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What to Know About Screen Readers for Blind or Low-Vision People

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2022

What are screen readers?

Screen readers are a type of accessibility technology that allows people who are blind or visually impaired to use devices like phones and computers that have a screen. This allows people to access digital content when they might otherwise be unable to.

Who Uses Screen Readers?

As technology becomes more widespread and harder to live without, it becomes more and more necessary to create ways to make this technology accessible to everyone. Braille works well for text on paper, but you can’t use braille to read what’s on a screen. That’s where screen readers come in.

Screen readers are typically used by people who are blind, visually impaired, or may otherwise struggle to read on-screen content.

People may be visually impaired for a variety of reasons. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that about 2.2 billion people worldwide have some type of visual impairment. The leading cause of visual impairment worldwide is age-related eye conditions such as:

  • Age-related macular degeneration. Age-related macular degeneration happens when part of the retina, called the macula, is damaged. The retina is the layer of cells at the back of your eye. The macula is the area in the center that helps you see fine details.
  • Cataracts. Cataracts may form and cause the lenses of your eyes to become cloudy. Each lens sits behind the colored part of your eye, called the iris, and ordinarily focuses light onto the back of the eye.
  • Diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is the result of high blood sugar damaging the blood vessels in your retina.
  • Glaucoma.Glaucoma is caused by damage to the optic nerve, the nerve that runs from your eyes to your brain. It’s one of the leading causes of blindness in patients over age 60.
  • Refractive errors. Refractive errors happen when the shape of your eye doesn’t bend light the right way, which causes your vision to become blurry. This can usually be treated with corrective lenses like glasses or contacts.

“Normal” vision is 20/20 vision. This means that you see an object that is 20 feet away as well as the majority of other people see the same object when it is 20 feet away. 

There are several different levels of vision impairment. Vision impairment is measured based on how well you see while using the best possible corrective lenses.

  • Mild visual impairment: Mild vision loss is diagnosed in cases of vision that range from 20/30 to 20/60. 
  • Moderate visual impairment: Moderate visual impairment ranges from 20/70 to 20/160 vision.
  • Severe visual impairment: Severe visual impairment ranges from 20/200 to 20/500.
  • Profound visual impairment: Profound visual impairment ranges from 20/500 to 20/1000.
  • Near-total visual impairment: Any vision less than 20/1000 is considered a near-total visual impairment.
  • No light perception is considered total blindness.

There are also different forms of visual impairment. These include:

  • Blurred vision. Blurred vision causes everything to appear blurry and out of focus.
  • Extreme light sensitivity. Extreme light sensitivity occurs when normal levels of light are too overwhelming for your visual system, making everything look washed out or creating a glare that obstructs your vision.
  • Generalized haze. A generalized haze makes it look like there is a film or glare over your field of vision.
  • Loss of central vision. Loss of central vision creates a blindspot or blurriness in the center of the eye.
  • Loss of side vision. Loss of side vision (peripheral vision) is a loss of sight beyond your central vision.
  • Night blindness. Night blindness is a reduced ability to see in low light.

How Do Screen Readers Work?

Screen readers work by reading the text on your screen out loud so you can hear it. Users can adjust the speed of speech, as well as the language. They can give commands so the reader will:

  • Announce the location of the computer cursor
  • Find text on the screen
  • Identify choices on a menu
  • Read a line or full screen of text
  • Read cells in a spreadsheet
  • Read highlighted text
  • Read or spell a specific word
  • Read pre-designated parts of the screen on demand
  • Use spell check

What Are the Types of Screen Readers?

There are many different screen reader applications on the market. When you’re choosing a screen reader, consider the following:

  • Is the screen reader compatible with your device’s operating system?
  • Will the screen reader work for the apps or software that you use the most?
  • Does the screen reader work with your braille display, if you use one?
  • Are the keystrokes hard to use or difficult to remember? Will they interfere with the ones you use in your usual applications or software?

Android devices. The default screen reader for Android devices is TalkBack. TalkBack comes pre-installed on some devices. If it is not, it is likely available in the app store. On some models, it may be called “VoiceAssistant” or “Accessibility Suite.” You can find it under the Accessibility settings. 

TalkBack works best on Google and Samsung phones.

Apple devices. Apple devices, including computers, Apple TV, Apple Watch, iPads, and iPhones, come with the VoiceOver software. To enable this software, go into Accessibility in your device settings. 

VoiceOver works best with the Safari browser but can also be used with millions of other apps. 

Linux devices. There are a few different screen reader options for Linux users. These include: 

  • BRLTTY. BRLTTY provides access for people using a refreshable braille display.
  • Speakup. Speakup is a screen reader that works with voice commands.

Windows devices. There are a few different screen reader options that work with Windows. Some of the most popular options include:

  • JAWS. Job Access With Speech, abbreviated JAWS, is one of the oldest and most popular screen reader applications for Windows. It works best on Chrome and Firefox browsers. You can also purchase additional software to customize it.
  • Narrator. Narrator is the screen reader that comes with Windows. It works best with the Microsoft Office Suite and the Edge browser.
  • NVDA. Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) is the second-most-popular Windows screen reader after JAWS and has the added benefit of being free. It works best with Chrome and Firefox.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
AbilityNet: “An introduction to screen readers.”
American Academy of Ophthalmology: “What Is Macular Degeneration?”
American Foundation for the Blind: “Screen Readers.”
American Optometric Association: “Low Vision and Vision Rehabilitation.”
California Optometric Association: “Common types of visual impairment.”
Kellogg Eye Center: “Refractive Errors.”
Mayo Clinic: “Cataracts,” “Glaucoma.”
National Eye Institute: “Diabetic Retinopathy.”
World Health Organization: “Blindness and vision impairment.”

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