Posted by Jim Craner on January 8, 2019

Our last blog post about accessibility focused on making sure that your website was easy to access by people that use assistive technologies, such as screen readers, which read aloud what's on a computer screen to users with low or no vision.  I recently attended a fantastic webinar on actual screen reader software itself by Kelsey Flynn of the White Oak Public Library District in Illinois, presented through the LITA webinar series.  Kelsey covered some of the basics of accessibility software, including deep dives into the five most popular screen reader titles.

Some of my key takeaways:

  • Almost half of screen reader users use JAWS as their primary screen reader.  JAWS is the oldest and most popular screen reader but it's also the most expensive.
  • "Primary?"  That's right, the vast majority of users of screen readers actually use more than one app, due to limitations or advantages of various apps.
  • The second most popular reader app, used as the primary reader by about a third of readers, is a free and open source app available for download by anybody - NVDA.  This app is produced by a nonprofit organization based in New Zealand but has been growing in popularity. Since it's free, this should be installed on as many library computers as possible.
  • The latest versions of the three most popular user operating systems in libraries - OS X, Windows 10, and Chrome OS - include built-in voiceover / screen reader software. Libraries should enable this feature on as many library computers as possible.
  • We saw examples of "refreshable Braille devices" which are physical devices that can "print" digital material into a mechanical Braille interface for people with no or low vision. There is even a superset of Braille that indicates position and formatting.
  • The presenter also gave us information about other tools, including the Talking Books Service, CCTV magnifiers for books and other materials, speech recognition software, and the Library of Congress's new Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service.
  • Obviously, headphones should be provided for any visitor using screen reader software to prevent interfering with other patrons.
  • Put the software on ALL of your public computers, or at least as many as possible. Even with no budget, you can use NVDA on Windows as well as the built-in tools in OS X, Win10, or Chrome OS. We don't want to silo or segregate these users.
  • TRAIN your librarians!  This is new technology so they need at least a bit of training to be comfortable with it. It's critical to practice beforehand - there is too much pressure when a librarian is trying to figure out how to enable it while a patron is standing nearby.

Check it out yourself!  Launch the Voiceover utility if you're on a Mac or the Narrator utility if you're on a Windows machine. There should be a tutorial to walk you through the basics - close your eyes to see if you can get through the tutorial without peeking.

Looking for more practical advice?  One web designer spent a day using a screen reader and then documented his results, including a wealth of useful information for developers of apps and interactive sites.

Keep it accessible!