AbilityNet Factsheet - February 2019

An introduction to screen readers

A screen reader allows people who are blind or visually impaired to use their computer. This factsheet provides an overview of the main screen readers available for people to use with their computer or mobile devices. It has been written to help people determine which is the most appropriate for their needs and includes summary information about the screen readers built into the operating system alongside other free or commercial products. As with all assistive technologies, no one size fits all, and people may find it useful to try more than one before settling on their preferred tool.

In the UK there are almost 2 million people living with sight loss. According to the RNIB only one in four people registered blind or partially sighted is in employment, and this number is falling. As such, the promotion of awareness about screen reader technology plays a vital part in the continued welfare, education, and employability of people with visual impairments.

Last updated: February 2019

1. What is a screen reader? 

A screen reader is a technology that helps people who have difficulties seeing to access and interact with digital content, like websites or applications via audio or touch. The main users of screen readers are people who are blind or have very limited vision.

How do they work? 

The technology reads out loud what is on the screen and users can adapt them to their needs, for example you can decrease the speed of speech or change the language. Screen readers allow people to navigate through websites and applications via the speech output. Some screen readers can also be used with a Braille display. 

Are they easy to use? 

When starting out with a screen reader, you need to learn some shortcut keys or touch gestures. While it is possible to master the basic interaction after learning just a few commands, becoming an advanced user able to interact confidently does require a bit of time and effort to get familiar with their advanced features. Training can help. 

What screen readers are available? 

There are different screen readers available. Nearly all computers, tablets and smartphones have a screen reader function built in. The most popular programs are JAWS and NVDA for Windows computers and VoiceOver for the Mac and iPhone. The best choice for you depends on: 

  • The type of computer and or mobile phone that you have.  
  • The browser you prefer; some combinations of browser and screen reader works better than others. 
  • The apps you use; while all screen reader users work with common office apps, email and the web, if you need a screen reader to work with specific applications you may be limited to one that can be scripted to work well with it. 

2. The main screen readers

JAWS for Windows

JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a desktop screen reader for Windows and works well with Internet Explorer, Chrome or FireFox browsers. Jaws was one of the first screen readers and was launched for Windows 1.0 in 1995. Jaws is extremely popular and, as it can be scripted to work with applications, is widely used in the workplace. This is a paid-for screen reader but you can download a JAWS trial which will run for 40 minutes.

NVDA for Windows

NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) is a free, open source screen reader for Windows computers.  It is the second most used desktop screen reader and, like Jaws, also works well with all popular browsers. Being a free, very proficient screen reader on the web, NVDA has become increasingly popular as apps move into the browser. Download NVDA

Narrator for Windows

Narrator is the screen reader built into Windows. This works well with Microsoft Office and the Edge Browser. Press the windows Logo key + Control + Enter to turn Narrator on and off (Windows Logo key + Enter for Windows 10 versions older than 1803 – released in the spring of 2018). The Microsoft training guide for narrator can be found on their website. While Narrator has a low up-take historically, there has been considerable development in recent months and, since the spring 2019 update to Windows 10, is now a very viable screen reader.

VoiceOver for Apple devices

VoiceOver is the screen reader for Apple devices; Mac computers, iPads, iPhones, the Apple Watch and the Apple TV.  It is particularly popular on the iPhone – working well with millions of apps and the internet (using Apple’s Safari browser). You don’t need to do anything to install VoiceOver. On your Apple device, simply go to settings and click or tap on Accessibility to find VoiceOver and a wealth of other powerful options.

Talkback for Android devices

TalkBack is also a very widely used screen reader. Found on Android devices, it works well with the majority of apps and the internet (Chrome being the default browser). No download is required on most Android devices – although on some it must be installed from the Google Play Store. To enable TalkBack, go to settings and tap on Accessibility (note that on some models of phone it may  instead be called VoiceAssistant or Accessibility Suite). Performance of TalkBack can vary between manufacturers - with best performance on those phones from Google and Samsung.

3. Other screen readers 

Other screen readers include SuperNova, System Access and Thunder. There is also an excellent screen reader built into Chromebooks called ChromeVox. We are not, however, including more information on these here.

The table below provides a quick comparison between the most widely-used screen readers currently available at the time of producing this factsheet.

 JAWSNVDAVoiceOverTalkBack*
PlatformWindowsWindows

All Apple devices

Android for mobiles and tablets

Best browsers

Chrome, Firefox

Chrome, FirefoxSafariChrome
PriceIn the UK JAWS costs £200 for a 90 day trial or £699 for JAWS home and £945 for JAWS professional. All prices exclusive of VAT.FreeFreeFree
How to get themDownload from their websiteDownload from their websiteFind it in Accessibility Settings on Apple devicesFind it in Accessibility Settings on Android devices
In constant development since...1995200620052009

*TalkBack is part of the Google Accessibility Suite on their own Pixel devices (from 2018 onwards).
**Source: UK assistive technology survey, 2016. More info clicking in this link: accessibility.blog.gov.uk/2016/11/01/results-of-the-2016-gov-uk-assistive-technology-survey/

4. Useful contacts

RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) - www.rnib.org.uk/

5. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

https://abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

Copyright information

This factsheet is licensed by AbilityNet under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. View a copy of this license at creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 
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