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Outline

This article provides an overview of screen readers, the variety of screen reading tools, and their characteristics.


Overview

There are a number of screen readers available, some native to particular Operating Systems, and others that work across most environments. The two most widely used (according to a 2021 survey carried out by WebAIM) are JAWS (53%) and NVDA (31%). Let’s look at these two in more detail.

Screen reader services

JAWS, made by Freedom Scientific is the longest-established screen reader available. It works well with web content and Evolve courses. One really handy aspect when creating or testing accessible content is anyone can download the full application and use it in ‘demo’ mode for free - that means that after 40 minutes of use, you have to restart your computer to continue using. The cost of the full application is significant, and it may not be practical for many learners and elearning designers to purchase the full application. JAWS is updated regularly and has seen new editions appear yearly, with interim updates.

NVDA is the second most widely used screen reader, and again works well with web and Evolve content. It is an open-source application - which most importantly means it’s free for anyone to download, which explains its ever-growing user base. Being open source means it’s also constantly being developed and improved, and indeed has improved significantly in recent years.

After the above two, the next most widely used screen reader is VoiceOver - which is native to Mac computers, as well as iPads and iPhones. It’s relatively easy to use and works well on those mobile devices.

Windows also has its own screen reader, called Narrator. Whilst some version of this software has been available in Windows for many years, it’s had a significant upgrade with the arrival of Windows 10. Of the four screen readers mentioned so far, we found during our testing that Narrator had the most issues with Evolve content. Microsoft will continue to update this application, and we will continue to monitor how it performs. Whilst Narrator only counts for less than 1% of the audience who use a screen reader, it’s included here as it’s free and native to Windows.

There are a number of other screen readers available, but the usage percentage is considerably less than JAWS and NVDA. The most notable are ZoomText, which comprises a reader and a screen magnification tool, and has recently released a new product called Fusion which incorporates JAWS as its reader.

It should be noted that whilst Evolve and some other authoring tools’ content can be read by screen readers, the readers were not built with elearning specifically in mind - and as such, screen readers’ behavior might be occasionally unpredictable when navigating a course. Where possible, learners should be encouraged to run the latest version of their screen reading software and web browsers, to incorporate the latest bug fixes and updates.


Screen readers in practice

Although navigation works differently for each screen reader, they broadly work in a similar way. Please refer to the list of keyboard commands for a particular screen reader. The main navigational controls are generally:

Tab = moves between the interactive elements on a page; e.g. buttons and active items that make something happen when activated. So this could cover everything from a Submit button on an MCQ, to navigating to the next page via navigation in the footer menu. If you use Tab in conjunction with the Shift key, you can move backward. Note that tabbing does not guide the learner through static text content.

Enter = activates an active item; so tabbing to a Submit button and then using the Enter key to press it, or using the Enter key to activate footer navigation, etc. A spacebar is sometimes also used for activation.

Arrow keys = used to navigate through text. So if there is text to be read on the page, tabbing could miss this out and move straight to the next active item. Using the directional arrow keys (and it’s usually the down arrow to work through a page in a logical reading order, and the up arrow to go backward) allows the user to read through all the text on a page.

There are certain interactions that may require the user to do something slightly different, and switch to a different mode of operation. An example would be a slider component - to move the slider along the scale, the screen reader might need to switch to a different mode to allow say the left and right arrow keys to move the slider, and then tab to switch out of that mode and return to regular navigation. JAWS and NVDA (for example) both alert the user via specific noises that a different input mode has been entered.

Each of the screen readers has a huge range of different keyboard commands for all kinds of actions, and your learners will inevitably have their own particular method for navigating content.


Conclusion

We hope this short guide will help you in accessible course creation. Accessibility is something we are passionate about at Intellum, and something we will continue to work on to make our products as accessible as they can be.

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