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Have you ever used the text-to-speech function on your computer? Many people use this helpful function for a wide variety of reasons. Essentially, it takes the text that is on your screen and reads it aloud to you. This is extremely helpful for people with visual impairments or poor eyesight. Not having to squint to read tiny text, or constantly enlarging the font on their screens means that people with vision problems can interact with the digital world much more easily.
However, for some people using text-to-speech is still a bit tough. For one thing, some screen readers read text at a very fast pace. It can be difficult to get the hang of at first, and some people who could really benefit from the technology don’t use it because it is initially off-putting. Here are some tips to help make sure your website works well for people who use screen readers to interact with the web.
Always Include Alt Text
What is alt text? You might have heard the term thrown around but never actually explained. Alt text is actually short for alternative text. When you have an image on your website, it might not be clearly visible to everyone. Alt text gives you the ability to provide a short text-based description of the image. This description is then read by screen readers or displayed in the event that the image will not load for some reason.
The Web Design section of About.com provides some helpful insight into what makes good alt text, “Remember that the point of alt text is to define the images for your readers. Many Web developers use the alternative text for themselves, including things like image size, image file names, and so on. While this might be useful to you, it does nothing for your readers.” They also recommend that you try and keep your text short to ensure it doesn’t slow down your download time.
No matter what image you are using, you should always include alt text to ensure the information isn’t missed and your site is accessible to everyone. If you want to learn more about the basics of alt text and get access to some really helpful examples, you should check out WebAIM’s guide to alternative text. They show you how to determine the best text to use to describe your image and include some detailed explanations that will assist you the next time you go to create alt text for your site.
Always Use Punctuation
You might be surprised to learn how much punctuation changes the way a screen reader vocalizes your text. Remember when you were younger and you were learning how different punctuation changes the way you say something? For example, the sentence
“Let’s eat,” can be very different depending on the punctuation you use:
- “Let’s eat!” I’m excited about the activity or enthusiastic about the food.
- “Let’s eat?” I’m asking a question or offering a suggestion.
- “Let’s eat.” I’m making a statement or a fairly firm suggestion.
Just like you read all of these statements differently in your mind, a screen reader uses the punctuation cues in order to give the sentence more meaning. The inflection and tone that it uses will vary depending on the punctuation you use. The eLearning Technology blog further explains why punctuation is so important, “Using these techniques a voice can be made similar enough to human narration to hold a learner’s interest during an entire eLearning course – with a retention rate equivalent to that of a human voice.”
If every bit of your text is flat and isn’t given proper punctuation, then the screen reader won’t be able to give it the depth it deserves. Don’t make your readers listen to a monotone recitation of your website, spice it up with the correct punctuation!
Include a “Listen” Feature
Some people only use text-to-speech programs occasionally which means they need to turn it off and on again whenever they need to have something read to them. This issue can be eliminated by giving your users the option to simply click a button that allows them to have the content read to them. A good example of a website that uses this practice is the Disability Horizons site. They include a button on most of their articles so that users don’t need to own a dedicated text-to-speech program in order to use their website.
Try It Out for Yourself
I am a big advocate for user testing. One of the easiest ways to understand how your website functions when people are using a text-to-speech program is by trying it out yourself. Many newer computers come equipped with this function when you purchase them.
- If you’re using a Mac, go to the VoiceOver Getting Start Guide for instructions on how to utilize this function.
- If you’re using a PC, go to the How to configure and use Text-to-Speech in Windows XP and in Windows Vista for instructions on how to utilize this function.
Screen readers are an excellent way for people to access web content without needing to use the sense of sight. While the technology isn’t perfect, it is extremely helpful and improving all of the time. Optimizing the output that your visitors get when they use their screen reader to access your site will be a huge help to them and a great way for you to keep your visitors coming back.