The Very Basics of Screen Readers

Hands at a laptop on a desk with a plant, glasses, and a notepad.

One of my biggest misconceptions when I first started learning about accessibility was… well, basically everything I thought I knew about assistive technology.   When we talk about accessibility, we talk a lot about screen readers and other assistive devices.   And if you’ve never used or been around this kind of technology, it’s easy to get an idea in your head that isn’t quite accurate.  


So here are some things about screen readers I wish I’d learned right away… 

Screen Readers Are Software Designed to Work on Computers and Smart Phones. 

Speciality Hardware does exist but it’s often prohibitively expensive and built in limited quantities.  That’s why most people with disabilities use ordinary laptops or tablets or smart phones.  There is software available for almost every device on the market to turn it into a capable screen reader.  And much of that software is free to use.  In fact, a lot of devices come with some kind of screen reader software preinstalled. 

You Probably Won’t Be Able to Perfectly Recreate a Screen Reader User’s Experience. 

Just as sighted users will often quickly skim content to look for a specific passage, screen reader users will often move through content at high speeds to find what they are looking for.   This sped up output would likely sound like gibberish to someone who is not used to it.  And that’s just part of the learning curve for screen reader users.  

It takes time and regular use to become proficient with screen reader software.  It’s not something you can just pick up in a few afternoons or while you’re testing a feature.  That’s why it’s important to involve people who actually use these technologies in testing or development.   

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