If you need to develop an accessible e-learning course, you should make sure that your content can be accessed by those with visual impairments. This means you’ll want to create e-learning content that works well with a screen reader. Getting acquainted with the screen reader experience will hopefully give you a deeper understanding of how some of your learners access and experience e-learning content, and how you can improve that learning experience. This article will give you a primer on what a screen reader is, how it works, and why it’s important to test your e-learning content with it.

What is a screen reader?

A screen reader is a software application that helps people with visual impairments use a computer. Visual impairments cover a wide spectrum, including low vision, color blindness, and total blindness. These impairments make it difficult or impossible for some learners to interact with a computer monitor. The screen reader software works with the computer’s operating system to provide information to the learner about what’s happening on the monitor. A computer-generated voice reads aloud the icons, text, files, menu options, dialog boxes, and other on-screen objects the user can’t see.

How does a screen reader work?

The first step is to install the screen reading software on the computer. There are a few commonly known screen readers:

  • JAWS (Job Access With Speech): JAWS is the industry-standard screen reading software. This software must be purchased.
  • NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access): NVDA is free, open-source screen reading software. It was created as an alternative to the paid software.

Once the software is installed on the computer, the user can activate it. The screen reader then provides a text-to-speech (TTS) experience that translates the on-screen information into speech, which can be heard through speakers, headphones, or braille.

Users of screen readers typically rely on a combination of screen reader and operating system commands to accomplish tasks they need to do. For example, when a visually impaired learner lands on a new screen, they might quickly tab through an entire page first for an overview of the content, then go back and access the specific content they want.

Here are a few short video examples of screen readers in action:

Why do you need to test your course with a screen reader?

Using a screen reader to access an e-learning module results in a completely different learning experience than clicking through a course and experiencing it visually. The first time I used a screen reader and tabbed through one of my own Storyline 360 courses, I had an epiphany. It was such a revelation to discover how different the content feels when it’s a (partial or completely) nonvisual experience. It helped me understand the importance of tab order for viewing content, of adding alternate text for images, and of providing alternatives for activities, like drag-and-drops, that require the learner to interact with the screen (something visually impaired people might not be able to do).

If you’re creating an accessible course, testing your content with the screen reader is a must. It will ensure your learning experience works well for those who might not be able to take part visually.

Helpful Links and Resources

Here’s a list of accessibility-related links and resources that you might find helpful:

Do you have any experience using screen readers in the context of e-learning? I would love to hear about your experiences; let me know how it went in the comments.

Want to try something you learned here, but don’t have Articulate 360? Start a free 60-day trial, and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

Lisa Spirko

Apologies for my bluntness, but why bother mentioning NVDA in this article? This implies that Storyline supports NVDA, when it certainly does not (https://articulate.com/support/article/Articulate-Storyline-and-Section-508-Accessibility). This lack of support is a serious problem because, despite JAWS being the "industry standard" screen reader, the reality is that most learners with vision problems probably use a free or low cost screen reader like NVDA. Because of the continual 508-related problems we have with Storyline, whether coupled with NVDA or not, we are unable to legally claim that we produce 508-compliant courses that meet the requirements of our contractual obligations. I know that I am not the only Storyline user who has complained about this. Articulate really needs to s... Expand

Nicole Legault
Lisa Spirko

Thank you, Nicole. We appreciate that Articulate is looking at ways to improve accessibility, and we hope that you guys will resolve these issues soon. Unfortunately, because the issues we're encountering on my team impact screen reader users and keyboard navigation users, we have decided that we can only work toward 508 compliance in our Storyline-developed courses for other disability groups, like learners who are hearing impaired, have cognitive disabilities, have low vision but use screen enlargers (not screen readers), and limited motor skills and use an adaptive mouse (not keyboards). We will need to be sure we have other 508-compliant deliverables in place for learners who use screen readers or navigate only with a keyboard until Articulate resolves these issues or until we find ... Expand

Lisa Spirko

Our department is fortunate in that we offer many different types of deliverables, not just online courses. We are taking an approach of making our deliverables as a collection (not individually) compliant for 508/accessibility ("there's something for everyone"). In our view, it would be very difficult or impossible to make each of our deliverables accessible for every possible type of disability, especially our online courses and webinars. Therefore, we are striving to make our online courses compliant for hearing impaired and people with color blindness or low vision who do NOT use screen readers or rely on keyboard navigation (i.e. compliant color contrast, closed captions, transcripts). Those learners who use screen readers and keyboard navigation--who can't take our courses because of... Expand

Darla Woodworth

From what I have read on Articulate's community forums (and other sites) is that NVDA does "everything" that JAWS does. I support Lisa's request in asking Articulate to support the use of NVDA as a choice for developers and learners. I think NVDA is used more than JAWS for a variety of reasons, one of which that hasn't been mentioned is that NVDA lets developers read what is being read by the screen reader - helping us (okay, me) with my limited speed listening capabilities. I guess I am asking Articulate (and the staff that answer questions on the forum) to quit dismissing NVDA as an alternative - making it sound like NVDA isn't a quality product and JAWS is our only answer. Nicole, thanks for working on this tough issue. I am surprised and pleased that you listed NVDA as ... Expand

Nicole Legault

Hi all, We’ve been working hard on the accessibility features in Rise. And our ultimate goal is to be Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) compliant. We’ve built Rise to follow Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) standards for common navigation features, such as buttons, links, and forms. For custom features that aren’t covered by ARIA, such as interactive markers and sorting activities, we’ve focused on making the custom keyboard navigation feel natural and intuitive. We do not yet provide full keyboard navigation support for learners who require a screen reader, but we are actively working on this. You can always keep up to date on the latest Rise features on the What’s New page. As part of our plan to get Rise to be WCAG compliant, we’re also hiring a 3rd pa... Expand

Michelle Kenoyer

Hi Nicole, Apologies for commenting on this article a couple of years late, but I'm curious to learn more about the specifics of testing a Storyline 360 course with a screen-reading tool such as NVDA. I don't have access to the JAWS screen reader, so NVDA is all i have for testing. Your article is very well-done, but is more of a "why it's necessary" than a true "How-to" for using a screen reader to test specific items in a Storyline course with a screen reader. Do you have some best practices that Storyline designers and testers could use/look for specifically (in addition to the usual things like tab order, alt text, etc.)? My team and I have found a reference guide of NVDA keyboard navigation shortcuts (https://dequeuniversity.com/screenreaders/nvda-keyboard-shortcuts#nvda-nvda_sh... Expand