How do screen readers work?

Screen readers are software programs that allow those who have difficulty reading printed text, or interpreting icons, access to content.

People who are completely blind are the primary users of screen readers. That being said, they can also be used by people with dyslexia, low vision, or by anyone who may not be able to look at a screen.

Illustration: Profile shot of user with headphones

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“While a sighted person can glance at a screen and understand content as a whole, someone listening to a screen reader cannot.”

Things screen readers have in common

While the exact operation differs from screen reader to screen reader, and platform to platform, all screen readers have the following things in common:

  • They depend on text: As pieces of software, screen readers generally cannot make sense of graphical content. For this reason, alt-text on images, and labels on icons, are crucial.
  • They read content in a linear fashion: Screen readers generally read out the contents of the screen using text to speech. While a sighted person can glance at a screen and understand content as a whole, someone listening to a screen reader cannot. Making sure focus is managed correctly, and tab order is set up properly, helps give the screen reader a linear pathway to navigate your website.
  • They provide shortcut keys to make navigating easier: Shortcuts help users to quickly navigate using the semantic structure of  a website. For example, all screen readers allow users to skip directly to the next and previous heading or the next and previous link/button. If you have not provided this semantic information, screen reader users will become confused.

Things that change from platform to platform

Mobile screen readers are quite different from desktop screen readers. On desktop, a screen reader user may navigate by using the tab k