It’s hard to imagine that we’re already living in the 2020s. Maybe it’s not quite the promised future of the utopian sci-fi of the 1950s and 60s. “Where’s my flying car?” you may be asking. But outside us not reaching those hyperbolic visions of the future, we’ve got it pretty good. In fact, things may be better than ever! Having every creature comfort under the sun is no good without assistive technologies, though. That’s why today I’m going to cast a vote for the voice over reader.
In our age of constant boom and bust hype cycles, it’s hard to tell truth from fiction. After all, many applications that promise to put humans out of business are far from ripe. Every marketing tagline under the sun’s been tried; every paid-for article has put an exaggerated new spin on technologies that are still far-off.
So, how do people will disabilities or handicaps fare in today’s hyper-technologized world? Is there an overlap where assistive technologies can also benefit others? Are we reaching new hallmarks in accessibility and ease-of-use?
Let’s take a dive into these technologies and have a look-see!
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What is a voice over reader?
Have you ever wondered how a blind or visually-impaired person can access the internet, or read the contents of a website? That’s where a voice over reader comes in, as a kind of assistive technology. That is, it is an interface aimed at helping people with disabilities. It describes the contents of what’s onscreen in a format that visually-impaired people can understand.
Out of those who use a voice over reader, two-thirds choose voice as their preferred output; the remaining third is more comfortable with braille. In every case I’ve surveyed, the voiceover comes in the typical computerized fashion, it’s not performed by a human.
A voice over reader will not only relay the contents of a screen. It can also help people with limited eyesight by helping zoom into text as they read. Most commercial readers offer this option. As a person finds a selection they’re having difficulty reading, they can just select it and it will pop up in a high-resolution window. This is especially useful for the elderly, who make a significant subset of the people who benefit from these technologies.
At present, Macintosh computers include the excellent VoiceOver app for free under the “accessibility” setting. There are many commercial and free options for Windows, which we’ll be exploring below.
Voice over reader #1: VoiceOver
This Mac-native app is a point in Apple’s favor. Just the fact that they’ve included a reliable voice over reader with their computers shows care for their client-base. The fact that it’s deeply integrated with macOS and iOS means new apps can be easily used with it immediately.
As with most of the other options on this list, VoiceOver can be accessed through different keyboard shortcuts. These are mostly there to activate or deactivate the app. They can also help a user change the reading speed, intonation, etc. of the voice. VoiceOver currently supports 35 languages and additional voice options. This means that if you’re reading a website in a different language, VoiceOver has the option of switching to that language automatically. A great choice for multilinguals!
VoiceOver can help users navigate HTML5 websites, read aloud emails and the contents of PDF files. It also has another excellent feature, which allows users to watch movies with audio descriptions. These movies have a small icon on iTunes that says AD. That means that they come with detailed audio descriptions.
It also supports gesture commands through the trackpad and plug-and-play support for braille displays. Apple has also really stepped up their game with dictation support. This is not just for visually-impaired people, as I know I’ve used this feature myself!
There are quite a few handy guides about VoiceOver out there. I recommend checking out the one below, as it’s probably the easiest and most direct.
VoiceOver Reader #2: JAWS
While it has an intimidating name that relies on wordplay, JAWS is pretty user-friendly. Its name is actually an acronym, explained in their own words below:
“JAWS, Job Access With Speech, is the world’s most popular screen reader, developed for computer users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse. JAWS provides speech and Braille output for the most popular computer applications on your PC. You will be able to navigate the Internet, write a document, read an email and create presentations from your office, remote desktop, or from home.”
JAWS is currently the #1 choice in the voice over reader market. It has over 50% of market share. As commercial software, it’s going for a pretty hefty price. Trying to outfit your PC with it is going to set you back around a thousand bucks
For that price, it’s pretty much a given that it will give Windows users comparable access to what VoiceOver gives Mac natives. Now, keep in mind that the $1000 tag is for lifetime access on 3 PCs. A lifetime commercial license is $1200; yearly licenses are $90, and include most of the same benefits. The only added comfort of yearly licenses is Remote Desktop and Citrix support, which costs $200 extra.
That’s a lot of dollar value, no doubt! But, from all the information and user statistics available, it’s for a reason. So many users choose JAWS because, frankly put, it works. It offers the following features:
- Read docs, emails, websites, and apps.
- Scans all documents, including PDF files.
- Easy web form filling.
- Ease of use
- Built-in text skimmer and analyzer.
- Command shortcuts for web browsing.
VoiceOver reader #3: NVDA
NVDA is an open-source voice over reader alternative for Windows. It’s the lovechild of Michael Curran and James Teh, who believe access to assistive technologies should not be hampered by price. As we’ve seen above, JAWS will have an almost prohibitive cost for the lifetime license. In some cases, it can end up costing more than the computer itself!
With a mutual goal to provide access to computers to the 285 million blind and visually-impaired people in the world, they got to work. The result was NVDA, which is now used by just under a third of voice over reader users on desktop. Their efforts have also been acclaimed by many organizations, including the American Foundation for the Blind.
The major highlights for NVDA are:
- It supports popular applications. Web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome are supported.
- You can use email clients, internet chat software, music players, and Microsoft Office programs like Word and Excel.
- Support for over 50 languages. Built-in speech synthesizer, and support for third-party voice apps.
- The app reports textual formatting, where available, including font names, sizes, styles, and spelling errors.
- You can toggle the automatic announcement of the text under the mouse, as well as optional audible reporting on mouse position.
- NVDA can run a variety of refreshable braille displays. It supports Braille-via-braille displays that have a braille keyboard.
- It can be run entirely from a USB flash drive. Other portable media can also be run without needing installation. Handy when you’re on the go!
- A talking installer guides you through the entire process.
- Support for over 50 languages.
- NVDA runs in modern Windows operating systems. That includes 32 and 64-bit variants.
- It can run in lock screens like Windows logon and similar.
- The app announces controls and text while the user is interacting with gestures on touch screens.
So, how easy to use are voice over readers?
Fortunately, these three I’ve listed are plug-and-play! There are alternatives, like Microsoft Narrator, ZoomText, and WindowEyes. Orca comes bundled in with a lot of Linux alternatives.
But JAWS, VoiceOver, and NVDA comprise most of the market. The remaining options are about 6% of the voice over reader share.
The combination of voice-over readers and speech controls can be extremely beneficial for those with visual and other impairments. Still, as far as we’ve come, there is a need for further progress. Even sites with billions of users like YouTube need to up their game when it comes to integrating handicapped minorities.
This article in Smashing Magazine makes for a compelling case study. Chris Ashton, the author, attempts to use VoiceOver for one day to test its capabilities and user comfort. He tests everyday websites like YouTube, Facebook, and the BBC site. The article’s a little technical, but he comes upon several roadblocks and expresses several programming-side solutions.
It’s a handy guide for developers and social media execs to have on-hand. After all, every society is defined by how well it treats and provides for those with handicaps or other limitations. While it may not be super-easy to follow, it details several extremely common programming hiccups that hinder accessibility. With just a few tweaks, major sites like Facebook and YouTube can revamp ease of access for visually-impaired and other minorities.
The voice over reader market is going strong. Both free and paid-for options abound, and that can’t be a bad thing. It keeps competition strong, but most of all, it provides access for those who desperately need it. After all, the internet is a valuable resource. It provides opportunities for entertainment, information, and employment. Equalizing opportunities means paving the way for more just, more inclusive societies.
Hopefully, this is only the beginning. While inroads are necessary for the voice over reader market, some companies are doing the right thing. Apple, for example, is leading the way with its macOS and iOS integrations. As more tech giants start to heed the call and listen for calls of better access for visually-impaired people, things will no doubt improve.
Here’s hoping for a time when internet access can be easily enjoyed by all!