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How Do Screen Readers Help Blind People Navigate The Internet?


Web accessibility is an important feature that allows people with disabilities equal opportunities to use the internet as efficiently as possible. Thanks to standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), companies are now required to modify their websites to make sure that they provide fair accessibility for everyone including the disabled population.

According to a recent research study conducted in the United States, around 7.3 million Americans are diagnosed with a vision disability. Their conditions range from slightly impaired eyesight to complete lack of vision due to blindness. These numbers indicate that 2.3% of the entire US population is currently suffering from visual problems and therefore need assistive technology to receive the optimized internet experience.

Luckily, today’s level of technology has made several innovations to help people with different disabilities live more comfortably and efficiently, including their internet activities. For people with visual injuries or blindness, the screen reader is one of the most effective tools to help them better enjoy online surfing.

What is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is any kind of software that assists visually impaired people as they browse through the internet by literally reading the website’s content out loud from the computer screen. Screen readers detect several elements on a website including text, images, menu and submenu options, links, forms, and other important content on the computer’s operating system (OS) like files, applications, icons, folders, and subfolders. Once the elements are identified by the software, it will organize and translate the data into a format that the user can understand and interact with, usually in the form of audible speech and Braille.

Screen readers that utilize audio content for blind users use a text-to-speech (TTS) engine to convert data into audio information processed through a loudspeaker or earphones. There are also screen reader variants that can convert the data into Braille by using a customized and refreshable display screen. This screen contains a particular number of cells where Braille characters are displayed in real-time as the user browses through a website. Both of these screen reader types are highly efficient and can easily be used in conjunction with one another for increased user optimization.

The digital market offers more than fifteen unique screen reader types available right now. The most popular variants are tailored for Windows (JAWS and NVDA), Chromebook (ChromeVox), Android (Talkback), and Mac & iOS (VoiceOver) platforms. While these screen readers essentially share the same objectives, each model offers a unique set of commands and programming priorities for web optimization. For example, the program options and commands for using the JAWS screen reader will not be the same as those utilized in NVDA types despite both of them servicing the Windows platform.

Due to this difference in command setups, it is highly recommended for a user to try multiple screen readers first before choosing a particular brand and model to stick with. This way, the user will only need to get used to the command system of the screen reader that he (or she) is most comfortable with.

How Do Blind People Use the Screen Reader to Browse the Internet?

Using a screen reader allows blind users to maximize their time on the internet by letting them carry out tasks they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, such as reading a web document, listening to music and audio files, interacting with website options, and effectively navigating through different web pages. The screen reader uses a different keyboard command for each of these functions to give the user an easier time accessing his (or her) options as necessary.

Unlike how a person with perfectly-working eyesight sees things, the screen reader can only help its users perceive website elements in a linear and one-dimensional way due to technological limitations. This means that the screen reader can fail to detect and interpret many elements on an online page that are designed to convey visual cues for regular users.

Instead, the screen reader can only detect and process plain text and semantic information specific to the elements that the keyboard focus is currently highlighting. It won’t be able to tell the user about implied visual modifiers such as the text’s font, font color, or font size. In this context, the screen reader works much closer to an audiobook, as it can only read what is on the page out loud in a specific order (from top left to bottom right, unless customized otherwise).

Visually impaired users often need to go over the contents of a website multiple times to get familiarity with its general layout. Since the screen reader can only voice out the elements targeted by the keyboard focus, it’s hard to completely browse an entire site in a single visit.

For a more efficient browsing experience, users can utilize keyboard shortcuts to quickly explore the elements of the web page. For example, a user can assign the T key to go straight to the site’s table of contents, and then proceed to perform a keyword search to find exactly what they’re looking for. This saves the user time in identifying between the various information on the website versus the information they actually need.

How Does the Screen Reader Help Blind Users Interact with a Website?

Since each screen reader is created with a unique programming code for identifying and processing online content, there are different settings for online navigation depending on the brand and model. However, generally speaking, there are only two ways by which a screen reader interacts with a web page for user navigation.

The first mode of interaction is through basic browsing. The browse mode is typically used for simply reading and navigating through the basic elements of a website. When a screen reader is set to browse mode, its focus is shifted from one element on the page to another by simply pressing the up and down arrow keys. Keep in mind that these keys can only move the keyboard focus in a sequential manner as determined by the web page and not by user preference.

The second mode of interaction is called the focus mode. The screen reader’s focus mode is used when the user is trying to interact with a specific function on a website. The best example of this would be when a user wants to fill out a particular form on a web page. The user will browse to a field on the form, switch to focus mode to fill up the intended field, and then use regular keyboard functions to complete the necessary entries.

A Final Word on Screen Readers

Screen readers are currently the most popular accessibility option for millions of Americans struggling with visual impairments. By allowing blind and visually-impaired users to consume online information effectively, screen readers are able to bridge the gap between the disabled and able-bodied sectors when it comes to internet access.

The major screen readers available in the market offer a different set of modes and advantages for all kinds of websites and user preferences. If you need assistance picking the ideal screen reader technology to accommodate your website, you can always count on Access-A-Pal for professional help.

Access-A-Pal is an expert when it comes to web accessibility, using advanced machine learning and computer vision technologies to improve your website and make sure it receives 100% compliance with the ADA and WCAG guidelines. If you need professional assistance to improve your website’s accessibility levels, contact Access-A-Pal now to receive immediate access to our high-quality resources and services.


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