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for the Blind

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Screen Readers and Text-to-Speech Synthesizers

What Is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is a piece of software that runs on a computer, tablet, or smartphone and provides people with vision loss access to the device’s interface. The screen reader uses synthesized speech to read aloud the content of the device’s display. In addition, the screen reader offers alternative navigation methods so that the individual with a visual impairment can access aspects of the device that would normally require vision. This usually takes the form of providing a way to operate a computer’s mouse using the keyboard. For computers, tablets, or smartphones that include a touchscreen, this navigation method usually consists of special gestures for navigating and interacting with the interface. Screen readers that operate on desktop computer operating systems generally have keyboard commands as their primary input method and provide touchscreen gestures as a secondary input method. Screen readers on mobile platforms generally use touchscreen gestures as their primary input method and provide keyboard commands as a secondary method.

What Is a Text-to-Speech Synthesizer?

A text-to-speech synthesizer converts electronic text into spoken audio. Their programming includes all the phonemes, small units of sound that form words, and grammatical rules of a language. This allows the synthesizer to pronounce words correctly and read sentences in an intelligible way. Nonstandard words, such as names, or words with variant spelling may be pronounced incorrectly by a synthesizer. Most screen readers will include the ability for the user to define how a word will be pronounced to correct this issue. In some cases, words in another language will be detected by a screen reader, and the synthesizer used to say the word will be changed to the voice for that language.

Text-to-speech voices can be sorted into two broad categories, robotic and humanlike. Robotic voices generate speech when it is spoken instead of drawing the sound from a database. This means that the voice is small and is quick to respond. Most voices in this category were developed earlier in the history of text-to-speech. Some do not like these voices due to their inhuman sound though they are popular due to their intelligibility at high speeds, which can improve efficiency when using a screen reader for education or employment.

Human-sounding voices generally have a database of phonemes that are then connected to form words. Multiple instances of a single phoneme may even be included to take into account the various inflections used with that single sound; this generally enhances the accuracy of the voice’s pronunciation. These voices are much larger because they rely on a database of sound but are considered by many to sound more pleasant. Some human-sounding voices have issues in pronunciation or inflection if used at a high rate of speed. Advances in technology have begun to correct this issue granting these voices greater utility at higher speeds.

Screen Readers and Operating Systems

Most modern operating systems include a screen reader with the operating system. With the advent of Windows 10, screen readers built into operating systems are usually full-featured and can be used for most tasks. Windows, in particular, has a number of third-party screen readers that can be purchased or used for free. Other operating systems have only one available, such as the VoiceOver screen reader for both macOS and iOS, or have one screen reader that sees significantly greater use than others, such as the built-in TalkBack screen reader on Android.

Choosing a Screen Reader and Operating System

With most operating systems being equally accessible, the choice of which screen reader to use is strongly connected to your choice of operating system. Below are questions to consider when evaluating what screen reader and operating system to use:

  • For what tasks will you be using the system?
    Tablets and smartphones are useful devices for accessing media content and performing other tasks, such as assisting in navigation or recognizing people and objects, but they are not as useful if you are going to be creating content. Desktop or laptop computers are more efficient when creating content but are less portable and have fewer applications for daily tasks.

  • What applications will you need and what operating system and screen reader combination will provide the most access?
    For example, you may find that the Windows operating system with the JAWS screen reader provides the best access to a program for editing audio. In addition, the JAWS and NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen readers allow users to extend the functionality of the screen reader, which can be used to increase the accessibility of software in certain situations. The extensions are called scripts when developed for JAWS and add-ons when developed for NVDA.

If you have determined these essentials and are left with several possibilities, the following questions may narrow your options:

  • What speech synthesizers are available for your platform?
    Not all operating systems or screen readers support all synthesizers. If you have multiple viable options, you may find speech on one platform easier to comprehend or listen to than another.

  • How will you be using the screen reader to navigate the operating system’s interface and interact with items?
    You may find that a gesture-based method on a touchscreen-based device is easier to learn and use than a solution that relies primarily on a keyboard. In addition, some control schemes for similar interaction methods might be easier to use. For example, both VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android rely on gestures as their primary method for interacting with the operating system, but each has their own distinct gestures for doing so.

  • Will you need braille support?
    Refreshable braille displays are compatible with most operating systems and screen readers, but may not be as developed in some areas for a given operating system or screen reader. In addition, developers of braille PDAs are starting to develop devices that include a mainstream operating system such as Windows or Android.

Additional Information About Screen Readers

Listing of Third-Party Screen Readers

Listing of Braille PDAs

Learn More About Computer Operating Systems

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