A screen reader for everyone: why the world needs NVDA

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Monday, 26 March 2012 15:26pm

In 2006, two Australian friends were frustrated with the expensive screen readers on the market. They decided to do something about it and created the first open source, free screen reader, NVDA. Funded by donations, the NV Access organisation is a labour of love for founders Mick Curran and Jamie Teh, who devote their time to ensuring that NVDA is the best it can be.

NVDA, or Non Visual Desktop Access, allows blind users to access the web and applications within Microsoft Windows by translating text and other elements into synthetic speech. Screen readers have been around for decades and are regarded as the go-to assistive technology for blind users.

However, they can cost thousands of dollars to purchase and more money to upgrade. In Australia, funding is available through the Workplace Modification Scheme, but for the huge proportion of blind and vision impaired people who are not employed, forking out thousands of dollars for assistive technology is a real challenge. Teh and Curran developed a free alternative.

NVDA is the underdog of the screen reader market. Given its non-profit, open source model, NVDA is a product of a community of users and developers all working to improve the software. While this means that bugs can be fixed more quickly, NVDA lacks the level of support for users that often comes with its commercial competitors. Commercial screen readers such as JAWS are often backed by large consumer organisations which provide training and ongoing support for customers. 

According to Teh, one of NVDA’s key points of difference is its capacity to work in different languages. “While other screen readers are available in some other languages, the translated versions are often outdated or more expensive than the English version. In contrast, as long as a translator is willing, NVDA translations are updated with every release.”

Translation is just one part of the work that keeps the NV Access team busy and in need of donations. Curran and Teh are hands-on directors, constantly fixing and testing the software. They work closely with Microsoft and other developers to ensure access for blind and vision impaired users and consult with industry bodies to help set the standards for accessibility and assistive technology. At the heart of this activity is the need to make assistive technology as widely available as possible.

Developing NVDA has presented a number of challenges for Teh and Curran, both experienced programmers. “While operating system and accessibility APIs are fairly well documented for the most part, we also have to use many obscure, sometimes downright ugly techniques to enable the best possible access for users,” said Teh. “Given the small size of the assistive technology industry and its generally proprietary nature, many ‘tricks of the trade’ aren't documented and are often closely guarded.”

NV Access has recently hit a funding crisis. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, NV Access needs to raise $200,000 per year to cover business costs and provide staff with a modest wage. Receiving small amounts of funding from sponsors such as the Mozilla Foundation, NV Access now relies on small donations from users for survival. Without an increase in support, Curran and Teh may face shutting up shop.

“We strongly believe in our important mission to lower the barriers to access to technology for blind and vision impaired people and still have hope that we will be able to improve our funding situation so that we can continue to serve in that capacity,” said Teh.

The NVDA screen reader is free and can be downloaded from nvda-project.org.

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