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Screen Readers provide an audio version of information that appears on a computer screen. They use keyboard commands to substitute for mouse use, and read almost everything on the screen, including menus, dialogue boxes, etc.
This article covers both free and third-party commercial screen readers, and will help you get started.
Programs designed for use by sighted individuals with learning or cognitive disabilities are covered in the article "Text-to-Speech Readers for People with Learning Disabilities."
Most screen readers are highly customizable, so that users can specify preferences such as whether punctuation is read, how fast the program speaks, or whether cues helpful for new users are spoken.
A simple screen reader called Narrator is included in Windows Operating Systems. Most commercial Windows screen readers are expensive; however, there are now free third-party screen readers that will be sufficient for many users' needs. Macintosh computers have a full-featured screen reader called VoiceOver built in to the operating system.
Commercial screen readers work with a wide range of applications and are highly customizable. The most popular of these are JAWS from Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes from GW Micro, and SuperNova from Dolphin Systems. All of these have demonstration versions available that can be downloaded from the manufacturer's website and tested for a limited period of time. Since experienced screen reader users tend to be loyal to a specific product, it is worthwhile finding out what blind individuals in your community already use; this should weigh heavily in any purchase consideration.
Because commercial screen readers as much as a thousand dollars, there have been several initiatives in recent years to create and distribute free screen readers that work with a limited number of applications. These usually also have an option to purchase a higher-quality version with better voices, but these are still significantly less expensive than the commercial products. Some, like NVDA, are downloaded and used like commercial products; others, like System Access to Go, work through the Internet.
The American Foundation for the Blind has a series of questions to consider when purchasing a screen reader, adapted here for relevance to public computer labs:
For blind individuals who need or prefer to use refreshable braille instead of audio output, most screen readers can also be used to run refreshable braille devices.
Although screen readers are very powerful programs, they can not always provide equivalent access. This is particularly true for website's that have been set up in a way that screen readers cannot interpret. Web accessibility guidelines provide extensive information on making website's compatible with screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Information provided by the Accessible Technology Coalition (ATC).