Written by: James Oates On August 9, 2016
In this article, I will attempt to review and rank three of the most popular current screen readers that are available at this time. The three screen readers were tested on the most recent version of Windows 10 anniversary update. This is important because one of the screen readers is Microsoft’s most recently updated Narrator.
Although ranking the screen readers might prove to be quite controversial, I think it can also open up a real discussion on which screen readers are most accessible, and even the question of accessibility can sometimes be up for debate. I do realize that accessibility is determined by personal needs and preferences, so I will attempt to define the criteria I used for accessibility in this review.
What Is Accessibility?
Quite simply, I determined that accessibility is the ability to access that which needs to be accessed. Also, I take points off accessibility for the screen readers that make it difficult to access material by being dysfunctional or by making it very difficult to figure out which keystrokes need to be used with the material. Some screen readers make you use ridiculous key combinations to activate website elements or functions within applications. So without further ado, here are the rankings!
Number One: Microsoft Narrator!
It took me about a day to get used to the screen reader, but once I did, I realized what a powerful tool Microsoft had created and that the company was finally serious about supporting a built-in screen reader for the blind. In fact, the only thing I could find wrong with the screen reader was that it did not work with my braille display. I am currently working with Microsoft and HIMS to see if this problem can be resolved.
Besides that one issue, the screen reader was fully accessible on all websites and applications. I tested the screen readers on Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Groove Music, Skype, Dropbox, Microsoft Word, Audacity, Feedback, and the Settings app.
Narrator now uses something called scan mode. You can toggle this on and off by pressing caps lock and space bar. When scan mode is off, you can tab through active elements, use Windows keyboard commands, and navigate by means of your preferred preference; such as, items, headings, and paragraphs. When scan mode is on, you can navigate through everything on the screen—that includes text, website elements, and application controls—by using the tab key, arrowing around the screen, or employing letter navigation. How often has your screen reader announced; “OK button”. And you are wondering; “What am I saying OK to?” When scan mode is turned on, you can just arrow up and read the text associated with that button. You do need to toggle scan mode off when you want to use keyboard commands such as control P to pause a music track or alt F4 to close an application. This was the only screen reader that was fully functional using Microsoft Edge. It was also the only screen reader that was able to read every active element and all text on each website and application. Clearly, hands down, Narrator is the winner!
Second-Place Goes to NVDA.
NVDA performed mostly well. The problem is it uses a function called browse mode that doesn’t actually work at this time. You’re supposed to be able to toggle between focus and browse modes by pressing insert plus spacebar. It’s supposed to function like Narrator’s scan mode. Because it didn’t work, Microsoft Edge was only able to read active elements, not text, on the screen.
It was also difficult to read text on other applications. Like I said before, you want to know what you’re saying “OK” to. Also, there were other applications where you had to switch the pain view to see what else was on the screen. That’s OK if you know that there are other pains on the screen. But if you don’t, you’re missing out on loads of information. NVDA is still a fantastic screen reader and the developers of the project are working on fixing browse mode. I suspect they will work out the kinks very soon. But can they keep up with all the changes and updates coming from Microsoft on an almost daily basis?
JAWS Finishes in a Distant Third.
This wasn’t even close! I don’t even know where to begin! For starters, the JAWS display driver interfered with the Microsoft Upgrade Assistant which is a program that allows customers to download Windows10 Anniversary Update without having to wait for the automatic update. I had to uninstall the Freedom Scientific display driver just to download my free copy of Windows 10 Anniversary Update.
Next, JAWS does not work with Microsoft Edge unless you’re using the touch cursor. This makes Microsoft’s primary browser virtually unusable. This is inexcusable and unacceptable. JAWS has also come up with some very convoluted keystroke combinations to interact with elements on webpages. I also ran into several situations where JAWS was incapable of activating navigation bars on webpages. I just want to know, are the people at VFOserious about accessibility, or just interested in convincing people in enterprise and government that they are?
I really enjoyed the Mark mobile voice that Narrator uses. I was also pleasantly surprised at how quickly the screen reader reacts. I’m now using it as my primary screen reader. I of course will always continue to use NVDA as well. It is an amazing product and will only continue to improve. They have one of the most talented group of developers I’ve ever seen. As for JAWS, I can’t think of one good thing to say. And that’s a difficult position for me to take. When I first became a teacher 25 years ago, JAWS was the only program that made the digital world accessible for me. It was an amazing product, and I’ve always shown a great deal of gratitude toward them, but even I have to admit that they’re not maintaining their commitment to customers. You don’t know how difficult that is for me to say this because I have a great deal of loyalty toward the people who helped me when I was younger. I hope the people at VFO and Freedom Scientific can turn things around, but most importantly I applaud the accessibility team at Microsoft. For years Microsoft has preached accessibility but seemed more interested in promoting their own advancement within the field of accessibility. The new Microsoft accessibility team is finally focusing on their actual customers. What a refreshing change! I have also recorded a podcast demonstrating the use and accessibility of Windows 10 anniversary update. I hope you give it a listen.