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Screen Reader Guide

Using a screen reader is very different than using a computer with sight. The following guidelines can help you get started:

Use the Right Screen Reader

JAWS is the most widely-used screen reader, but it is expensive. NVDA is a free, open-source screen reader that is similar to JAWS and a good option if you are on a budget. Windows includes a screen reader called Narrator, which is constantly improving but doesn't quite have all the features of JAWS and NVDA. On Mac and iOS, you would use the built-in screen reader called VoiceOver, which is powerful but works a little differently from the rest. 

Put Down Your Mouse!

Since users who are blind cannot see the mouse pointer, screen readers are designed to work with keyboard commands. If you are testing with a screen reader or helping someone who is blind, never use the mouse. If you want to experience what it's really like to use a screen reader, turn off your monitor.

Take Control

Using a screen reader should not be a passive experience. While a screen reader will often start reading screens automatically, it's more effective if you tell it what to read. Take control!

  1. Ctrl: Pressing the Ctrl (Control) key will temporarily silence your screen reader and put you in charge of what it reads next. Do it often!
  2. Insert + J (for JAWS) or Insert + N (for NVDA): Before you get started testing, you may need to adjust the screen reader's speech rate. Use these key combinations to open its settings and adjust the speech rate. It's best not to make other changes unless you are absolutely sure about what they do.

Learn to Read

Open your web browser and go to a simple web page that you know is accessible (such as our Office Supply example). Use the following commands to get started reading:

  1. Ctrl + Home: After the screen reader begins reading the page, interrupt it and re-start at the top of the page. JAWS will read the page title to help confirm you're where you meant to be.
  2. Down Arrow: Read down the page a "line" at a time. Down Arrow will move to and read the next element, which may be a heading, paragraph, list item, table cell, link, form field, etc. Note that the screen reader may say more than is visible on the screen, for example, indicating a heading level or the number of items in a list. You may also hear it say "blank" -- just get used to ignoring this. If the sceen reader only reads part of a line, that's OK too -- there's a setting that controls how much it will read at one time -- just press Down Arrow again to continue.
  3. Up Arrow: If you need to back up and re-read something, use Up Arrow to re-read the previous line.

Skip to Headings

Headings are titles for the sections of a web page. The Heading Level 1 should be the title for the whole page, Healding Level 2 for the sections, Heading Level 3 for sub-sections, etc. Get an overview of a web page by reading its headings using any of the following commands

  1. H: Read the next heading (of any level),
  2. Number key (e.g., 1, 2, 3): read the next heading at that level, or
  3. Insert + F6 (JAWS) or Insert + F7, Alt + H (NVDA): Bring up a list of all the headings and skip to the one you're interested in. Move between controls in this (or any) dialog box by using Tab and Shift + Tab, use the Arrow keys to move between options, and press Spacebar to click buttons.

Read Tables

JAWS and NVDA have powerful, but somewhat complicated, tools for reading tables of data. When they encounter a table, they will say "table with x columns and y rows". After hearing that announcement, use the following "table reading" commands:

  1. Ctrl + Alt + Right Arrow to read across the row. If you are in the body of the table, the screen reader should say the header of each column (assuming they are coded correctly!) When the screen reader says it's at the end of the row, press Down Arrow to move to the first cell of the next row and repeat.
  2. Ctrl + Alt + NumPad 5 (JAWS) or Insert + NumPad 5 (NVDA) to re-read the current cell with row and column headers. Use this to double-check where you are.
  3. Ctrl + Alt + Up/Down/Left/Right Arrows : Move around the table in any direction. The screen reader will read the header of the new column or row (if it has been coded correctly).
  4. Ctrl + Alt + End (JAWS) or Ctrl + Alt + End, Page Down (NVDA): When you've read as much as you want, jump to the end of the table so you can move on.

Follow Links

Move to and use links with the following commands:

  1. Tab: Move to the next link (or form field)
  2. Shift + Tab: Move back to the previous link (or form field)
  3. Enter: Activate the current link
  4. Insert + F7: Bring up the "Links List" to quickly find, move to, and/or activate a specific link.

Fill Forms

Filling web forms requires the use of a special "Forms Mode" so keyboard commands enter data rather than performing special functions (like skipping to a heading). JAWS and NVDA will automatically switch in and out of forms mode -- you will hear a "pop" or "chime" sound when forms mode turns on and off. Get used to recognizing these sounds and keeping track of what mode you're in. While in Forms Mode, some keyboard commands do different things:

  1. Tab: Move to the next form field (or link).
  2. Insert + Tab: Re-read the name of the current form field (or link).
  3. Shift + Tab: Move back to the previous form field (or link).
  4. Up/Down Arrow: Move between items in a list box, combo box, or radio button group.
  5. Right/Left Arrow: Move horizontally in a menu bar, tab list, or grid.
  6. Spacebar: Check or uncheck a checkbox or press a button. (Enter may also work on buttons, but Spacebar is safer.) Note that you don't need to be in Forms Mode to click checkboxes or buttons.
  7. Enter: Expand a combobox or manually activate Forms Mode. (Forms Mode should automatically turn on when needed, but if you ever need to turn it on manually, Enter should do it.)
  8. Esc: If you ever seem to be stuck in forms mode, Esc should turn it off. (If you're really stuck, try the "+" key on the number pad.)

For other types of controls, look up Keyboard Interactions in the ARIA Authoring Practices Guide.

Be Patient!

Behind the scenes, a screen reader performs some very complex technical tasks. Glitches and crashes are prone to happen. Using a screen reader requires the patience and persistence to re-group from these errors and continue on. When things go really wrong, you may need to restart your screen reader or computer and try again.