In our second post from our browsing with assistive technology series we discuss mobile screen readers. A screen reader is a software application that announces what's on screen to people who can't see, or understand, what is on screen. They provide access to the entire operating system and applications including browsers.
There are screen readers available on all popular platforms including Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. This article covers mobile browsing with touch devices, browsing on desktop with screen readers is covered in browsing with desktop screen readers.
Who uses a mobile screen reader
People who are blind or partially sighted use a screen reader, as well as people with cognition or learning disabilities.
People who are blind and read Braille may use a screen reader in combination with a refreshable Braille display. A refreshable Braille display is an external piece of hardware made up of rows of pins that can be formed into the shape of a Braille character. People can use Braille in combination with speech output or without it. Braille displays are a useful tool if people are in meetings or in a noisy room where listening to the speech output is not convenient.
Most touch devices support screen magnification in combination with screen readers. This enables people with partial sight, cognition or learning disabilities to use a combination of speech and sight. For example, on iOS Zoom can be used to enlarge everything on screen or the magnifier can be used to enlarge parts of the screen while VoiceOver reads content.
Popular mobile screen readersThere are screen readers available on all popular mobile platforms:
- Android Talkback, Samsung Voice Assistant and Amazon Voice View
- iOS VoiceOver
The WebAIM screen reader user survey in 2021 notes that the most popular mobile platform, and therefore screen reader, is iOS VoiceOver with 72% usage, then Android with 25.8% and the rest at 2.2%.
The following mobile browser combinations are the most commonly used on iOS and Android respectively:
- VoiceOver with Safari
- TalkBack with Chrome
What mobile screen readers announce
Like desktop screen readers, mobile screen readers announce everything on a web page and within an application.
All static text is spoken including paragraphs of text, headings and lists. Screen readers also announce hidden text such as text descriptions for images, visually hidden text, and the names of landmark regions (for example banner, main and footer) when browsing web content.
Mobile screen readers will also identify the role of an element for example link, button, image, slider, toggle button, etc.
On iOS there is an additional feature where a "hint" can be announced with an element. This acts as an audible tooltip, by describing the action an element completes. For example, "View, button, displays book detail", where "displays book detail" is the hint. It is possible to switch support for hints on or off so they should never be relied on for primary content.
Navigating with mobile screen readers
When a mobile screen reader is enabled on a touch-screen device all the gestures change. This is because the mode of interaction changes when a screen reader is enabled. Instead of visually scanning the screen and tapping once on something to activate it, it is necessary to scan the screen by touch and then double tap to activate it.
Android and iOS all support exploring by dragging a finger over the screen. The screen reader will announce each item you touch. In addition to this:
- Tap to speak the name of the item that was tapped
- Swipe right to move to the next item and speak its name
- Swipe left to move to the previous item and speak its name
Once a mobile screen reader is focused on an item you can tap anywhere on screen to activate it.
The more common approach to navigating is to swipe through content as this is more efficient. Explore by touch is useful however if you are not familiar with the content and want an idea of layout.
Navigating specific elements
On both Android and iOS it is possible to select the type of element to navigate by.
The VoiceOver rotor makes it possible to access different configuration settings and to navigate applications and web pages by different elements. Moving two fingers clockwise opens the rotor where you can choose what types of element you want to navigate between:
- In applications this includes headings, words, characters, containers and lines
- When browsing this includes headings, words, characters, containers, lines, links, and form controls
Once a type of element is selected, swiping up or down moves focus between the selected item. For example if headings are selected in the rotor then swiping moves focus from heading to heading. For more information visit VoiceOver gestures on iPhone (note these also apply to iPads as well).
On Android you can swipe down then up in one gesture to cycle between TalkBack navigation options. Options include characters, words, lines, paragraphs, headings, controls and links. Once an option is selected, such as headings, a single swipe either up or down moves focus between each heading. For more information visit navigating your device with TalkBack.
Android TalkBack gestures can vary between versions so it is always worth following the TalkBack tutorial available in accessibility options in settings. iOS VoiceOver also has a built-in tutorial in settings.
Speech output rate
All screen readers can be customised to suit people's preferences. Probably the most common setting people change is the rate of speech output.
Many people who use screen readers on a daily basis listen to the speech output very fast. This is similar to how someone who is sighted might skim read or read fast in their head. The speech rate can be so fast that output is almost impossible to follow for people unaccustomed to screen readers. This is why it is important to prioritise keywords first in links, headings and sentences.
The difference between browsing the web and browsing applications
According to the WebAIM screen reader user survey in 2021, people who use mobile screen readers are slightly more likely to use a mobile app than a web site to carry out tasks.
It's hard to know why but it may be due to browsing the web being slightly more complicated than browsing apps. For example, on the web more information is announced which can be both a good and a bad thing.
On a positive note you get more detailed information about elements. A heading level one
<h1> on the web will be announced as "heading level one". On applications only "heading" is announced, not the level, as there is no means to include levels.
Apps, however, are simpler and less complex. Standard UI components that come with app UI libraries are natively accessible making the user experience much smoother.
People use mobile screen readers because they cannot see the screen or have a cognitive or learning disability, which means listening to content is helpful.
People who use mobile screen readers have many gestures at their disposal. These gestures are used in various combinations depending on what the person wants to do - read a section of content, scan a page for a section of interest, find out how a word is spelt, activate a link or button, and more besides.
Some people who use a mobile screen reader prefer to use apps over web content. Possibly because they are simpler to use and easier to make accessible.
Updated Wednesday 6 October 2021.
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