Technology Spotlight: The New Screen Readers

The term "screen reader" is deceptive, but it was not always so. In the early days of the screen reader, it did just what it sounds like it would, it read the contents of one's computer screen and output the information in a form more accessible to a user with vision impairment, typically by connecting to a Braille display or by actually "reading" the words aloud to the user.

Of course, this is still a primary function of traditional screen reading software, but it is by no means the only function.  In some cases, the screen reading function may even seem to be more of an ancillary function than a primary one, something that allows the user to access and utilize all of the other services the software provides.

So what does historically "screen reading" software do?

For starters, it reads screens.  But every single computer running a Windows operating system from Windows 2000 on has the capability to do that, through the use of an application called Narrator.  It's not the most sophisticated screen reader out there, but it's enough to help encourage producers of screen reading software to branch out.  Narrator can read basic documents and web pages, and even assist with certain things like software installation, so it's a handy thing to have around, and Microsoft gets credit for building some level of accessibility standard into their operating system.

These days, however, softwares once best known for being screen readers (especially the big ones like JAWS and Kurzweil) have taken computer accessibility to a whole new level.  These programs can now assist users with tasks like:

  • Organizing ideas and notes
  • Identifying extraneous or incorrect spacing and punctuation
  • Auto-filling in words as the user types to save time and effort
  • Providing contextual grammar support, including homophone differentiation

These technologies don't just help individuals with vision impairment anymore either - they're designed to help individuals with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities, or even individuals just learning other languages in some cases.

Some of the new things these programs can do:

Kurzweil 3000

Read&Write Gold

JAWS 14