Interview with the Screen Reader NVDA

Please note that these are my personal opinions and that this text has nothing to do with the creators of NVDA.

This is the first interview with the popular Windows screen reader NVDA. Others are interviewing vampiresso why don't talk to a useful piece of software?

Domingos: Hello NVDA, first of all welcome. Please introduce yourself to the readers.

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What is NVDA

NVDA: Hello, I'm glad to be part of it. My name is NVDA. This stands for Nonvisual Desktop Access. I am a screen reader. I was largely developed by two blind Australians and unlike my competitor Jaws, I'm free and open source. I am the only screen reader that is consistently developed by the community. Fuck you, Jaws.

What the hell is a screen reader?

Domingos: That's very interesting. What is a screen reader, can you explain that?

NVDA: Glad you asked. A screen reader is software that prepares information from graphical user interfaces in such a way that blind people can understand it.

The Power of synthetic voice

Domingos: That sounds exciting. But before we get into the topic, why does your voice actually sound so artificial?

NVDA: I'm sorry. I would like to sound as sexy as Siri and Co. My voice dates back to a time when memory was measured in megabytes and 200 megahertz was considered super fast. The voice has been synthesized using phonemes and is designed for fast response times. Just like sighted people, blind people want quick reactions from the voice output, which is currently difficult with modern, more natural-sounding voice outputs. Apart from that, these speech outputs are subject to license and this is not compatible with open source. In addition, some blind people, for example you, think that artificial voices sound more intelligible at high speeds. You, for example, mostly set me to about 300 words per minute, which is twice as fast as a human would speak.

How does a screen reader work

Domingos: That's true and I drove some sighted people crazy with it. Though I'd say they were crazy before that. Explain in more detail how a screen reader works.

NVDA: From my point of view, you humans are all on the verge of freaking out anyway, climate change, extinction of species, lack of accessibility and such, but we can talk about that another time. The screen reader gets information from the so-called Accessibility API. This is a protocol for storing accessibility information in programs and documents. For example, semantic information such as the function of a UI element, an image description or other things are stored there. These are then output by the screen reader as speech or Braille.

Importance of accessible GUI

Domingos: That's interesting. So this information really has to be deposited by those responsible and you can't get it out via magical vibrations?

NVDA: That's it. Maybe in a few years we will be able to recognize such things ourselves through pattern recognition or other possibilities of artificial intelligence. But that is not foreseeable. It is therefore extremely important that those responsible store such things themselves.

Domingos: What other aspects are important when it comes to accessibility for the blind?

NVDA: There are a few things that you are already mentioned in your other posts: usability via keyboard, meaningful labeling of forms and buttons, alternative texts for content images or the consistent use of semantic information such as text formatting.

The Power of free screen readers

Domingos: Yes, that is extremely important. What is your advantage over commercial screen readers like Jaws?

NVDA: There are three things: I'm open source and can therefore be quickly adapted with extensions. In my opinion, Jaws is not very dynamic, especially when it comes to Internet technologies. Also, I'm free. And with the speech synthesizer eSpeak, which is also open source, I can support many language areas that are ignored by Jaws and the manufacturers of commercial speech output. Most blind people live in countries where expensive devices and programs cannot be afforded and are therefore ignored by the aid manufacturers. So it's a matter of cost, but also a matter of native language, which isn't addressed by Jaws and the manufacturers of voice overs. If you speak, say, Bengali or Swahili and you are blind, you are not interesting as a customer because you probably have no money. The aid business is arch-capitalist and caters to the perhaps 10 percent blind who are fortunate enough to live in relatively affluent societies and have a porter to foot the bill. I, on the other hand, make sure that many 10,000 blind people have access to computers and thus a bit of independence and education.

Domingos: Yes, my favorite political party, the German FDP would say it's the market economy that works so well and poor people are to blame for their fate anyway. But let's leave that. What do you actually think about the fact that many sighted people simply install you to try you out.

NVDA: On the one hand, I'm happy about that. On the other hand, I'm like a stubborn donkey. It's not enough to just install me because I don't have a graphical user interface and a limited shell. The learning curve is very high for both sighted and newly blind people. That's the reason why you advise against such activities. Should Sighted test with screen readers?

Domingos: Yes, or one should simply put a question mark on possible findings from such self-experiments. Thank you for answering my questions and I wish you a nice day. If you had feelings, you'd probably be glad now that you didn't have to answer my annoying questions anymore.

NVDA: That's it. I wish the readers all the best and I hope you enjoyed the interview. See you soon.

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