If you’ve been asked to create an accessible e-learning course, you might’ve come across the term “screen reader” and understood that your course needs to work with them. But what exactly are screen readers? Who uses them? How do they work? And how can you make sure your e-learning courses work with them? In this article, we’ll answer all those questions and more. Ready? Let’s dive in!

What’s a screen reader?

A screen reader is a software application that turns the visual content displayed on a computer or mobile device—like buttons, text, and imagery—into text-to-speech (TTS) audio or braille (with the help of a refreshable braille display).

Many—but not all—modern devices come with built-in screen readers. Here’s a list of some common screen readers:

  • JAWS (Job Access With Speech): JAWS is the industry-standard screen-reading software for Windows computers. This software must be purchased. 
  • NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access): NVDA is free, open-source screen-reading software for Windows. It was created as an alternative to the paid software. 
  • VoiceOver: The screen reader built into Apple devices.
  • TalkBack: A screen reader created by Google that’s installed by default on Android devices.

Who uses screen readers? 

People with visual impairments—like partial sight, low vision, color blindness, legal blindness, and total blindness—are the primary users of screen readers, since these impairments make it difficult or impossible to interact with computers on their own.

However, some people with cognitive disabilities also use screen readers to cut out visual distractions and allow them to focus on the content.

How do screen readers work?

When people use screen readers on a computer, they rely on keyboard shortcuts—not a mouse—to navigate. On touchscreen devices, they use multitouch gestures.

As they navigate, the screen reader converts on-screen information into text-to-speech audio or braille

For text-based information, this is pretty straightforward. The screen reader simply reads the text aloud or displays it in braille. But what about images? 

When screen readers run into an image, they look to see whether there’s any alternative text (alt text)—a description—associated with it. When creating software, websites, or e-learning courses, developers can choose to include alt text for this purpose. If no alt text is present, the screen reader will often read the file name. For example, if the learner comes across your person1.jpeg file, they’ll hear image person one dot j peg. Obviously, that’s not ideal, because it doesn’t provide the user with the same information as a sighted user. 

To give every learner a great experience, it’s a good idea to write effective alt text for informative images and hide decorative images, so screen readers skip over them. This is easy to do in most authoring apps, including Rise 360 and Storyline 360. Check out the basics of alternative text for some helpful tips to keep in mind.

What’s it like to use a screen reader?

Although there’s no substitute for the real thing, these short videos will give you a rough idea of what the experience is like:

Of course, the best way to understand the screen reader experience is to try it out for yourself. You can download NVDA on your computer for free or simply open the default screen reader on your mobile device and give it a test drive.

Once you’ve got the screen reader open, close your eyes. If you’re on your computer, try to navigate using the keyboard shortcuts (e.g., the down and up arrows). If you’re on a mobile device, try using multitouch gestures. You’ll be surprised how different it feels to interact with technology without any visual input.

How can you create e-learning courses that work with screen readers?

Some authoring apps—like Rise 360 and Storyline 360—allow you to create courses that work with screen readers automatically. But if you want to provide screen reader learners with a top-notch experience, these articles share a few design considerations you’ll want to take into account:

Once you’ve created your accessible course, it’s a good idea to quality-test it with the screen reader that most of your learners will be using. For tips on how to do this, check out these articles:

Learn More

Hopefully this article has given you some insight into what screen readers are, who uses them, how they work, and how to create screen reader–compatible courses.

For more detailed information about screen reader usage, check out the results of this screen reader user survey.

And if you want to learn more about creating accessible e-learning, be sure to dig into these helpful resources:

Do you have any experience using screen readers with e-learning courses? We’d love to hear about your experience! Leave a comment below to share.

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