How many times have you asked yourself:
How can blind people use a computer? Here are your answers.
There are softwares and tools that help us. The most used one is a software called screen reader. Actually, The technology is called like this, because there are many types of screen readers.
We will explain what they are and how they work in this post.
When you see a blind person using a laptop you’ll probably be confused: Most probably the screen is dark or the lid is half closed, So you will be asking yourself how does him or her use the damn thing?
When screen readers appeared, they changed the world: Things that previously weren’t possible even in dreams suddenly became real, easy and achievable. No matter the device, no matter where or when, in the moment a screen reader was installed, accessibility was at our fingertips.
What is exactly a screen reader, tough? You know what’s a screen, and what’s a reader too, so the meaning is quite clear: A screen reader is a piece of software that, through the use of speech, reads the screen and most of its contents.
But maybe this definition is too simple. In truth, a screen reader does so much more than that.
A screen reader can read what’s on the screen, it facilitates interaction, it’s basically a blind person’s virtual eyes.
For windows, we have two main competitors on the screen reader market, two giants that share basically all the market between them: Jaws (Job Access With Speech), and Nvda (NonVisual Desktop Access): What follows is a brief history of each one, as well as a general description of how a screen reader works.
First released for the ms-dos operating system, Jaws, Job Access With Speech, is around since 1989, tough it’s first windows version appeared only in 1995. Basically, the screen reader is, since then, growing with windows. It is said to be the most popular screen reader for this operating system.
- Developer: Freedom Scientific
- System requirements: Windows® 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7 Service Pack 1, Windows Server® 2016, Windows Server 2012, and Windows Server 2008; Minimum 1.5 GHz processor speed; Memory (RAM): 4 GB recommended for 64-bit and 2 GB recommended for 32-bit;
size: 20 MB to 690 MB required per voice for installing Vocalizer Expressive, Vocalizer Direct, or RealSpeak Solo Direct voices (file sizes will vary depending on the voice installed); Video: A display adapter capable of at least 800 x 600 screen resolution with 16-bit color (1024 x 768 screen resolution with 32-bit color recommended); for sound, a Windows compatible sound card (for speech)
- License: Proprietary
- Prices: $90 per year, $900 home license, $1100 professional license, and $179 90 day license (Price in dollars)
- First windows release: January 1995
Note: All information about system requirements and pricing is found on the product’s website, i just listed it here.
Compared to jaws’s age, NVDA, NonVisual Desktop Access, is still the new kid on the block, despite it’s 12, almost 13 years of life.
Michael Curran started development in 2006, and since then the software never stopped growing and getting better, helped by it’s open source code. This means that everyone can contribute to make NVDA better.
- Developer: NvAccess
- System requirements: Operating Systems: All 32-bit and 64-bit editions of Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows 10, and all Server Operating Systems starting from Windows Server 2008 R22; Memory: 256 mb or more of RAM; Processor speed: 1.0 ghz or above; • About 90 MB of storage space
- License: Freeware (donations are accepted but not required)
- First windows release: 2006
Which one is better?
It’s a matter of preference. Individually and by default, each one comes with a very impressive feature set, that can be improved by the user.
For jaws with a proprietary scripting language, and for nvda by coding add-ons with python, a popular programming language that is also used to develop the software itself.
So, in the end, what it comes down to is personal preference. The only thing to keep in mind is that sometimes Jaws can work better with a certain software, and sometimes it can be the opposite and you’ll get the better experience by using NVDA.
How does a screen reader work, and how do you use it?
History lesson over, it’s time to approach the more interesting part of this post: How does exactly a screen reader work, and how does a blind person use it?
I don’t want to get you bored with too many technical details, but what a screen reader does is to get all kinds of information through various Apis, about the current window the user is in, it’s surroundings, the controls and their states, text, etc, and then give feedback to the user using speech.
Of course it’s much more complex. It doesn’t return all the information at once. That would be too much text. The user manipulates the screen reader and the software he’s currently working with to get the information he or she needs.
The keyboard is what gives the blind user access to the computer, and what allows him or her to manipulate both software and screen reader. The Mouse is supported and can be used too, however it’s complicated to use it, and you can probably guess that operations like drag and drop are impossible.
Various keystrokes provide access to different kinds of information, what follows is a list with a few of them so you can have a better idea of how the screen reader is manipulated:
- H: In a web browser, jumps between a page’s headings (the numbers 1 through 6 can also be used to jump through the headings of the respective level)
- Tab and alt+tab: general windows shortcuts, it is through the use of those key combinations that a screen reader user navigates around. Tab moves over the controls of the current window, alt+tab moves between the different open windows on the system.
- Up and down arrow: (general windows shortcut.) It can be used Anywhere. It moves up and down on the screen (it allows the reading line by line of text documents or web pages.)
- Left and right arrow: It can be used Anywhere. It moves sideways on the screen. (If the person wants to read letter by letter to check for mistakes, that’s what’s used, because it reads one character at a time.)
- Control: If the person is reading a book, or if the screen reader started babbling about something that appeared on the screen like a notification, using the Control key the string of text that is read stops.
Of course this is only a short, sample list of commands, there are more for both screen readers, and unique to each one.
What can’t you do with a screen reader and what can you do?
Screen readers can’t do everything.
At the moment, there are things that we can’t do online like sighted people. Maybe in the future, but not now.
Screen readers can’t read/describe pictures, Gifs, most stickers like on Facebook, Understand graphics or infographics, Most movie subtitles can’t be read, we can’t play video games because most of them have the interface inaccessible. If buttons aren’t labeled, the screen reader will say “Button” or nothing.
What can you do to make the life of blind people easier if they visit your site or social media account or page?
You can help by adding alt text to your images so we can understand what’s in a picture. Of course we will not complain or force you to add the text, it’s a choice you make, but we want to let you know that you can do it if you want.
On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other places there’s the alt text option. It helps screen readers describe the pictures using the text you added.
You don’t need to write a novel. A few words are enough, like in the following image:
The alt text says: “You see a White Cane. In the background is a fireplace.” Easy, no?
Don’t worry, there are things that we can do with screen readers too, and, if I do say so myself, they’re amazing.
My favorite is: We can read fast. A few days ago Diana started reading a book. 912 pages. She started reading in the morning, and finished at 5PM.
Because NVDA and Jaws exist, We can be programmers too. A post about programming will follow if you’re interested.
Screen readers can describe emoticons, they help us use social media, and overall, they make our life easier.
Note from Diana. “I’m very honest here when I say that I Don’t know what would I do without one. I can’t stand Braille. Seriously, I hate it, so a screen reader is one of the most useful things ever. Other blind people love braille. Not me.
Help us spread awareness, Please.
This was an introductory post, but I hope that it helped you to understand a bit what’s a screen reader, how it works and how it helps blind users like me and Diana to use laptops.
What’s next? The next posts that will follow are about phones and accessibility. Like our Facebook page to receive updates.
If You have any questions, please ask using the comments, and We’ll be glad to help and answer. If enough people ask questions, we will create an extra post about this subject and answer all of them there.
And if we don’t ask too much, please share: Share so that more people can be made aware of the screen reader and its vital importance to blind people. Thank you!