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The challenges faced by screen readers  

Posted on 26 January 2024 Cartoon drawing of a computer screen with a speaker symbol in front of it

What are screen readers?

Screen readers are assistive technologies designed to enable individuals with visual impairments to access digital content, including websites, applications, and documents. Despite their invaluable role in fostering digital inclusivity, screen readers encounter numerous challenges when navigating websites. These challenges stem from the diversity of web design practices, the complexity of modern web development, and the inherent limitations of screen reader technology. Understanding these challenges is crucial for web developers and designers to create more accessible and user-friendly online experiences for all users.

Our fab team members!

We are fortunate to have three remarkable individuals who are blind and adept at using screen readers. Krista and Mede utilize JAWS, while Lleona prefers NVDA. Their involvement in every website accessibility audit is immeasurable, bringing invaluable insights and perspectives to the process.

Structure is vital for website accessibility

One of the primary challenges screen readers face with websites is the lack of semantic structure and proper HTML markup. Websites that do not adhere to web accessibility standards often lack clear headings, landmarks, and labels, making it difficult for screen readers to interpret and navigate the content. Inaccessible websites may use div elements instead of semantic HTML tags like <header>, <nav>, <main>, and <footer>, which provide important structural information to screen readers. Without proper markup, users relying on screen readers may struggle to understand the organization of content and navigate efficiently through web pages.

Common website accessibility issues with multimedia content

Another significant challenge is the presence of inaccessible multimedia content. Images, videos, and audio elements without alternative text or transcripts pose barriers to users who rely on screen readers. When encountering multimedia content, screen readers rely on alternative text descriptions to convey the visual information to users. Without descriptive alternative text, users may miss crucial information or context provided by images, charts, or diagrams. Similarly, videos and audio content without transcripts or captions are inaccessible to users who are unable to perceive audio information, further limiting their ability to access and comprehend multimedia content.

Online forms and other interactivity

Complex interactive elements and dynamic web content present additional challenges for screen readers. Many modern websites utilize dynamic elements such as dropdown menus, modal dialogs, and interactive forms to enhance user experience. However, these elements can be challenging for screen readers to navigate and interact with effectively. Inaccessible forms, for example, may lack proper labels, instructions, or error messages, making it difficult for users to input data accurately and understand form validation errors. Complex user interfaces with dynamic content may also lack keyboard accessibility, preventing users from navigating and interacting with the content using assistive technologies.

Navigation issues affect website accessibility

Furthermore, inconsistent navigation mechanisms and keyboard focus management can hinder the user experience for individuals using screen readers. Websites that rely heavily on JavaScript for navigation or implement custom controls may disrupt the natural tab order and keyboard focus, making it challenging for users to navigate through content sequentially. Inaccessible navigation menus and links with vague or non-descriptive labels can also confuse users and impede their ability to locate and access desired information efficiently.

Of course, there is WCAG 2.2, an essential part of any website accessibility audit

In addition to technical challenges, the lack of awareness and understanding of web accessibility principles among web developers and designers contributes to the prevalence of inaccessible websites. Many developers may not be familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.2) or may underestimate the importance of designing with accessibility in mind. As a result, accessibility considerations may be overlooked during the design and development process, leading to barriers for users with disabilities.

Why this is important

Addressing the challenges that screen readers face with websites requires a concerted effort from web developers, designers, content creators, and stakeholders to prioritize accessibility and adopt best practices for inclusive design. By adhering to web accessibility standards, implementing semantic HTML markup, providing descriptive alternative text for multimedia content, ensuring keyboard accessibility, and conducting regular accessibility audits and user testing, website creators can improve the accessibility of their digital content and provide a more inclusive user experience for all users, including those who rely on screen readers.

Would you like to find out more?

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Clive Loseby
Access by Design

Helping your digital accessibility:

with a beautiful, WCAG 2.2 compliant, Accessible Website
with an outstanding Website Accessibility Audit
Award-winning Accessible Web Design, Chichester

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