Approximately 253 million people worldwide have a visual impairment, according to the World Health Organization, which means making your website accessible to this unique population of internet users should be a priority.
The majority of the blind rely on a type of assistive technology called a screen reader to use their computers. Users with other visual impairments and those with learning disabilities or who have never learned to read also often rely on screen readers. In this article, we’ll focus on how screen readers are used in conjunction with web browsers to successfully access and navigate the internet and why screen-reader compatibility is key to achieving web accessibility.
How Screen reader Web Accessibility Helps Users
A screen reader serves as the primary feedback mechanism to the user. Although the individual is still using all the same applications and browser features that a visually able person uses, the mouse is replaced with a keyboard and the return key. With a screen reader, users are still employing a regular browser, such as Chrome or Safari, but they receive the information from the website via audio.
So, whereas visually able internet users scan a website with their eyes for key actions and information, visually impaired users hear their way around a website with the help of a screen reader. This is why it’s crucial that your website has a consistent structure with easy-to-understand steps, including properly labeled calls to action and link names.
Should I use a screen reader to test WEB Accessibility?
Step into the shoes of each of your users, and you’ll immediately know the answer: Yes! You know that your website should be accessible, and you may already have a process in place to test your site code for accessibility based on guidelines such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). However, if you’re not doing a final screen-reader verification on top areas or user paths, then you’re not really doing accessibility testing. In fact, you could be missing 80 percent of the WCAG requirements.
By regularly performing screen-reader quality assurance (QA) tests, you’ll be able to see which parts of your website are causing issues for blind and visually impaired users. With this knowledge, you can quickly adapt and make impactful changes that not only conform with WCAG but also leave you confident that your website is usable by all.
What are the most used screen reader and browser combinations?
Screen-reader users search the web using the same variety of browsers as everyone else, so understanding which combinations of screen readers and browsers are the most popular is important for testing. As you may know, a single website can behave differently across any number of browsers. Add to this the fact that some screen readers work differently across different browsers, and testing can become quite difficult. It’s important to identify what issues users are having, which devices they’re having them on, what screen readers they’re using, and what browsers they’re using in order to test the right combinations and resolve issues.
Luckily, WebAIM conducts global surveys of screen-reader users each year, and these surveys provide a tremendous amount of useful information about the most-used browser–screen reader combinations. According to WebAIM’s most recent survey, conducted in 2017, the top five browser–screen reader combinations are:
- JAWS® with Internet Explorer (24.7%)
- NVDA with Firefox (23.6%)
- JAWS with Firefox (15.1%)
- VoiceOver with Safari (10%)
- JAWS with Chrome (6.5%)
Additionally, 83.4 percent of respondents with disabilities said they rely exclusively on audio when using a screen reader, which makes it even more critical to ensure your website is properly set up with a consistent structure, links, and labels so users can hear their way through your site.
How do I set up an ongoing screen-reader QA program?
There are two approaches you can take to set up a screen-reader QA program:
- You can take on the responsibility of running and maintaining the program in-house; or
- You can enlist the help of a third party to maintain the QA program for you.
Should your team decide to take on the responsibility, you will first need to have a clear idea of your site’s top user journeys. Then, you can create scripts to test on either production or staging servers. Here are a few more things to keep in mind when setting up your own screen-reader program:
- You will need to train your testing team to use a variety of screen readers.
- Testing can and should occur monthly, or with every new website update.
- Testing should cover a variety of screen-reading programs and configurations (e.g., JAWS running on Windows/Internet Explorer, or Apple’s VoiceOver on Chrome).
- Some screen-reader technology requires paid licenses (e.g., JAWS).
- Testing should cover top user journeys but also be scalable to assess an entire site.
- Testing should include a comprehensive report that summarizes red flags and issues, as well as observations and ideas for improvement.
If you’re considering automating your accessibility testing, it’s important to know that automated web accessibility testing alone is not enough. There are plenty of things that screen-reader QA can reveal that automated accessibility-testing tools simply can’t capture, including:
- Header structure matching visual logic
- Correct keyboard navigation
- Browser and tab focus throughout user flow
- Understandable navigation and labels
- Consistent structure and navigation
- Correct use of navigational aids, such as skip-to-content links
Now that you know what screen readers are and how they are used to navigate and engage with your website content and functionality, it’s time to make sure your website is compatible with this important assistive technology.
Need more information about how to build a comprehensive accessibility testing program? Download our ultimate guide today.