About Screen Readers

A brief introduction to screen readers for authors of digital content.

Screen readers are an example of assistive technology (AT). AT is defined as “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities.” Screen readers are primarily used by people with vision disabilities, physical disabilities, and/or cognitive impairments. Understanding how screen readers work will show you the value of making all communications accessible.


To comply with the law, Colorado government bodies are working on improving digital accessibility. One reason for the new law is that screen reader users often face difficulty when navigating websites. This is because websites and web content are created mainly with sighted individuals in mind. Screen reader users are often overlooked. Opportunities and information can be difficult or impossible to access. Not only does this create inequities among people, it also opens up organizations to legal action. Luckily, there are some ways you can ensure your digital content is accessible and your users’ experience is seamless.

What do screen readers do?

Screen readers enable their users to be independent. Screen readers do exactly that – read the screen’s content to the user. This includes web content, emails, apps, games, and documents such as PDFs. The software processes elements on the screen, usually beginning at the top, as directed by the user. Screen readers read everything they encounter. Descriptive text (such as alt text, which is invisible to a sighted person) may be crucial to a screen reader user. Text is converted to audible synthetic speech (also known as Text To Speech) or Braille. Screen readers do not work well if the page is badly formatted, lacks appropriate coding tags, or is filled with emojis, jargon, or graphics missing alternative text.

Including proper coding tags

For vision impaired individuals, accessing digital content can be laborious. Screen readers can help the user skim the page by providing an overview of its components. Users employ keyboard shortcuts to browse headings and speed up or slow down the text being read out, which helps with quick navigation. But this only works well when the site designer/content creator inserts tagged headings or other coding tags that define structure or convey context.

Including tags whenever possible will ensure that users can properly navigate the screen. Screen readers do not know how to present only “relevant” text, as a sighted person might skim a webpage for key information. Instead, it aims to convey to the user all the text it encounters. Therein lies the importance of using the proper HTML tags such as alt text and headings. The software will simply skip elements such as graphics that are not tagged, leading to a loss of information for the user. Screen readers do not attempt to “explain” more complex items like tables but will read the textual content in a literal way. If a table is complicated and not properly tagged, it will be incomprehensible to a user.

Screen reader demonstrations

Don’t take my word for it, check them out for yourself. You can install a free, open-source screen reader such as NVDA today. You might be shocked to find the sheer number of inaccessible webpages!

Or you can view one of the many demonstrations available on YouTube:

Final thoughts

Perhaps with the advancement of AI, screen readers will reach new levels of intuition that will make up for poorly designed web content. But for now, they cannot reliably translate what is intuitive to a sighted person. It is up to designers to intentionally consider and include accessibility in the first place. The software will become more sophisticated, but for those of us who communicate with the public, there is no reason to wait. We can act now to ensure our content meets accessible standards. Our obligations are clear – the time is now!

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Michael Peever
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