Since I have recently fielded several inquiries from parents and/or students about which screenreader to obtain/use, this review explores 5 of the most common screen readers and their benefits and disadvantages. There are several others, but in my experience in a BVI academic environment, these 5 are the most common and are easily obtainable. In event a person visiting this site has little idea what a screen reader is (and I have fielded those questions as well), a screen reader is simply a software application that uses audio with a computer voice to announce items on a computer screen for blind and visually impaired (BVI) persons. The screen readers listed here are assumed for use with a k-12 student and/or his/her guardian with little technical experience. There are certainly others, including for Linux platforms, but the following screen readers seem to be the most common and user friendly in terms of installation and use on the most commonly use operating systems.
JAWS – is the world’s most popular screen reader. Of all the 5 screenreaders reviewed here, JAWS has the most configurable options. JAWS does have a learning curve and is designed for a Windows PC platform. JAWS is only available as paid software, either as an enterprise package or single use licenses ($90 a year, roughly $900 as a one-time purchase). JAWS is memory intensive and can freeze the computer because of its demands on a computer’s RAM.
Microsoft Narrator – Bundled with recent versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system, Narrator is useful in a pinch but offers limited functionality, particularly with browsers and web apps. My students encountered navigation issues and sometimes silence when using Narrator to navigate the deeper levels of a Windows operating system (control panel applets, etc.).
ChromeVox – a freely available screen reader bundled with a Chrome laptop with the Chrome operating system can also be installed as an extension on the Chrome browser. ChromeVox offers one of the less abrasive voice options but is limited to use on the Chrome platform. In testing ChromeVox, students were able to navigate the Chrome browser fairly easily and found Chrome Vox to be more or less intuitive, but there were also glitches.Vox did have a very pleasant computer voice and demeanor.
VoiceOver – is free and included with any Apple product. No installation or setup is required. There are over 30 language voices available, which are also included for free. VoiceOver is available on all iOS products (iPhones) and is relatively user friendly and configurable. The learning curve, although not daunting, does take some effort and like JAWS for Windows, has numerous keyboard shortcut options.
Worthy of note here is the intended use of particular device and computer in context, if one is using a public computer, for example a library, if a PC is being used, then Narrator can be enabled or NVDA can be installed on a USB stick for use on any Windows machine. JAWS does not offer a portability option so this might be a consideration when choosing a screen reader. Of course, VoiceOver can always be enabled for Apple products and ChromeVox likewise for the Google Chrome platform. For personally owned Windows computers, JAWS is most often recommended but if cost is an issue, NVDA will serve capably. Apple products utilize VoiceOver.
Most importantly, for efficient use of a screen reader and therefore computer by a BVI user, practice and study of the screen reader’s options and use will allow the user to use a computer as intended. There are ample instruction manuals available online and the help option with tutorials can always be invoked.
By George Thompson