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Screen Readers and Accessibility

A guide to the use of recommended screen readers and their compatibility with popular ebook databases

What Are Screen Readers and Why Are They Useful?

Screen readers are an assistive technology that can aid those with visual impairments or other issues reading digital text on screen. The screen reader reads aloud the text on screen, alleviating some of the difficulties you may experience when reading the text visually. Screen readers often come with various accessibility features that allow you to personalise and tailor the experience to your needs, such as by changing the speed of the voice or accessing the content on screen solely with the use of a keyboard.

This guide recommends some of the most common free screen readers for different devices. We have also highlighted some of the issues you might experience when using a screen reader with our most popular e-book resources.

Commonly Used Screen Readers

MS Narrator is a free screen reader available to all users of Windows 10 and Windows 11. As a built-in screen reader, it is easily accessed although a bit difficult to use. 

MS Narrator comes with a variety of features and accessibility options such as:

  • Being able to replace common spoken announcements (such as when caps lock is turned on or a typo has been made) with single audio cues
  • Can be used alongside Windows Magnifier in order to make following along with text easier
  • Options for changing the voice speed and pitch, as well as other features to suit your preferences
  • Has a braille option available when used with braille software such as BRLTTY

A link to Microsoft's official guide for using MS Narrator can be found below.

Notes:

  • It is likely you will be unable to type while narrator is running
  • It is sometimes difficult to get the majority of the commands to work, often with no indication as to what is preventing the command from executing.
  • It is difficult to get narrator to consistently read more than a line at a time. It often stops and won't continue unless the user manually changes line.

VoiceOver is a screen reader available to users of Apple devices. Similar to MS Narrator, it is a built-in screen reader that is easily accessed by pressing the command+ F5 keys or by using Siri. You can use VoiceOver with both the keyboard and the mouse cursor.

VoiceOver comes with a variety of features and accessibility options such as:

  • The Ability to be used with a mouse, keyboard, or via Voice Control
  • A helpful command menu that allows you to personalise the commands to fit your needs
  • Compatibility with various braille displays
  • You can customise the verbosity of the reader, as well as customise how you want the reader to feed back punctuation and common commands
  • You can select from a variety of different voices from a large selection of languages
  • You are able to use the mouse in conjunction with the keyboard to navigate. (Other screen readers tend to have issues if the user tries to switch between them.)

A link to an official guide for VoiceOver can be found below.

Notes:

  • Not as easy to download documents as many of the apps require Windows to use. If you are using a Mac it is recommended to download Adobe Digital Editions as a way of easily downloading books.
  • VoiceOver is the best suited to working with both mouse and keyboard for control. The other screen readers tend to have issues with switching between different ways of navigating the page, usually when you try to switch back to keyboard after having used the mouse. Voiceover doesn't experience the same issues when simultaneously using both control methods.
  • We have found that Voiceover works well as a screen reader and it is the one we would recommend when you are using a Mac computer

NVDA (NonVisualDesktopAccess) is a free to use, open source screen reader that you can use with any computer running on Microsoft Windows. The screen reader comes in the form of a downloadable app that you can download directly on to a computer or to a USB for portable access without the need to redownload again on a new device.

NVDA comes with a variety of features and accessibility options such as:

  • Portability via the use of a flash drive such as a USB stick
  • Support for a variety of browsers, email clients and office suites such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
  • A customisable, built-in speech synthesiser for over 80 languages.
  • Support for braille displays
  • Support for common accessibility interfaces such as Microsoft Active Accessibility
  • Support for use on touch screens with touch commands

A link to the online download and the official online guide can be found below. A guide can also be found within the app itself.

Notes:

  • As with all screen readers, it can take some getting used to working with NVDA. The guide for learning NVDA is also the least intuitive, with a lot of text being thrown at you with little practical learning like with MS Narrator and Voiceover.
  • The screen reader is very easy to download and install, only taking a few minutes to set up.
  • The screen readers portability offers it a significant advantage over other as it means you are able to use it on any available computer without having to install and set up it up on individual devices.
  • We found NVDA to work better than MS Narrator, with fewer issues with its performance. For this reason, and for its portability, this is the recommended screen reader if you are using a Windows computer.

 

Image of Student Using Computer

Information for Screen Reader Use on eBook Databases