Having just about anything you could want to see or read about at your fingertips, thanks to the digital revolution, is a luxury few of us would want to relinquish.
But this means many of us spend at least part of the day with our eyes glued to a digital screen. And that’s not so easy, for a lot of people.
Reading from screens is hard on the eyes
Screen readers, which recite the words on a page or document with a computer-synthesized voice, and other adaptive technologies have made the internet much more accessible to blind and visually impaired users.
As we all know, visual impairment tends to grow as we age, and you or someone you know may be having a harder time reading than just a year or two ago. Enlarging the text helps, but the screen’s glare can still lead to eye fatigue.
Other people who don’t fit that description also have trouble staring at a backlit display for hours at a time. It’s probably the most common cause of eye strain, which leads to sore, watery or dry eyes and blurred vision.
It can happen to anyone — students, researchers, attorneys and anyone else needing to take in a lot of information quickly.
Others, including many of those same students, don’t get as much screen time as they need or want to, given their family, home and work obligations, and would love to be able to multitask by having those words read to them.
Affordable solutions to help solve eye strain
Most of the sophisticated hardware and software developed to bring the internet to the visually impaired comes at a price, but there are affordable options for screen readers, either bundled with your computer or as free downloads or Web-based apps.
Ease of use of the screen readers can vary, depending on the software’s design and its dependence on keyboard commands, a necessity for low-vision users who can’t see the screen at all or can’t read the content or see where a mouse is pointing.
Blind and visually impaired students are trained on how to use screen readers, and many experienced users can comprehend speech at much higher than average speeds. Here’s an example of how this important accessibility tool can be used:
Among the settings on most of these programs are a selection of voices (male and female), volume, speed and “verbosity,” or the level of detail the speaker goes into when describing a page.
Built-in screen readers
Microsoft Narrator — Found in “Ease of Access” under Settings. This software has been included with Windows since the 2000 edition and should work on any PC with a sound card and speakers/headphones. It can read email, web pages and documents. Its key commands have been updated to better reflect what is used in other screen reader programs.
VoiceOver — Find under “Accessibility” in Settings. Apple packages this reader with every Mac computer, iPhone, iPad and other devices. It incorporates the same trackpad devices used on other devices or can turn the trackpad into a map of the page you are looking at. Another built-in Apple feature, HoverOver, lets the user enlarge text or images by pressing the command key and hovering the cursor over the item.
NVDA — This free, open-source software is developed and maintained by a nonprofit, and reads content one paragraph at a time as you hover the cursor at the beginning. It can narrate letters as you type them in Microsoft Word, but this doesn’t work with Google Docs.
ChromeVox Classic Extension — Available in the Chrome store as and built into Chromebooks as ChromeVox, this obviously only works with one search engine, but it’s Google’s search engine. With a flick of the wrist, the extension can read a full article, but I found it to be easily derailed by pop-ups and other random elements.
These applications can be an easier solution for those who are able to select and copy the parts of the screen they do want to read.
ClipSpeak — This free download for devices running Windows 7 through 10 will begin reading part of a page to you as soon as you select it and click “Copy.” It also includes a text editor where you can enable saving any spoken text to an MP3 file.
Natural Reader — This website has a box where Windows and Mac users can paste text from any webpage or document. When you hit “play,” your computer starts reading it back to you. It also has an option to show the text in “dyslexic font,” which along with the spoken element, can help comprehension for those with this learning disability.
TTSspeak — Similar to Natural Reader with a window to paste text, and both programs show enlarged and highlighted text as it is being spoken. TTSspeak also has a paid version with more features, so non-paying users can get only 20 minutes a day with the website’s “premium voices,” versus unlimited use of the standard voices packaged with your computer.
The bottom line
Screen readers help those who are and aren’t visually impaired by letting their ears take over for their eyes, at least for a while. If you feel like you’re spending too much time in front of your screens, consider giving your eyes a rest using these tools.