Screen Readers and How They Work with E-Learning
A screen reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen (or, more accurately, sent to standard output, whether a video monitor is present or not). This interpretation is then re-presented to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille output device. Screen readers are a form of Assistive Technology (AT) potentially useful to people who are blind, visually impaired, illiterate or learning disabled, often in combination with other AT, such as screen magnifiers.
This section presents a list of ways that screen readers read and pronounce content. It is not a complete list, by any means, but it will help e-Learning course developers understand screen readers a little better. Most e-Learning course developers will not need or be interested in more information than what is presented here, but those who are interested should consider either buying full versions of the various screen readers or else downloading trial versions,which you will find resources for at the end of this segement.
- Screen readers can announce headings. JAWS, for example, precede h1 headings with "heading level 1"
- Recent versions of screen readers can switch languages on the fly if a page or part of a page is marked as a different language. For example, if a Spanish phrase appears in an English page, the screen reader can switch to Spanish pronunciation if the phrase is marked as a Spanish phrase: Viva la patria
- Screen reader users can pause if they didn't understand a word, and go back to listen to it; they can even have the screen reader read words letter by letter. When reading words letter by letter, JAWS distinguishes between upper case and lower case letters by shouting/emphasizing the upper case letters.
- It is important to provide descriptive headings which have been semantically marked up from h1 through to h6. Screen reader users often listen to headings out of context from the main content of the web page through use of a headings list. This enables quick access into areas of content the user is interested in, rather than having to listen to the entire web page.
- h1 should be reserved for the main heading so that screen reader users can quickly identify what the content on the web page will be about.
- Screen reader users depend on audio descriptions to provide additional information about important visual content displayed within a video. For instance, in a chase scene where the only audio is a piece of music, it is essential that audio descriptions are used to describe the actual events, e.g. "two thieves run down a flight of stairs to escape the police."-it would not be possible for blind screen reader users to determine this is what is being displayed on the video by listening to the audio alone.
- Blind screen reader users rely on alternative text to understand what images represent. When an image conveys important information, appropriate and succinct alternative text must be provided. For instance, a logo on a VA_ACE website should be detailed as alt=" VA_ACE logo". Going into detail about the design of the VA_ACE logo, such as VA_ACE, blue background with yellow text is far too verbose, and creates audio clutter for screen reader users as shown in the example below.
- People who use screen readers to access an e-Learning course often use their keyboard rather than their mouse, so keyboard accessibility is an important first step in making an e-Learning course accessible to screen reader users.
- Place form instructions before the form field
- As screen-reading software reads content in a linear format, it is important to provide useful information about the requirements of a form field before the field itself. If useful information is provided after the form field, blind screen reader users would only encounter the specified criteria after they have filled in the form field as shown in Example-1
- Required field asterisk placed after the form field
- Another instance where this issue normally occurs is when the 'required field' asterisk is placed after the form field, as shown in Example-2 Again, blind screen reader users would not know that the field is mandatory until they move to the next field in the form.
- Instructions and required field asterisk before form field
- To improve accessibility and usability for screen reader users, form field requirements must be placed before the form field itself. If the user must enter data into the form field, then the asterisk should be placed within the form label, as shown in Example-3 To further enhance the accessibility and usability of the form, it is helpful to place a key before the form to make users aware that the asterisk indicates a mandatory field.
- Provide a 'skip to main content' link
- Screen reader users benefit from a 'skip to main content' link as it enables them to jump over lengthy navigation to the main content of the web page, reducing the amount of content they have to listen to. Additionally, if there are widely used areas of the website, such as the search functionality, screen reader users would also benefit from skip links to these areas, as shown in example 4.
- Ensure link text is descriptive
- Screen reader users using software such as JAWS can listen to the links on a web page through functionality known as a links list. If link text is not descriptive-solely using phrases such as "click here" or "more information", for example-there is no way for screen reader users to determine where the link will take them. Example.5 shows an image of the links list functionality.
Screen Readers Resources and Tool TipsThe design techniques shown above are just a few examples to help you create accessible e-Learning course content for people using a screen reader for additional resources on designing for accessibility there are additional resource links posted below.
- Using JAWS to Evaluate e-Learning course Accessibility
- Screen Reader Simulation:
- Introduction to the Screen Reader
- Screen Readers and the Web
It is important to evaluate the accessibility of e-Learning content with a screen reader, but screen readers can be very complicated programs for the occasional user, so many people avoid them. This doesn't need to be the case. While screen readers are complicated, it is possible to test e-Learning content for accessibility without being a "power user." This article is designed to help users who are new to JAWS learn the basic controls for testing web content, and to serve as a reference for the occasional JAWS user.
This is not a comprehensive list of JAWS shortcuts, but a list of the essential commands that new or novice JAWS users should probably know. For a more comprehensive list of JAWS keyboard shortcuts, see our list of JAWS keyboard shortcuts or Freedom Scientific's extensive list of shortcuts.
This simulation provides a way to experience what it is like to use a screen reader. A web site, the University of the Antarctic, is presented as a screen reader user would experience it. Keyboard shortcuts are provided to navigate within the site and find specific pieces of information.
There are two short videos posted for the users to view that provide some great examples of screen readers in use these videos were developed by Dr.Neal Ewers of the Trace Research Center and it demonstrates how screen readers assist people who are blind navigate the web, access the electronic page, and more.
This segment looks at some relatively easy things you can do that go a long way toward making your e-Learning course pages accessible to a wide variety of users and technologies. You will need to have QuickTime Player installed which is a free Multimedia Player to view this segment.