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Web Surfing & Reading Documents with Blindness: What's it like to use a screen reader?

What's it like to use a computer if you're impaired by blindness? Screen readers are often used to facilitate activities like reading and web surfing. Learn how it feels to use a screen reader by watching this video.

Photo of Vincent Cheng
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Highlightsthe video demo/experience sharing makes it much more real, watch it! =):


  • Screenreader Provides Independence with Less Time/Effort Demands (4:58, check out 5:37 to experience how amazingly quickly it's possible to "speed read" using a screenreader at a fast synthesized speed): "Screenreaders allow me to basically have access to the printed page, which I've had before, but it's mostly been in the form of people reading books to me on tape. There's a lot less time taken out for me to do things. There's a lot less work involved. There's a lot less dependence on others for reading stuff to me. I have done this often enough that I get used to reading pretty rapidly...I can...speed up the way in which the screenreader reads."


  • Can Read Specific Selections (2:05): "The screenreader gives me an ability to read by sentence...or I can read by word...or by letter"


  • Layout Not Immediately Apparent (1:35, 2:46): "It take an awful lot of time for a screenreader user to get the layout of even a simple page...One begins to read, not knowing anything about the layout of the page. The only way you know what's on the page is when you get to it...You're looking through this small hole. You're reading one word at a time...that's all you see...that's all I hear until I get to the next word. I have no clue that halfway down the page is a bold heading."


  • Instructions/Context Needs to be Provided Early & Clearly(3:16): "Just the other day I was reading something that made no sense to me whatsoever...until I got to what I assume the middle of the page was. And then what was on the middle of the page said, read the text below and use these instructions to fill out the top part of the page. Well jeeze."


  • No Images Can Be Seen, Alternate Text is Key(3:58): "Because graphics are off, we use the alt text, to tell me what the graphic would have been."


  • Link Design (Names, #, Order Priority) Facilitates Navigation/Understanding(4:31): "One of the things the screen reader allows me to do is to bring up a list of links. So I can really get an overview of just the links on the page."


  • Mouse Unusable, Keyboard Substitutes (1:43): "One of the things I can't do is use a mouse. I can move it along the mouse pad, and I have no clue where the mouse pointer on the screen is. What screenreaders have done to get around this is to allow the user to use the number pad keys to actually move the mouse pointer."




Note: this video is available from one of the many links in the resources section for this challenge, but just wanted to spotlight it here as an inspiration, as it really helped me to better empathize. Hope it can help others as well.


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Photo of Paul Reader

Thanks Vincent! Very thought provoking video!
Reminds me of providing computer support to one of our blind clerks in the Australian Taxation Office about 25 years ago. Of course that was before the web was in common use but the challenges of using screen readers with word processors seem substantially the same now as then. The reliability of the text to speech has improved and I don't remember the capacity to describe formatting features in the early version of Kurzweil Reader we were using.

The anecdote regarding forms and the placement of instructions illustrates the importance of involving people with a range of disabilities in the design process. Although empathetic thinking can go a long way there is no real substitute for feedback from disadvantaged users.

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