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What Is a Screen Reader?

Day-to-day, you likely interact with your computer through a system known as a Graphical User Interface, or GUI for short. GUIs draw images, words, buttons, borders, and other text and graphics on the screen, creating representations that you can interact with, for example by clicking, typing, or dragging with a mouse. Screen readers are software that works with a GUI to convey information non-visually, typically for users that are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, or otherwise print disabled.

On mobile devices, screen readers generally work by tracing on the screen with a finger, which will read out elements that a sighted user would normally see, and by using gestures to move through or seek out elements in an application. On desktop computers, screen readers are typically used in conjunction with a keyboard. A mouse is not conventally used with a screen reader.

Screen readers can output information in a number of ways. The most common output format is audio, meaning that screen readers read information aloud, often very quickly for experienced users. In addition, most screen readers can output to braille, which typically requires a specialized (and often expensive) device known as a refreshable braille display. Finally, many screen readers can also output to text displayed visually, which is mainly used by sighted developers for testing software.

Examples of commonly-used screen readers include:

Voiceover — A built-in screen reader for Apple devices, and which has different versions for Mac OS and iOS.

Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) — A free and open source screen reader for Windows. "Free" in this context means that it is released under a free software license, an ethical software license that allows for modification. NVDA is also free of charge.

Job Access With Speech (JAWS) — JAWS is a proprietary screen reader for Windows. A license for JAWS is expensive, but some users prefer it to NVDA.

Talkback — A screen reader for Android devices. Not as widely embraced in the visually impaired community as Voiceover on iOS, but which has improved in recent years.

ChromeVox — A screen reader for Chromebooks.

Orca — A screen reader for the Linux desktop.

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