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How Do Screen Readers Work & Why Make Your Website Accessible to Them

Our world is an incredible mix of people, each with their unique abilities and challenges. Nearly 16% of the world’s population currently lives with some kind of disability. Many of these people, including those who are visually impaired or have learning disabilities, depend on tech tools like screen readers to browse the internet.

Screen readers are digital helpers that take the text on a computer screen and turn it into spoken words or Braille. This makes it easier for people who are blind, have trouble seeing, or struggle with reading to engage with the digital world. Aging adults and those learning a new language also find these tools useful. Screen readers virtually open the door to everything the internet offers, from knowledge to social connections and online services.

In this guide, we will explore the inner workings of screen readers, how screen reader users navigate websites, and why it’s so important to optimize your website for these assistive devices.

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What are Screen Readers?

Screen readers are specialized software applications that convert digital text into Braille or spoken words, making digital content accessible to those who can’t see or read it in a traditional way. They scan the content of a computer or mobile device, including text on websites, document files, spreadsheets, menu labels, and even the tiny text beneath icons.

Screen readers are also smart enough to pause at punctuation marks like periods, commas, and exclamation points, just as you would when reading a book. Most screen readers also allow users to move around a website or document as needed using the computer keyboard.

How do Screen Readers Work?

Screen readers don’t actually “read” the screen in the way we humans do. They interact with the code that is behind the digital content, and it’s from this code that they gather information to read aloud or convert into Braille.

When a screen reading software is running, it communicates with the device’s operating system to receive information about what is on the screen. This could be text from a webpage, labels under app icons, file menus, or just about anything else displayed on the screen.

For navigation, users usually interact with screen readers using keyboard commands. By hitting ‘Tab’, they can move to the next item on the page. Therefore by using other specific keyboard shortcuts, they can jump to different sections of a webpage, such as headings or links. This precise navigation ensures that screen reader users can effectively explore the entire page.

Finally, once the screen reader has gathered all this information, it sends it to a speech synthesizer, which turns the text into spoken words. Alternatively, it can send the information to a digital Braille display.

Mobile devices also offer screen reading capabilities. The two most widely used mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, both have a built-in, free screen reader — VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.

Mobile screen readers work a bit differently compared to desktop versions due to the touch-based interface. Instead of using a keyboard, users interact with the screen reader by performing various gestures on the touchscreen. Here’s how that interaction usually works:

  • Users can touch anywhere on the screen, and the screen reader will read out the text present at that location. If users drag their finger around the screen, the screen reader will read the elements they touch in the order they encounter them.
  • Users can swipe right or left with one finger to navigate through items sequentially, similar to hitting ‘Tab’ or ‘Shift+Tab’ on a desktop keyboard.
  • To activate or select an item, users double-tap anywhere on the screen. This is akin to hitting ‘Enter’ on a desktop keyboard.
  • Screen readers also recognize more complex gestures, such as a two-finger swipe or a three-finger swipe, which can trigger commands like scrolling, adjusting the reading speed, or reading from the top.
  • Some mobile screen readers also support Braille input. Users can type in Braille directly on the touchscreen, and the screen reader translates the Braille into text.
  • If needed, users can also connect a refreshable Braille display or a keyboard to their mobile device for input.
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Why Screen Reader Accessibility is Important for Websites?

Making a website accessible to different screen readers is of paramount importance for several reasons. By making your site screen reader friendly, you can broaden your audience reach. Remember, millions of people worldwide rely on screen readers due to visual impairments, learning disabilities, or other reasons. If you’re ignoring this sizable demographic, you are missing out on a large number of visitors.

Not to mention there are laws in place mandating that digital content be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law before the Internet became widely used, U.S. courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have consistently interpreted the ADA as applying to websites, given their integral role in modern public life.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 508, also mandates that all federal electronic and information technology be accessible to people with visual, motor, and cognitive disabilities. This means that any federal website or federally funded organization must be accessible and optimized for screen reader technology.

However, the ADA and Rehabilitation Act do not provide specific guidelines on what makes a website accessible. So, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), serve as a universal standard for web accessibility. In recent years, there have been several lawsuits related to web accessibility under the ADA. Businesses from a variety of industries have been sued due to inaccessible websites.  

The great thing is the changes that make a site accessible to screen readers often result in a better user experience for everyone. For instance, well-structured content, clear navigation, and concise, meaningful text all benefit a screen reader user, but they are also best practices for web design in general.

Interestingly, the elements that make a website screen reader accessible, such as alt text for images and proper headings, also improve its SEO. This can boost the site’s ranking in search engine results, bringing in more traffic.

How to Design Your Website for Screen Reader Accessibility?

If you want to optimize your website, mobile app, software, game, multimedia, emails – or any digital asset – keep the following tips in mind during the design and development process.

Use semantic HTML

Semantic HTML refers to using HTML code to not just display content but to convey what that content represents within the structure of a webpage. For instance, <header>, <nav>, <main>, <section>, <article>, and <footer> are all semantic elements that describe the type of content they contain.

Similarly, heading tags from <h1> through <h6> denote different levels of headings, with <h1> being the highest level. Screen readers can identify these tags and provide the users with an understanding of the page structure, making navigation easier. They also allow users to jump directly to specific sections.

Person Reading On Tablet

Provide alternative text for images

Alt text is provided as an alternative to visual information in images for people who may not be able to see them. This text gets embedded into the HTML code within the ‘alt’ attribute of the <img> tag, like this:

<img src=”pancakes.jpg” alt=”A stack of pancakes on a plate”>.

When a screen reader comes across an image, it will read aloud the alt text and convey the essential information that the image provides.

Ensure keyboard navigation

Those who navigate websites using only their keyboard often “tab” through elements such as links, form inputs, and buttons. So, make sure all interactive elements on a page can be accessed using keyboard commands. Elements should be focusable using the ‘Tab’ key and activated using the ‘Enter’ key. The ‘Shift’ + ‘Tab’ keys can be used to navigate back through elements.

Label form fields properly

Always associate a ‘<label>’ with each form input using the ‘for’ attribute as they provide context for input fields. For example, in ‘<label for=”name”>Name</label><input id=”name” type=”text”>’, the ‘<label>’ tag contains the ‘for’ attribute, which links to an ‘<input>’ field with the matching ‘id’ attribute.

When a screen reader comes across this form, it reads out the label “Name,” indicating to the user what information is required in that field. Proper labeling of form fields helps screen reader users interact effectively with forms on your website or app.

Use ARIA roles and properties

ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is a set of attributes you can add to HTML elements to make them more accessible to screen readers. There are two key types of ARIA attributes:

  • ARIA roles: These are added to HTML elements to describe their role on the webpage, like ‘navigation’ for a navigation bar or ‘button’ for a button. This helps screen readers understand what each element is for.
  • ARIA properties and states: These give extra information about an element’s current state or relation to other elements. For instance, ‘aria-expanded=”true”‘ can show a dropdown menu is open.

Remember, though, ARIA is a supplement, not a replacement for good, semantic HTML5. Use HTML5 where you can, and use ARIA to fill in any accessibility gaps.

Define language

Every web page is written in a certain language, such as English, Spanish, French, etc. You need to specify the primary language of your web pages so that screen readers can interpret and read the content correctly.

The ‘lang’ attribute in HTML is used for this purpose. It tells screen readers the language of your webpage, like English (‘en’), Spanish (‘es’), or French (‘fr’). You can add it to the ‘html’ tag at the start of your HTML document: ‘<html lang=”en”>’ for an English page, for example. This helps screen readers pronounce words correctly according to the defined language.

If parts of your page are in a different language than the main one, you can use the ‘lang’ attribute in other tags, too. So, for a Spanish paragraph on an English page, you’d write: ‘<p lang=”es”>Este es un párrafo en español.</p>’. This tells the screen reader to switch pronunciation rules for that paragraph.

Person Working On A Laptop

Avoid autoplay

Last but not the least, do not have any audio or video content autoplay when a page loads, as this can interfere with screen reader speech. Plus, it’s just extremely annoying. Autoplaying media can disorient or surprise users, especially if they are using headphones and the media is loud. If the digital asset is not properly designed for accessibility, some people may have difficulty finding the controls to pause or mute the audio.

Choose “Accessibly” to Achieve Visual Accessibility for Your Website or App 

Digital inclusivity is not merely an option in today’s connected world, it’s a necessity. Sure, it helps you tick a box for accessibility standards and avoid potential legal consequences. But it also allows you to recognize the diverse experiences of all users, and send out a strong message that every user is important to you.

To simplify this process for you, we have built the Accessibly widget. Whether you are running a Shopify store or have a standalone website, Accessibly helps to increase compliance with standards like WCAG 2.1, ADA, Section 508, and EN 301549. Plus, it’s optimized for mobile phones and tablets too, so every user, on every device, can enjoy an accessible browsing experience. It also enhances the user experience with its wide range of features, like increasing text size, adding reading lines, adjusting color contrasts, and providing a Text-to-Speech function.Ready to start the digital accessibility journey for your business or organization? Sign up today for your FREE 7-day trial, no credit card required.

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Article by Kaspars Milbergs

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