As a visually impaired Windows user, there’s quite a few options out there when it comes to screen reading software for you to choose from… JAWS, Window-Eyes and System Access might be the best known of the commercial screen readers on the market, while in the open-source space there’s one screen reader most visually impaired users have heard of… NVDA, or Non-Visual Desktop Access. While JAWS and it’s brethren are carefully designed, well tested and well supported by their respective creators, they also generally are a bit expensive, especially when factoring in the software maintenance agreements that keep these screen readers up to date. On the other hand, NVDA is a high-quality, open-source and most importantly, free screen reader that I’ve used exclusively for the last 90 days and would highly recommend to Windows users looking for an alternative to the commercial screen readers.
When it comes to installation, NVDA is quite straightforward to install, with an installation wizard that walks you through the process with speech, even if no other screen reader is installed on your system. Basically it’s agreeing to the license, clicking a few buttons and clicking Finish when it’s done. Dead simple… and you’re back to your normal routine.
The experience with NVDA is a bit different than the commercial screen readers, as there’s no special display driver required to make things accessible. NVDA uses the built-in accessibility frameworks in Windows to provide the information it needs to provide spoken feedback of what’s on screen at the moment. What this means is that in some cases, applications that may not have been very accessible under the commercial screen readers might become accessible under NVDA. It’s not always perfect, but I’ve had some applications that I thought were inaccessible using a commercial screen reader become useful to various degrees under NVDA. Your mileage may vary, so don’t be afraid to test out the accessibility of your favorite application.
So, what works well with NVDA? Here’s a short list of applications I use that work quite well, and that you might find useful:
There’s more than just these applications, but these are applications I use, and have found to be quite accessible. Unfortunately, not all applications will work with NVDA, but it’s not due to something with NVDA itself, but the fact that whomever develops the inaccessible application didn’t use any of the accessibility frameworks that Windows or NVDA supports, thereby making the application difficult to use by the visually impaired. This isn’t a problem exclusive to NVDA, but it’s common enough to preclude visually impaired Windows users from using some Windows applications.
NVDA and Plug-Ins
Extensibility is a great thing when it comes to screen readers, and NVDA has a modular plug-in system that adds additional functionality to your NVDA installation. Yes, the commercial screen readers are extensible as well, but it’s a bit less intuitive to add extra functionality to them. With NVDA, it’s simple as downloading a prepackaged add-on, double click, and NVDA handles the rest, even offering to restart so the plug-ins you installed are ready to use. There’s everything from add-ons to enhance your favorite applications to speech synths for better sounding spoken feedback and beyond. It’s up to you which plug-ins you want installed, so go ahead and experiment… NVDA also offers an easy way to remove those pesky plug-ins that you don’t need anymore.
If I had to end this article in one sentence, it would be this: NVDA is a high-quality, free screen reader for the Windows platform worth installing. To expand on that, NV Access has done a quite good job with NVDA, and I strongly encourage you to try it out. participate in the community to make it better and donate if you can afford to do so. Happy accessible computing!