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Screen Reader Myths and Misconceptions

Marcy SuttonMarcy Sutton

Screen readers are among the most misunderstood topics I’ve encountered in my work.

Who uses screen readers, which ones they use, and how screen readers work all have their own misconceptions. There is even the misconception that screen readers are the only important thing in accessibility.

Let’s try to clear things up a bit with some help from WebAIM.

In addition to hosting an accessibility-focused community email discussion list, WebAIM has been regularly conducting screen reader user surveys since 2009. The information I share comes from my industry experience as well as the data from WebAIM’s 9th Screen Reader User Survey from 2021.

The first thing to address is the question of who screen reader users are. While it does track that screen reader users tend to be blind or otherwise visually-impaired, it is a generalization to say that it’s only that demographic. The WebAIM numbers show that almost 14% of respondents did not select blindness or low vision/visually-impaired when filling out the survey. It’s true that the survey showed 80% reporting these options, but still, 14% isn’t nothing.

I am often asked if screen reader testing with VoiceOver is good enough.

This is one of those questions where I think that any step toward a more accessible web is a good one, so I think testing with VoiceOver is good to do. In the Testing Accessibility workshops we use VoiceOver a number of times.

That said, if posing “Is VoiceOver good enough?” as a yes or no question, my answer is no.

WebAIM’s survey numbers clear up this misconception.

Only 6.5% of survey respondents report VoiceOver as their primary screen reader. Compare this to 30.7% with the free NVDA screen reader for Windows (which we also use in the workshops). The most popular primary screen reader is JAWS for Windows, a commercial product with various license options.

But just because only 6.5% say VoiceOver is their primary doesn’t mean you should ignore it. When WebAIM changes the question from “primary screen reader” to “commonly used screen reader,” the number jumps to 41.3%.

The numbers for mobile tell a different story, though. Over 70% of survey respondents report using VoiceOver on iOS devices as their primary mobile screen reader!

Finally, there’s a misconception of how a screen reader is actually used. You don’t need to make every piece of content keyboard-interactive to read it aloud.

Screen readers offer the user the ability to quickly move around the page to find content they’re interested in— provided that the developers wrote proper markup.

The WebAIM survey results show importance of proper heading levels. Over 67% use headings as their primary means of navigating a page, and over 85% view them as at least “somewhat” useful.

One survey result I found surprising (along with the authors, based on their comments) was about navigating using landmarks/regions on pages. More people responded with “seldom”, or “never” than “whenever they’re available” or “often”. The authors note that the use of landmarks for navigation has been steadily declining over the years. They posit that this is either because screen readers are getting better at using other mechanisms, or that developers aren’t using them properly or frequently enough. Landmarks can play a role in meeting WCAG criteria related to identifying & grouping content and are considered to be a best practice in the accessibility community. I use them in my work, as well as in the Testing Accessibility workshops.

Screen readers can seem a bit mysterious or confusing, but like anything else it takes a bit of learning and practice. I started to become more comfortable with screen readers by iteratively testing as I made changes and referencing command cheat sheets. Check what the screen reader says before a change, make the change, test again.

This is the approach we take throughout the Testing Accessibility workshops. We go beyond the basics of landmarks and heading levels, and move into more complex interactions with components like date pickers. You won’t only build experience in structuring your application to best support a screen reader, but you’ll build compassion through experiencing an overzealous screen reader.

You’ll also learn the benefit of working with people who rely on screen readers full time. Because what might seem like a poor experience to you could be absolutely fine to someone else with a vision disability. Or the other way around: what seems acceptable to you could be a hot mess to a person who relies on Assistive Technology. It’s all about learning and keeping an open mind!

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