Screen-reading software for the blind has been around since 1986 when Jim Thatcher, part of IBM, developed the first screen reader for use by employees with low vision. However, the technology struggled to keep up with the introduction of the GUI. During the transition from DOS to GUI operating systems, new companies began popping up with screen-reading solutions.
In order to improve accessibility on the quickly evolving market of GUI operating systems on personal computers, commercial screen-reading software has had to adapt. Numerous screen-reading solutions for the blind and vision-impaired have since arisen, making the digital world accessible for the blind.
By using either a voice synthesiser or a braille display, screen readers are able to read any text that is displayed on the screen to the user.
By pressing various commands on the keyboard, the user is able to perform tasks that instruct the display or the synthesiser to read aloud anything they want read on the screen.
This allows the user to do many things on a computer from clarifying bold or underlined text or adjusting formatting to successfully reading emails and navigating the internet.
With so many screen reading solutions available in the market today, it is difficult to decide which one to go for. From the extortionately expensive to the bargain bucket, here’s a round-up of the best screen readers currently out there for Windows.
Not to be mistaken with the film, JAWS is the best known screen-reading software and has a large community of users. However, with that title comes the high price tag. It is the most expensive screen reader on the market, and a big investment at more than £800 inc VAT.
Updates to the program require you to buy a new version of JAWS each time, but each comes with lengthy documentation and training, has PDF reading, allows for scripts, and has the ability to be used with remote access.
Despite having a somewhat steep learning curve, JAWS has a strong technical support team.
JAWS 18 supports and freely provides version 2.2 of Vocalizer’s high-quality expressive voices from Nuance and works seamlessly with ZoomText’s magnifier. It also gives the user the ability to read text under the cursor.
However, with cheaper options on the market now able to do just as much as JAWS, it is no longer the assumed first choice when selecting screen-reading software, especially as the software seems to be evolving at a very slow-rate compared to the competition.
Once a last resort for many, NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free option that is now able to compete with the likes of JAWS in power and usability.
First created to combat the market of costly screen-reading software, it has now become a viable option for the everyday user.
With a list boasting just as many features as JAWS, the open-source program is the first Windows-based screen reader that can be used with a touchscreen.
NVDA also had integrated cursor-over text-to-speech before JAWS. Although having a much smaller and more limited help centre, it is still worth investigating.
Consider NVDA if cost is your biggest concern.
Dolphin Supernova Magnifier & Screen Reader
Not quite as powerful as NVDA or JAWS, Dolphin’s Supernova would be best for those who have some usable vision as it has an integrated magnifier bundled with the program.
However, the screen reader's commands are rather simplistic, and it cannot perform as many functions as NVDA or JAWS, but it does allow for scripting to make it more usable.
The reading of highlighted text is more intuitive as It makes use of the magnification’s assistance.
One of the cheaper screen-reading options, System Access costs from £270.
It has the basic functionality of a screen reader, letting you browse the internet, access your emails, edit spreadsheets and make PowerPoint presentations, but if you’re looking to perform more advanced tasks using non-proprietary software, try a different screen reader.
System Access does its job and is simple to use without the added hassle of having to spend hours learning to use JAWS.