Adaptive and Assistive Technology Software for Visually Impaired Learners

Author: Lori Peterson

Screen reader software

What is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is a piece of software that provides an auditory output for printed text on a computer or handheld device.

Screen Readers for the visually impaired are vital for access to computer use. Screen readers use text-to-speech technology to give the user the opportunity to interact with text. Screen readers are the most popular assistive technology used by visually impaired (VI) students. Braille literacy rates are low and the need for speech output is important (Lazar et al. 2007).

Text -to- speech is suitable for transcribing a word document to speech, however, screen readers reads any and all things on the screen (i.e., menus, prompts, keyboard commands).

There are several high quality screen reader software that are available. I will be specifically looking at JAWS (Job Access with Speech)

JAWS software allows text to be captured and sent to synthesizer or refreshable Braille display. JAWS for Windows (JFW) script language resembles a programming language
that can be customized by confident computer users. According to, “JAWS for Windows simplifies the reading of the screen by presenting it as a series of lines of text,

even when the text is scattered and not actually linear. This feature provides a reliable way to read the current line in a word processor and also the highlighted item in a dialogue box”.

The design issue that software designers have to consider in relationship to screen readers is every mouse click that is possible needs to have a keyboard command equivalent.
When images are being displayed there needs to be an Alt associated tag that describes the button, function or image (i.e., “spell-check”, “Wiki page”).

Web designers can help eliminate some of the frustration experienced by screen reader users by labeling links, add appropriate alternative text for pictures, improve clarity of page (eliminate background clutter), and make PDF files accessible (Lazar 2007).

From Technology has revolutionized daily life for all of us, but it has had particularly dramatic benefits for people who are blind or visually impaired. Until only recently, the world of print information—newspapers, books, signs, menus—was largely closed off to people with vision loss. However, the power of computers has now brought this world within reach for those who are blind or who have low vision. Computer technology, including specialized hardware or software that simulates the human voice reading the computer screen or renders hard-copy output into braille, designed to help persons with disabilities perform daily tasks, has changed the lives of countless individuals with visual impairments.
Assistive or adaptive technology, as it is called, has exploded many barriers to education and employment for visually impaired individuals. Students with visual impairments can complete homework, do research, take tests, and read books along with their sighted classmates thanks to advances in technology. Adults with visual impairments can continue to work and pursue a tremendous range of careers in mainstream society because of the use of computers and other devices.

This is David who is using JAWS to access his state report files in his 5th grade classroom

JAWS speech output can be slowed down for beginning users; most users adapt quickly and choose to move on to a faster rate of speech.

University of Wisconsin, Trace Research Center video introduction of screen readers

Comparison of screen readers to text-to-speech functions


Most popular screen readers used in education:
JAWS (Job Access with Speech) for Windows from and from
(Henter-Joyce) Costs $900 for subscription; may download free demo for 40 minutes of use (must restart computer to request another demo).

Window Eyes by ai squared is Mac compatible $$

Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) Open source free screen reader for use on residential computer; portable device (jump drive) allows access on any computer.
Very robotic voice can be improved with other software. NVDA is a collaborative project that has world-wide contributors writing code in many languages.

The cost of JAWS or Windoweyes can prohibit home use; however, it is valuable to learn easy screen reader software such as JAWS at school and use freeware or NVDA at home. Having access to screen reader software can prepare a students for academic success in high school, college and career opportunities. According to Edyburn (2006) augmentation devices support learners who need it. As educators, we need to distinguish between technologies that serve as a scaffold function and those that will be a lifelong tool.

Sample screen reader tips from American Foundation for the Blind:
J=JAWS, WE=Window Eyes
Read to end command (to read a long email or article):
WE: control shift R
J: number pad, insert, 2
Line by line (current line):
WE: control, number pad 5
J: number pad, insert 8
Surfing the web with a screen reader: control O opens a dialogue box that lets you type a webpage address such as

Reading for visually impaired students was limited to paper embossed Braille before text-to-speech and screen reader software was designed. Thanks to Raymond Kurzweil, who developed the first machine to convert books and other printed materials into synthetic speech.



If you know a student with VI, this is a great place to connect with other families of VI students and find resources

American Foundation for the Blind

Freeware portable online access K-12 students free screen reader

JAWS screen reader software from Freedom Scientific.

Access World Technology Journal is a free web-based publication. Follow the link to Product Evaluation, The Sound of Computing: A Review of Three Screen Readers

Free software that teaches students to copy and paste text so they can listen

Latest screen reader software for handheld devices

Non-visual desktop access NVDA freeware portable screenreader software, downloadable for a jump drive, allows access from any computer

Gary Bishop from Univ. N.Carolina, "Geeks making the world a bit better"
Free Sami Says software allows kids to record their stories with sound effects (for Windows)

Lazar, J., Allen, A., Klienman, J., Malarkey, C. (2007) What frustrates screen reader users on the web: A study of 100 blind users. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 22(3), 247-269.

Edyburn, D.L. (2006) Assistive technology and mild disabilities. Special Education Technology Practice, 8(4), 18-28.