Screen Readers

Kevin LinfootKevin Linfoot, pictured, suffered a motorcycle accident when he was 17 and received £1,800 compensation. He used the money to buy a half-share of a joinery business, which he sold 12 months later for £22,000. Today, Kevin is a multi-millionaire with a huge property portfolio and a £4 million home in Yorkshire (where £4 million buys quite a bit). Sounds a bit like a radio ad, doesn’t it?

But Kevin’s success is not just on paper. In fact, very little of his success can be owed to paper because he can’t read. He does all his business in his head. Kevin is one of thousands of people in Britain who suffer from dyslexia. Over the years many business “celebrities” have declared their dyslexia; among them Virgin Boss Sir Richard Branson, the CEO of Cisco Systems, John T Chambers and Ted Turner, the President of Turner Television.

Surprisingly, the web can be a good place for dyslexics … if they’re able to use a personal style sheet. This allows them to view pages in a colour and text scheme which makes reading easier: apparently, its black on yellow for most.

All the more reason then for producing web pages using semantic XHTML and CSS.

The visually impaired need more consideration than the ability to use personal style sheets. A screen reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen. This interpretation is then represented to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a braille output.

The choice of screen reader is dictated by operating system and cost; one of the most widely used is JAWS which will set you back just under £1,000 (many screen reader users benefit from health service and charity funding). And like anything software-related, there are camps within screen reader users: differing priorities and strong preferences are common.

New operating systems have screen readers bundled with them; Windows Vista comes with Narrator, Mac OS X includes VoiceOver. There are also open source screen readers, such as the Linux Screen Reader for GNOME and NonVisual Desktop Access for Windows.

The visually impaired need more consideration than the ability to use personal style sheets

A screen reader’s output can be bewildering for the non-user: they “talk” extremely fast and seem to enunciate absolutely EVERYTHING. For those more skilled in their use, there is no such confusion, especially if the page is marked up correctly by the content provider.

One HTML tag which is very useful for screen reader users is the “lang” attribute. Take for example the phrase “Bonjour Monsieur”. The sighted reader would most likely read that (phonetically) as “Bonzhur Messuer” whereas an “uninstructed” screen reader would pronounce “Bonjower monsyeur”; however, “lang” tells the screen reader that this is a French language term and instructs it to pronounce correctly. A fuller description of the “lang” tag — and the languages currently supported — can be found at

Surprisingly, if you are curious as to what a screen reader sounds like, you’ll go a long way before you’ll find any sort of easy demonstration on the web. Alternatively, if you are running FireFox (and why wouldn’t you?) you can download an extension called FireVox which will turn your browser into a screen reader. One word of warning: as it currently stands there’s no “off-switch”, and once it’s installed FireVox almost never shuts up.

One response to “Screen Readers”

  1. […] Partially-sighted and blind visitors can now increase the text size to a comfortable level, it claims, or even run pages through a “screen reader” which says the words out loud. […]

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