The World Health Organization indicates that over 2 billion individuals globally are visually impaired, with the National Institutes of Health identifying 8 percent of Americans coping with visual impairments. Screen reader accessibility of websites and digital assets ensures an inclusive experience for people with visual impairments, ranging from mild to severe disabilities. While driving an enhanced user experience in addressing social, ethical, and business responsibilities, online screen readers can also ensure ADA compliance. 

We created this blog post with insights on screen readers to help answer the most critical and common questions about screen reader technology, including:

  • What is screen reader technology?”
  • How does a screen reader work?”
  • What are the processes for screen reader testing
  • What are design best practices for screen reader accessibility

Let’s get started and help you understand the best ways to ensure your website provides screen accessibility and compliance.

What Is Screen Reader Technology?

Many individuals with various forms of disabilities depend on assistive technology for a frictionless and simplified user experience online. People with vision impairments or disabilities can acquire a self-sufficient and fluid online experience on desktop or mobile devices with screen reader technology. Online screen readers will literally read out the text and content of a webpage or digital asset to simplify any online user’s journey if they experience difficulties reading text for various reasons. 

And while designed to primarily support visual impairments, screen reader software can also support individuals of diverse backgrounds including:

  • Individuals with beginner language skills or learning a new language
  • People who learn better with listening tools
  • Those who may have cognitive disabilities or impairments, along with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, for example 
  • Content consumers challenged by having to read text

For individuals who process information more easily with audio dictation, and internalize content more easily in taking notes while listening, screen reader technology can be a helpful multitasking tool. 

How do Screen Readers Work? 

Screen reader software helps people with visual disabilities and others of diverse backgrounds use digital devices and understand online information. Powered by AI (Artificial Intelligence), top performing screen readers translate written information into audible speech to simplify consumption and comprehension. Online screen readers dictate text anc can transform content into braille, feeding data into an automated refreshable braille display that can be used on its own, or in conjunction with the audio dictation of the screen reader technology.

Screen reader software also enables site navigation with various areas of a webpage or digital asset in their screen view, while often working collaboratively with the use of keystrokes and keyboard navigation, as people with visual impairments and disabilities can also be challenged to use a mouse.

How Many People Use Screen Readers Online

People use screen readers to review documents, navigate web pages, interact with files, and listen to music or audio content. All of these actions correspond to a particular keyboard command. Screen reader software is usually installed directly onto mobile or desktop devices, with a variety that are compatible with Windows, iOS, Linux and more. Most online screen readers use TTS (Text-to-Speech) technology and often optimize speed of content consumption.

The two most common ways people use screen readers are: 

1. Browse Mode: Here, the user cruises through a site and uses up and down arrow keys to make the screen reader sequentially change focus from each page component to the next.

2. Focus Mode: The user interacts with a particular UX (User Experience) webpage element. An excellent example concerns online forms, where the user finds a field, automatically switches to focus mode, and uses the correct keystrokes to populate that field.

Keystrokes and commands will control the online screen reader software and direct it to do everything from:

  • Commence and stop reading content
  • Revert back to a specific section
  • Skim or skip content
  • Audible dictate spelling of words
  • Interact with various elements from clicking on buttons or links, to playing multimedia files.

Design Tips for Screen Reader Accessibility

With the National Institutes of Health stating that there are approximately 1 million Americans who are legally blind, and numbers projected to rise by over 20% every decade, web accessibility with online screen readers is both a moral and business responsibility, objective, and obligation. We created a list of tips to help ensure the design of your website is compatible and easily works with online screen readers.

1. Proper HTML Tags

Screen readers need semantically-rich tags to comprehend web content and elements from which end users can choose. HTML tags that concisely convey their message in a way that’s easy for humans and devices to read is helpful to guide screen readers and help them navigate content with greater ease.

2. Expressive Headings and Lead Sentences

People who use screen readers share one thing in common with all users: they skim content. So headlines that convey the main point of your message—preferably using a big, bold font. Create direct and clear headers and lead sentences to encourage people to read on.

3. Alt Text 

While alt text is known to be an excellent means to optimize SEO, its primary purpose is to provide screen readers with a way to comprehend and express digital content like images and videos. This process is crucial to offer a rich user experience to people with visual impairments and disabilities. Online screen readers ignore images without alt text and will only read the name of an image file. To ensure accessibility for each page, provide easy-to-understand alt text for all images, videos, icons, and embeds.

4. Correct Punctuation

Grammatically correct content on your site for all end users is critical, but even more crucial for screen reader software. Screen reader (TTS) text-to-speech functionality stops when it encounters periods, commas, new paragraphs, and other grammatical elements to simulate speech. Errors in your content can cause the screen reader to stop unnecessarily and interrupt the user experience.   

5. Partner with A Trusted Third-Party Provider

Choose a vendor with a trusted reputation for developing comprehensive, proven screen readers for the visually impaired. There are many options available on the market today, but you want to choose one that checks all the boxes concerning full access and compliance for people with these disabilities. 

Screen Reader Testing

While we’ve highlighted the critical nature of screen readers accessibility, ensuring screen reader software functionality with testing could mean blending automated and manual testing – with and without the screen reader itself. Testing your site with just a screen reader on its own could miss elements that are critical to ensure screen reader accessibility. Having someone with assistive technology expertise who understands the various keystrokes and commands that control screen readers will help verify functionality for blind or visually impaired users. 

The specific design tips outlined above are generally the areas most critical for screen reader testing, including html mark-up, alt text, accurate and clear punctuation, headings and lead sentences. But while elements like dynamic content and some accessibility overlays may increase interactivity for users without visual impairments, they can be interruptions to screen readers and cause issues along the way. Testing all of these critical elements will optimize user experience for anyone using screen reader assistive technology.

Running an automated screen reader assistive technology test before launching a website is both wise and increases accessibility from the get-go. In addition, performing regular site audits will help ensure a solid blend of automated and human-in-the-loop monitoring of your website’s screen reader accessibility with every piece of content that’s added.

Increase your website's screen reader compatibility for better accessibility

The UserWay Widget 4.0 Screen Reader

Meeting section 508 compliance provides an inclusive user experience to all individuals, and helps organizations meet regulatory requirements to ensure good legal standing. Every online user should enjoy barrier-free access on the Internet with consideration of DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion). UserWay’s Widget 4.0 provides AI-Powered accessibility with a simple click to use an online screen reader that helps ensure compliance, inclusion, and a seamless user experience for visual impairments, or anyone who benefits from processing information in audio form.

Answers to Common FAQs

Which Errors Cause Issues with Screen Readers?  

Avoid problematic errors that can disrupt the functionality of the most commonly used and popular screen readers, including poor or complex navigation, excessive mouse dependency, and not making error messages accessible to end users. 

How Do You Test Digital Accessibility for Screen Readers Users?

There are numerous free screen readers on the market to do your initial testing. You can also do automated and manual in-house testing, or hire an external organization to assess your site. One approach that’s helpful could be asking someone to use their screen reader to buy one of your products online. Their feedback should tell you if your site is accessible. In addition, including screen testing as a part of ongoing auditing will ensure your site is in good standing with every content addition or change to your website.

How Many People Use Screen Readers Other Than Individuals with Visual Impairments?

While it’s easy to assume that screen readers are exclusively designed for individuals with visual impairments, statistics indicate otherwise:

According to a WebAIM Screen Reader User Survey:

  • 3% of screen reader users have cognitive disabilities
  • 6% are deaf or hard-of-hearing
  • 2% have motor disorders
  • Nearly 4% have disorders that aren’t listed
  • Roughly 16% have numerous disorders 
  • Over 12% say disabilities aren’t the reason they use screen readers