Braille Monitor                                    April 2018

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Driving Blind on the Information Superhighway—Screen Readers: The Interface between Us and the Road

by Amy Mason

Amy MasonFrom the Editor: This is the third article in a series intended to help users of assistive technology learn to use and get the most out of the World Wide Web. Navigating the web is possible, productive, and enjoyable, but there are many parts to the puzzle, and this series of articles is intended to let readers examine each piece and decide how they will put together the system that gives them the access they desire to the vast resources of the internet. With her analytic mind, her vast knowledge of resources, and her command of language, here is what Amy Mason has to say, this time about screen readers:

Howdy class. I hope your homework went well. I’m looking forward to hearing reports on how things have gone for you in your test driving of alternative browsers. Since our last class, I’ve been spending a lot more time with Chrome. I’ve been pretty happy with Mozilla Firefox for the last several years, but it never hurts to test drive something different, especially when your regular car is in the shop (see our blog post on Firefox Quantum for further details If you have missed either of the previous “classes” you can find them in the January and February issues of the Monitor and catch up.

Screen Readers—Our Dashboard on the Road

The final level of equipment we need to discuss before we can really start exploring the open road is your blind driver interface: the screen reader. Like browsers, you have many options available, and they offer different paths to the same basic information. Also, like browsers, each screen reader has unique advantages and disadvantages, so once again it is wise for users to learn more than one when they have the opportunity. Sadly, unlike browsers, there are many scenarios where you may be tied to a single screen reader, and you will need to consider carefully your browser choice based upon what is most compatible with it.

At its most basic, a screen reader is a software package that gathers information from the operating system and programs on your computer, tablet, or smart phone, (read “pocket computer”) and offers that information to you in the form of speech and/or refreshable Braille. Dashboards can vary wildly, from a minimal number of indicators to a mess of flashing lights and gauges. Choosing the right interface is essential for making sure you can get where you want to go.

To understand the screen reader’s role in working on the web, it is important to remember a few things about screen readers in general:

Just a heads-up here: there are several screen readers you may be familiar with that I am not going to cover in this article. They fall into two categories. The first are our mobile and platform specific screen readers; these will be addressed in a future article since your dirt bike or smartphone requires a very different dashboard from a Ferrari. The second are those that hold just a small market share. Some have a very passionate fan base, but it is not practical to talk about every variant with its own collector’s club. The Back to the Future Delorean dashboard is iconic, but my wonderful editor might kill me if I submit a three-hundred-page article nine months late.

If you wish to read up on ChromeVox, I would recommend reviewing my article “Google in the Classroom: Chromebooks and G-Suite” in Future Reflections, Vol. 36 No. 3 (Summer 2017). In the case of ZoomText, I would point to its primary purpose as a magnification tool and not a screen reader, unless it is paired with JAWS in Fusion. In this case the references and resources covering JAWS that appear below should be sufficient to get you started.

For those of you who are curious about the distribution of screen reader users here and elsewhere, you may wish to look at the WebAIM Screen Reader Survey #7 at

And with those bits of advice behind us, let us look at the screen readers themselves:

JAWS (Job Access with Speech)–Space-age smart cars are here

Operating System Supported: Windows

Compatible Browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Edge (sort of)

Obtained from: Freedom Scientific, a division of VFO group.

Cost: Widely variable—if purchased outright it will cost $970 for home use and more for business; however, some organizations (employers, educators, etc.) have deals with Freedom to provide the software to their users at drastically reduced prices.

JAWS is the last remaining early Windows screen reader. As such, it has had years and years of work behind it. This means that it offers a lot of customization—you can spend hours or even days setting this beast up to work exactly as you like it. Whether you want to use different voices for different elements, or sound effects to convey information, or even change how you interact with web forms, you can and likely will need to spend some serious time customizing JAWS to get the most out of it.

It is well understood by the community. There are more training materials, both free and paid, for this software than for any other screen reader on the market. For this reason, it is still often the de facto option in many workplaces, colleges, and other institutions.

Likewise, there are many (mostly legacy) software packages and some websites that have been specifically coded to work well with JAWS instead of to the standards, and, as such, are more likely to misbehave when used with other screen readers. Hopefully in the coming years this will continue to change and evolve, but it’s a factor that we need to be aware of now.

If there is a screen reader that tries to guess at what’s going on in a misbehaving system, it is JAWS. It will often get things right, though it is important to be aware of this tendency because, when JAWS gets something wrong while guessing, it is more likely to really confuse the situation; it doesn’t tend to warn you when it is just a guess.

It’s built on a very large existing code base, so you need a more powerful computer than you might for other screen readers in order to have it run well. When bugs emerge, it can take more time for VFO to find and repair them than some of the lighter, more nimble screen readers.

In a nutshell, JAWS is a powerful large software package with a lot of development hours behind it. This means it will let you set everything up just the way you like it—everything from variable density in the car seats and automatic heated seat to the trip movie selections on the built-in TV—but when things go wrong, you probably need to send it to a specialist. Your friend who’s good with cars probably can’t fix this one in his driveway. Sometimes that complexity can get in your way; automatic sensors and cameras to keep you in the middle of the lane are great, except when you need to go around roadworks.

In this vein, JAWS offers pretty comprehensive (if challenging to initially set up) Braille support and such extreme customizations as allowing for scripting even of individual webpages and applications.

On the web it attempts to guess at relationships between elements and labels when they are not explicitly and correctly coded. This is why you may find that JAWS will read labels on webpages where other screen readers will not. If you find that the first edit field in a set is unlabeled, but subsequent ones are, you can bet that JAWS is guessing, and one off. For instance, if you hear something like “edit, <tab> First name edit, <tab> last name edit…” you are fairly safe to assume that the first edit field is where your first name goes, not the second.

Further Resources for JAWS

The help topics and manuals for JAWS are extraordinarily comprehensive. You will also find links to a wealth of free and paid webinar information from the manufacturer. You can explore all of these materials from the Help menu in JAWS itself. If you are looking for a specific command in the application, press JAWS-Space followed by the letter J to open up a context sensitive search box where you can search for commands relevant to your location on the computer. You can also press JAWS-1 (on the number row) to enable Keyboard learn mode. Pressing this combination a second time will return the keyboard to its normal state.

One training reference which is especially relevant to your experiences on the internet is “Surf’s Up! Surfing the Internet with JAWS and MAGic” It is a very powerful and interactive tutorial, even if they have the metaphor wrong. Although it is JAWS specific, much of the information in it can be generalized to use with other screen readers as well, and it may be worth exploring regardless of the tool you choose to employ. It can be found at:

Restarting JAWS

When you need to quit and restart JAWS and do not have a dedicated keyboard shortcut created, the most sure-fire method is to exit the program then open the run dialog by holding down the Windows key and pressing R, henceforth referred to as Win-R. Then type JAWS followed directly by the version number of the software you are running. So if you are running JAWS 2018 you would type “jaws2018,” and for v. 17 you would type “jaws17” followed by Enter without spaces.

NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access)—The best vehicle for non-drivers

Operating System Supported: Windows

Compatible Browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Edge (sort of)

Obtained from: NV Access

Cost: NVDA is free to download, but its development is supported through donations, so when you first download or when you update, you will be asked to consider donating to this most worthy application’s further development. You may also choose to purchase higher quality voice packs from several different sellers, which usually run between $50-$100 for a one-time purchase.

NVDA is sort of the “anti-JAWS.” It is a competent screen reader that is focused on simplicity and speed, so when using it remember the following:

Free and paid training resources certainly exist for NVDA and continue to be actively developed, but they are not nearly as comprehensive as those for JAWS. They also tend to be of mixed quality when it comes to the quality of production because they come from volunteers who bring various levels of knowledge when it comes to content creation. Even so, these materials are very useful and have the distinct advantage of being very affordable—when they cost anything at all.

In my opinion the most exciting thing about NVDA is that it is a screen reader that we as the community have the power to affect more directly than any other. It is open source, which means that it can be taken apart and studied, viewed, and improved by anyone with the know-how and desire. This is much like fixing up a car with your dad—adding pieces and making it your own with enough time and elbow grease.

NVDA is the screen reader written by blind folks for blind folks, and it shows. It’s not as polished around the edges, and the doors are not necessarily the same color as the bonnet, especially when it comes to documentation and training. But it has now been around long enough that people have started to create pretty comprehensive materials about its use. Furthermore, due to its free and open source nature, many web developers are using it to test their work, guaranteeing the best result for everyone.

Further Resources for NVDA

As I mentioned previously, NVDA is a program that has a lot of support from the community. As such, one of the best resources I’ve seen for this software is actually a community resource. Located at it provides several audio tutorials, links to other resources, including the official help page from NVAccess ( and several different and very comprehensive instructions for downloading and installing NVDA on your own computer. NVAccess itself has created a couple low-cost tutorial books which can be accessed from its official help page along with information for email listservs and paid technical support options. In the software itself, the user’s guide can be accessed from the Help menu. Finally, like JAWS, it is possible to enter Input Learn Mode by pressing NVDA-1.

Restarting NVDA

There are a plethora of ways to restart NVDA when it is misbehaving. They include the following:

VoiceOver—Driving on the Other Side of the Road

Operating System Supported: Mac OSX

Compatible Browsers: Safari, Chrome, Firefox (sort of)

Obtained from: Installed on any Apple Mac Computer built in the last decade.

Cost: none

Voiceover is the name for all of the built-in screen readers available on Apple products. However, in this article we are going to limit our discussion to the Mac because mobile Apple products offer a very different browsing experience from that offered on the full desktop. With that in mind, here are the relevant details to keep in mind when you choose to use VoiceOver as you browse.

You are not behind the wheel of a Windows PC. The paradigms are very different. Modes of interaction, commands, and controls are all in different places and work differently from those you may be familiar with if coming from this environment. In my opinion, using a Mac with VoiceOver is very similar to driving in the UK, Australia, or other countries where drivers travel along the left side of the road, not the right. You can be just as safe, effective, and competent using a machine built for this environment, but if you are coming from Windows, (or the US and Canada as drivers) you are going to have to take some extra time to learn how things have changed, and you may find yourself reaching down to shift gears with the wrong hand until you grow accustomed.

VoiceOver receives updates at the same time as the operating system, so it’s important to decide just how comfortable you are with change and possible instability when choosing to update your OS. VoiceOver is the only choice you have on a Mac when it comes to screen reading, so if a bug hits which you cannot work around, you will be stuck until Apple offers a patch, unless you choose to reload an earlier system image to get back on your feet.

VoiceOver and OSX have a very dedicated fanbase. The number of VoiceOver users may not be as high as for Windows screen readers, but many of these folks are very active in sharing their knowledge, so training materials are readily available.  

VoiceOver, although it certainly has its own way of doing things, has a fascinating combination of traits when it comes to how it’s been built to behave. In standards compliance for local computer programs, it’s going to largely demand standard controls or changes to the desktop software it is reviewing in order to ensure accessibility. But on the web, it has the tendency to play guessing games similar to those played by JAWS. As with JAWS, this is both a blessing and a curse. Further, like JAWS, it is highly customizable, and getting down deep into the tweaks you can make with the package is going to be an important part of getting the most out of it.

Like other desktop screen readers, VoiceOver can be relied upon to offer fairly good access to software and content that is built to be accessible. This includes websites and browsers. Unlike screen readers for Windows, though, everything will feel very different until you have learned how to work with it.

I will admit that even after several years of use I just don’t feel quite as comfortable with this tool. I know many users who swear by it, and I am pleased that it suits them. That said, I continually seem to muddle my hands and controls when I use it. All I can say is that in the truest sense of these words, your mileage may vary. The best way to know is to find a way to try it for yourself, whether you ask someone to let you try it out on their machine or take the leap and get your own.

Even as someone who is not quite comfortable driving on the left side of the road, I can admit there are some really delightful and unique benefits. For example, on the Mac the Track Pad enables VoiceOver users to operate the computer in much the same way one operates the iPhone, with gestures. In my opinion, this is one of the coolest tricks that VoiceOver has to offer. Browsing the web with just a flick of the finger is really quite a satisfying experience

Further Resources for VoiceOver

There are a lot of Apple fans in the blindness community. I am not going to even try to name all the podcasts, articles, and groups available to get you connected with other Apple users. I will, however, point you to the group that I find has been of most assistance to me when I’ve been looking for tutorials, software reviews, and general information: If these folks don’t have what you need, they can probably point you to the resources that do. It’s a whole community of blind people who are passionate about all things Apple and accessibility, and I would recommend looking them up no matter what your skill level or Apple device of choice.

As for VoiceOver internal help, pressing VO-H will provide you with a large number of resources in the software itself which you can use to learn how to make the most of this powerful tool. In the Help menu you can find Command Lists, the User Documentation, and even the simple interactive tutorial that is offered the first time you turn it on.

Restarting VoiceOver

You can toggle VoiceOver on and off by pressing Cmd+F5 on Macs with physical Function keys, or by quickly triple tapping the fingerprint sensor at the top right corner of Macs with the touch bar. If using the touch bar, a self-voicing menu appears and allows you to toggle VoiceOver on or off.


For those just starting out with a screen reader, your choice to use Mac or Windows should be guided by what you plan to use the computer for and your budget. Any of these three can be great options, depending on what you want to do. When choosing the proper screen reader for browsing, it honestly comes down to choosing the proper screen reader for you and then following up with the browsers that work best. Each screen reading interface is going to handle pages and browsers somewhat differently, but, like getting behind the wheel of any car for the first time, if you learn where the controls are and how to use them, you will find that with some practice you can become an excellent driver with any of these dashboard setups.

Even so, like with driving, if you have the opportunity and inclination, you will benefit from getting comfortable with more than one model of car… I mean screen reader. The more time you spend moving between the different options, the more resilient you will be when you come across problems, not only because you will have different tools to choose from, but also because your mind and reactions will be sharper. Race car drivers practice in different conditions with all sorts of obstacles and track layouts so that they can hone their reactions. Your growing accustomed to unfamiliar screen readers, applications, browsers, and even OS’s will help to improve your reactions, intuition, and skill in the same way.

As such, I am assigning homework again. This time you have a choice: In your primary screen reader, endeavor to learn something new. Perhaps you can find a new plugin for NVDA or discover the shortcuts you can use on the web to jump between different elements in JAWS. You might even try the Track Pad for the first time with your shiny Mac.

For extra enjoyment, if you are fortunate enough to have a Braille notetaker, look at trying to connect it to your screen reader and enjoy the power of browsing with all the power of both your preferred screen reader and Braille.

Try something else. Borrow a Mac, visit an Apple store if you are a Windows user, or try one of the screen readers you don’t know as well. Even JAWS can be downloaded and used in forty-minute mode. You can learn a lot using it even forty minutes at a time.

One final option: teach someone else. You may feel very comfortable with the screen reader and computer you use every day. That’s great! Share that knowledge. Some of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my Federation friends and family are the gifts of time, teaching, and mentoring. Each of us is an expert in something; let’s share our expertise and make this world a little brighter for us all.

Class Dismissed!

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