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Getting Started with Screen Readers: Resources and Considerations

How do you use your phone with a visual impairment? With screen readers! This article will tell you everything you need to know.
Getting started with screen readers: Woman using her phone, wearing a red jacket at a train station

Are you new to screen reading software and on the hunt for learning the best ways to use screen readers?

You've ended up in the right place.

Using screen readers for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, but you can get the hang of it by simply getting to know more about it. And once you do, you will be able to make complete use of your smartphone, laptop, or tablet independently.

What is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is a software application that helps reads text displayed on a screen. In addition to that, it interprets objects (text, images, links, and so on) and converts these to a format that visually impaired and blind people are able to process and interact with. They work in tandem with a phone's operating system (OS) to provide information about different aspects of phone usage, such as icons, menus, dialogue boxes, files and folders. This can be through auditory or tactile means. Essentially this means that items on the screen are converted to audio or braille dependent on the user's preferred output. Besides this, screen readers also voice the text that you input, making you aware of your exact actions and input. Screen readers are essential assistive technology for people who are blind and often useful for people who are visually impaired as it helps them use their phone without external dependence.

For example: when viewing an image of a cat, your screen reader will promptly say, “image of a brown cat.” Instead of scrolling through the web, a screen reader would help you navigate the page systematically, converting each object to audio cues - narration of the entire text on the page, mention of links and menu items, familiarisation with images through alt texts supplied by the developer.

However, operating a device through a screen reader is very different from operating it using a visual screen. For instance, while using a pc, you no longer use a mouse as an input device. Instead, you use the keyboard and navigate using the arrow, tab, alt or command (for mac users), and control keys. When using a screen reader, you linearly approach every item of interaction, working through a series of sequences, similar to how you would proceed with an entire body of text. The difference is, with a screen reader, you can access non-textual elements as well. While viewing a webpage, the HTML code decides the order in which the screen reader processes the objects. Essentially, you would steer through different elements, including sentences, links and other objects on a page instead of viewing them all at once.

Types of Screen Readers

Developed in 1986 at IBM, the first screen reader was developed for DOS and primarily focused on the needs of low vision staff members. Nowadays, there are multiple different screen readers. The digital accessibility platform WebAIM researched the usage of screen reading software and found that the following are the most prominently used:

We, however, are going to focus on screen readers for your smartphone. On iPhones and iPads, Apple VoiceOver is an automatically integrated software. Other smartphones use Android TalkBack as the standard screen reading software. Currently, most people with visual impairment tend to use Apple devices. The primary reason for this is Apple being the first company to introduce their screen reading software on the phone. Apple VoiceOver was initially introduced on April 29th, 2005. Apart from its early entry into this space, Apple has always highlighted its focus on accessibility and inclusivity across its complete product portfolio.

However, this does not necessarily mean that Apple VoiceOver is easier or better in its usage. Recently in 2018, Google partnered with Samsung to create a new version of TalkBack. Google rolled this into the Android Accessibility Suite app, alongside other services aimed at helping users with disabilities to use their smartphone. Since this integration, there has been a shift in people using TalkBack due to various improvements.

When do you need a screen reader?

There can be several reasons for needing the assistance of a screen reader. If you are deliberating on whether or not a screen reading software is a good investment for you, keep in mind that like any other technology, it might take you a while to learn how to use it, but once you do, it will be worth your while. Students who can use a screen reader efficiently are significantly faster readers than students who read visually.

Here is a list of situations when you might consider the help of a screen reader:

  • You experience visual field loss

  • You experience eye fatigue

  • You have nystagmus (rapidly moving eyes that can cause double vision and/ or eye fatigue)

  • Your vision fluctuates significantly

  • Reading causes you headaches

  • You have a progressive eye condition

  • Your handwriting is illegible

  • You magnify text to the point that scrolling is required

This is in no way a definitive list, but it should give you a clear indication of scenarios when the help of a screen reading software might be beneficial. If in doubt, ask yourself this question:

Does working with my smartphone/ laptop require a lot of energy while using it visually?

If the answer is yes, you should probably consider screen readers and explore if they are the right solution for your needs.

Things to consider while learning screen readers

There is no perfect way to learn how to work with screen readers. Different users learn in varying ways depending on their preferences. Here are a few common techniques:

Learning it with help of a friend/ relative

Familiarising yourself with a screen reader together with a friend/family member is a great way to learn the ropes quickly. While it can be fairly difficult to learn the basic functions at the start, it can be extremely helpful to have a sighted friend keep an eye on where you might be going wrong. This can significantly speed up your progress and reduce the likelihood of you making the same errors repeatedly.

Moreover, working together with someone you know is a source of motivation and emotional support. Learning to work with a screen reader is often follow the trail of recent vision loss, which can be hard to cope with. Having a familiar person helping you explore the possibilities that a screen reader brings, can help users adjust to their new reality more comfortably. However, there is also a downside. With a sighted person helping you out, there is a significant likelihood of you learning the fundamentals of a screen reader incorrectly, meaning more visually. Screen reading software is not based on visual elements and if you want to become an expert user, you need to understand the fundamentals of sequences over visuals.

Learning it by yourself

Many people choose to learn the use of screen readers by themselves. There are several resources available online that provide a detailed insight into working with screen readers, ranging from blogs and articles to videos and podcasts. The varied options allow users to choose the resources that best suit their needs.

However, be careful of rushing through the fundamentals. Moving too quickly through the learning stages can also lead to frustration and a sense of stagnancy. Especially for users with rest-vision, it common for this to cause them to switch back to using vision, thus, losing all their progress.

Learning it with the help of a professional

In numerous countries, organisations (like the RNIB in the UK or Visio & Bartimeus in the Netherlands) exist to help visually impaired and blind people to work with laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Such organisations have several programs that can help you gain a foundational understanding of screen reading software. Users can also get help with more complex tasks like writing an email, working with Excel, or managing their calendar.

All three ways have their pros and cons, and you should choose one that meets your goals. If you use your device casually, taking your time while learning by yourself or with a friend might be a great way to proceed. However, if you use your device as a part of your profession, you will benefit from advanced courses and investigating how screen readers work in-depth to ensure that you are using it most efficiently.

Resources to help you work with screen readers

Want to do a bit more reading on the topic? Here is a list of resources to get you started with screen reading software:

TalkBack (Android devices)

VoiceOver (iOS devices)

Screen reading software for the PC

Most screen reading programs like JAWZ, NVDA or ORCA have built-in tutorials.

Conclusion

Screen readers have revolutionised accessibility options for people who are blind and visually impaired. They allow users to have ultimate access to different elements of their smartphones such as apps, folders, documents and the web. Browsing and reading everything from web pages to books is now possible due to screen reading software. If you are someone who is struggling to read visually or has weak/impaired eyesight, a screen reader might be what you're looking for!

Still have questions? You can always contact us at support@iamhable.com.


Monday, 2 August 2021