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Computer screen readers read out loud the content that is on the computer screen. Screen readers enable access to a computer and all the things it does when magnification no longer helps or when you might experience visual fatigue if you have to read large amounts of on-screen text.

A screen reading system for use with a computer such as Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac consists of a voice synthesizer and a screen reading program.

A screen reading program translates the written text displayed on the screen for the voice synthesizer which then reproduces the text as speech. A screen reader will also read back other information that may be present on the screen such as menu options etc.

Some common features of screen readers include the ability to:

  • change the rate, pitch, and tone of the voice synthesizer,
  • modify the way the voice synthesizer pronounces symbols, characters or words,
  • move the mouse pointer using keyboard controls,
  • read out the whole computer screen, or read out a document from start to finish.

Microsoft Windows XP, Vista and 7 all include a very basic screen reader that will read parts of the screen out to you. However, due to a number of limitations with this feature, it is not particularly useful for a person who is totally blind. In this case you would still require a dedicated screen reader to use with the computer system.

Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard and later OS versions by Apple include a fully featured screen reader known as VoiceOver. It provides a wide variety of features. These include a high-speed, high-quality voice, plug-and-play support for refreshable Braille displays, international language support, an interactive built-in tutorial, and the NumPad Commander, which makes navigation easier for new Mac owners who previously used Windows screen readers.

Besides using a voice synthesizer, many screen readers are also designed to work with electronic or refreshable braille displays.

Demonstration versions of screen readers and information about voice synthesizers can be downloaded from the Internet.

Common screen readers

Please note - besides VoiceOver for the Mac, all other screen readers listed are for Microsoft Windows.

Vision Australia mainly recommends JAWS and Window Eyes screen readers for workplace environments and cannot vouch for other screen readers in these environments. However, for home and education, both VoiceOver,System Access and NVDA may be appropriate.

All screen readers have limitations and it is important to consult with the technology specialists at Vision Australia to work out the best solution for what you need.

For more information, pop into your local Vision Australia centre or visit our Vision Store.