Developers often ask us how we use screen readers for testing accessibility — and more specifically, which screen readers and browsers we use to evaluate conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Here’s the quick answer: We use JAWS (Jobs Access with Speech) and NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) with popular web browsers including Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge. However, depending on the content we’re testing, we may use additional tools.
For general accessibility testing, the best practice is to use a popular screen reader with a popular web browser. But before you download a screen reader and start testing your content, here are a few important considerations.
Screen reader testing isn’t always straightforward
In other articles, we’ve explained why screen reader testing should be performed by experienced experts.
Screen readers are not web browsers. They’re software designed to operate a wide variety of applications, and they may operate differently depending on the user’s web browser, operating system, and screen reader settings.
If you test your content with a single screen reader, you’ll probably run into issues:
- WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) support varies from one screen reader to the next. If your website uses WAI-ARIA, your tests may miss barriers that affect a large number of screen reader users.
- Screen readers may also interpret WAI-ARIA information differently depending on the features of the web browser. For instance, ARIA support for the JAWS screen reader is less robust with Firefox than with Google Chrome.
- If you don’t use a screen reader regularly, you won’t have the same understanding of the software as an experienced user. You may find “accessibility barriers" that don’t actually exist.
Your accessibility strategy should always include feedback from people with disabilities. With that said, you can — and should — test content frequently during development. By installing a screen reader, you can gain insights about how your users experience your content.
But it’s also important to remember that every screen reader has a distinct set of features. Different combinations of screen readers and web browsers can generate extremely different output.
The Most Popular Combinations of Screen Readers and Web Browsers
By this point, we’ll assume that you understand that screen reader testing is limited, but you still want to experience your website with screen-reading software.
According to WebAIM’s 2021 screen reader user survey, the following combinations of web browsers and screen readers were the most popular among respondents:
- JAWS with Chrome - 32.5% of respondents.
- NVDA with Chrome - 16% of respondents.
- JAWS with Edge - 12.6% of respondents.
- NVDA with Firefox - 9.7% of respondents.
- JAWS with Firefox - 4.8% of respondents.
If you test with a single screen reader and web browser, your tests will reflect the experiences of less than a third of screen reader users (at best). By testing with a few different combinations, however, you can get a better sense of how real users experience your website.
Getting Started with Screen Readers
Using assistive technology for the first time can be overwhelming. These articles provide an overview of the basic features and controls of several popular screen readers:
- JAWS Screen Reader: An Overview for Developers and Content Creators
- NVDA Screen Reader: An Overview for Developers and Content Creators
- ChromeVox Screen Reader: An Overview for Developers and Content Creators
- Google TalkBack: An Overview of Android's Free Screen Reader
Accessibility testing shouldn’t rely on a single screen reader or web browser
We know that we’re repeating this point, but if you’re committed to screen reader testing, we strongly recommend working with experienced testers. Your strategy should also include automated testing, which can reveal a wide range of potential issues (and reduce the costs of remediation).
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, our goal is to help our clients develop a self-sufficient strategy for digital accessibility. That means training developers and designers to follow the best practices of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and to test content for potential conformance issues.
We also perform manual screen reader tests as part of our four-point hybrid approach to digital accessibility audits. Learn more about our hybrid approach, or if you’re ready to create a digital compliance strategy, send us a message to connect with an expert.