a person standing next to a large microphone icon and a large piece of paper that reads "text"

Assistive Technology Focus: Screen Readers

21 Apr 2020

…the Internet can mean many things to people with a disability: a luxury, a necessity, a way to participate in the information society, a way to gain access to more information than was previously available, or only one of the many ways of accessing information. It is also seen as a technology which may potentially disadvantage them if they cannot access it.

From The Internet for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Imagine online shopping or editing a Word doc without being able to see the screen. Seems impossible right? Luckily for people with visual impairments, both the tasks mentioned, and much more, can be accomplished by using a screen reader. Screen readers are a type of assistive technology that reads the text and interactive components on a computer screen aloud while a keyboard is used to control what is happening on screen (in place of a mouse). Below is a video from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee  Assistant Professor Rakesh Babu on how screen readers work:

Courtesy of The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee via YouTube – Closed Captioning available

[Computer Speaking]

[Professor Babu, speaking to the camera]:  As I was growing up and I began to lose my sight; the whole world was shut because I couldn’t see anything.

[Computer Speaking]

[Professor Babu, on his laptop]: I just heard it say Google; that means I’m on my Homepage.

[Cut to Professor Babu, speaking to the camera]: Screen readers are software that is designed to translate text into speech.

[Computer Speaking] 

[Cut to Professor Babu, speaking to the camera]: And that’s the primary way, or rather technology, that helps blind people interact with the web and computers.

[Cut to Professor Babu, on his laptop]:This seems like there’s a calendar here, but that’s just my guesswork.

[Cut to Professor Babu, speaking to the camera]: With a little bit of understanding and compassion, designers can build technologies that are more blind-friendly. People, like me who can’t see, can in fact contribute, and participate effectively in every aspect of life, just as other people do.

[Computer Speaking]

The first screen readers came online in the late 1980s when an IBM employee created one for his low-vision coworkers. This invention blossomed into one of the most influential devices enabling folks with visual disabilities access the internet, computers and ultimately, information. Screen readers aren’t only for visually impaired folks, they can also help others– like those with dyslexia, motor disabilities and cognitive disabilities.

Screen readers won’t automatically work as intended–websites and apps need to be built with the proper markup and structure for screen readers to function appropriately. Below is a video with an example of how coding a web page without adhering to accessibility guidelines results in confusion and not enough information for a user to understand what is on the screen.

Please note: This video is from 2014. Here is the New York Times’ page on accessibility.

Courtesy of Alexandra Qin via YouTube – auto-generated Closed Captioning available

[Computer-generated voice-over of a screen reader reading the New York Times home webpage]

Breaking news world news and multimedia

Window sections button search button

Internal link internal link list one

Item link and of list login button settings button

List three item U.S.  link link end of list

Frame  heading list one item Thursday

Link link and leaving the list two

Link link link link link link link link

End of list leaving group landmark

Entering main landmark frame two heading

Level two top news heading level two

Link US Attorney Warren’s Cuomo on ethics investigation by Suzanne Craig Thomas Kaplan and William K Rashbaum. The letter from the prosecutor investigating Governor Andrew M Cuomo’s cancellation of his own anti-corruption Commission came after members of the panel publicly defended the governor’s handling of the Commission link one for for comments

Heading level two link Netanyahu vows to continue destroying Gaza tunnel.

So, we can’t just assume that all websites, applications and other IT products are compatible with screen reader technology.  We need to build these products with accessibility guidelines in focus, or we risk defeating the crucial purpose of these advances. As Prof. Babu noted, “With a little bit of understanding and compassion, designers can build technologies that are more blind-friendly.”

Popular Screen Readers

Source: WebAIM