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Using Computer Screen Readers

How To Use Screen Readers

A screen reader is a kind of software designed to help people who have low vision or blindness to access digital content. It works by using text-to-speech which reads out loud the content displayed on the computer screen, including text, images, and other graphical elements.

Screen readers can also provide navigation assistance by reading out information about the structure and layout of a webpage, allowing the user to move quickly and efficiently through the content.

What you can read below is a general overview of how to use a computer screen reader. The specific steps and keyboard shortcuts you’ll need to use will depend on the screen reader software you’re working with. It’s a good idea to review the documentation or tutorial provided by the screen reader developer to get a more in-depth understanding of how to use the software.

1. Install the screen reader software

If you’re using a commercially available screen reader, you will need to purchase and install the software on your computer. If you are using an open-source screen reader, you can typically download the software for free from the developer’s website.

NDVA is a common example of free screen reader software while JAWS is a common paid screen reader software often purchased for professional or educational use. Sometimes screen readers come built into computers like Narrator for Windows or VoiceOver for Mac.

2. Turn on the screen reader

Once you’ve installed the screen reader, you’ll need to turn it on. This is usually done by pressing a specific keyboard shortcut, such as “Ctrl + Alt + N” for NVDA, or “Cmd + F5” for VoiceOver.

Screen readers won’t turn on automatically. They need to be opened – some use a shortcut to start and others don’t.

3. Navigate the screen

Screen readers can give information about what is shown on the screen using speech. You can use keyboard shortcuts to check certain elements on the screen, for example, “what is the title of the window I am in?”, or to navigate contents like webpages, documents and file browsers.

Depending on the type of screen reader you use and your experience with screen readers, navigation can be complex, especially for people who are new to the technology. We’re always here to help you discover the right method for you and provide training.

4. Interact with elements

To interact with elements on the screen, such as buttons, links, and text fields, you’ll use keyboard shortcuts. For example, you might press “space bar” to activate a button or a link.

Some of the common ways you can interact include:

Moving between elements: To move between elements on the screen, such as buttons, links, and text fields, you might use “Tab” or the arrow keys. For example, you might use the up arrow key to move up to the previous element or the down arrow key to move down to the next element.

Activating buttons and links: To interact with buttons or links, you’ll typically use the “Space” key. The screen reader will provide speech feedback, allowing you to know what you’re interacting with.

Finding key information: Screen readers use keyboard commands and shortcuts to read certain elements of the screen For example, you might use Insert + T to have JAWS read the title of the open window.

Browsing the web: To browse the web with a screen reader, you’ll use the arrow keys to move between elements on a web page and “Space” to activate a link.

Here are some example of specific instances of screen reader use:

  • Sarah uses Caps Lock + T on her school laptop to have JAWS read the name of the document the teacher shared with her.
  • Trevor uses Control + Alt + N to start up NVDA while he reads through documents.
  • Alyce uses Insert + S to with Narrator get a summary of the webpage she is reading about mobility aids.
  • Len uses VO + A to repeat the last element read by VoiceOver.

5. Adjust the speech output

You can usually adjust the speech output of a screen reader–such as the volume, speed, and pitch–to suit your needs. This is usually done through the screen reader’s settings or preferences.

Need more info about assistive technology?

There are many devices, tools and aids available to make your life easier. If you need help finding the right ones for you, take a look at our Assistive Technology resources.

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