA on a USB flash drive, then use the software on most Windows PCs. Other screen readers like JAWS don’t provide this portability, which limits their utility for users who work on multiple machines.
    • NVDA is customizable. It can be extended easily with plugins from the NVDA Community Add-ons website. The add-ons can enhance functionality for specific applications, magnify portions of the screen, and much more.
    • NVDA has a global mission. NVDA supports more than 50 languages and has an international community of more than 70,000 users in more than 175 countries.

NVDA is a fantastic resource for the disabilities community, so consider supporting its development by making a donation.

Related: Why Screen Readers Are Essential for Website Accessibility

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

To create accessible content for people with disabilities, you’ll need to make sure your website supports popular screen readers. Because NVDA is free, popular, and powerful, it’s an excellent tool for performing basic accessibility tests. 

However, if you’re unfamiliar with screen readers, using the software may be difficult at first. You’ll execute most commands with your keyboard alone — no mouse — and browsing websites naturally requires some familiarity with the controls. Even if you spend hours using NVDA, you probably won’t have the same experience as an experienced user. 

And while using a screen reader can provide helpful insights, testing your content with assistive technologies does not ensure conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standard for website accessibility. 

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility recommends using a combination of automated and manual evaluations to find and remediate accessibility barriers. Read more about our four-point hybrid testing methodology here.

Tips for Reviewing Web Content with NVDA

If you’re planning on using NVDA to test your content, keep these tips in mind:

  • Adjust the software’s settings (Preferences > Settings) as needed. Many NVDA commands require the “NVDA modifier key,” which is set by the user. Since the Ctrl, Alt, and Shift keys are used in many commands, we recommend setting Caps Lock as the NVDA modifier key.
  • Review the NVDA User Guide. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility also offers NVDA training resources.
  • Pay close attention to image alternative text, form controls, and any WAI-ARIA markup. Ask yourself whether your content is understandable and operable without visual cues.
  • Avoid drawing broad conclusions. Regular screen reader users may have a completely different experience when navigating your content.

Finally, remember that web accessibility isn’t just for people who use screen readers. WCAG checkpoints help to ensure your content works better for everyone — regardless of the technologies they use to access your content.

To determine whether your site follows WCAG accessibility standards, start with a free, confidential website accessibility scan or talk to a digital accessibility expert.

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

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