A screen reader is a piece of software which converts the text on a screen to synthetic voice. It is the primary method that people who are blind use to access computers and the web.
Most new computers, and some smartphones and tablets, have a screen reader built into them. For Apple Macs, iPhones and iPads there is VoiceOver. For Microsoft Windows computers, there is Narrator.
While Narrator has improved with the latest version of Windows, Windows 8, many people prefer other screen readers with advanced features. The most common is JAWS, which costs upwards of $1,100 to purchase in Australia. However, there are free and low-cost alternatives which many users find suit their everyday needs.
Popular screen readers
VoiceOver is the inbuilt screen reader for Apple computers and mobile devices.
VoiceOver is available on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It provides speech output for items on the screen and announces actions for the user to make. For example “button, double tap to select”. VoiceOver works with other native Apple apps (the apps that come installed with the iPhone or iPad) and can also be used in conjunction with a braille device.
Detailed information about VoiceOver can be found on the Apple website.
JAWS is a screen reader for Microsoft Windows computers made by Freedom Scientific. The WebAIM Screen Reader Survey shows JAWS remains the most popular screen reader with 64 per cent of survey participants indicating it was their screen reader of choice. However, at a cost of over $1,100, it remains one of the most expensive screen readers on the market.
It is compatible with many programs including Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat Reader, web browsers and email clients.
Non-Visual Desktop Access, more commonly known as NVDA, is a free, open-source screen reader for Microsoft Windows computers. Developed in Australia, NVDA comes with more than 43 languages and supports web browsers, email clients, Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office Word and Excel.
Unlike JAWS, NVDA is free, can be used on multiple computers and run from a USB drive. This means you can maintain your settings and preferences between computers.
Read our detailed review of NVDA’s features.
Narrator is the inbuilt screen reader for Microsoft Windows computers. While the screen reader has very limited functionality in Windows XP, Vista and 7, it was significantly improved in Windows 8 to include the explore by touch feature on touch screen devices.
If you are using Windows 7, Vista or XP we recommend you use NVDA instead of Narrator.
Similar to JAWS, Window-Eyes is a commercial screen reader for Microsoft Windows computers. It is available to purchase in Australia for $1,022. This screen reader is compatible with Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8.
Like the free NVDA, Window-Eyes Mobile can work off a USB drive and be used across multiple computers.
Other screen readers
Screen readers and web accessibility
Ensuring that your content can be accessed by screen readers is a fundamental aspect of responsible website management. Find out how to make and maintain websites that are usable for everyone at our sister website Access iQ.
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