Do I need a integrated Text to Speech Function to make my Website accessible?

I am now quite often asked whether a read-aloud function makes sense for the website. The short answer is no, reading functions such as ReadSpeaker, Web Reader and Co. do not contribute to accessibility. They are as superfluous as supposedly automatically working accessibility overlays and can even build barriers. Instead, invest the money in other improvements to your website. Here is the long answer with an explanation.

You see it more and more often, a button with which you can have a website or its content read out to you. But who uses this function and is it worth buying it?

Article Content

If you can't read, you won't get that far

Of course, blind people don't need this function, they have their own digital reader. Visually impaired and print disabled could benefit. But people with reading disabilities or functional illiteracy (FA) benefit less from such a function. FAs can only read at the word or sentence level. And they find it difficult to write. But the whole architecture of the web is designed for text. We type text into the search engine, we have to select the result from text and we most likely end up on a webpage with text. But many FAs don't get that far, they may fail at the first step, the text input. Now there is voice search from Google, but you still have to select the results yourself.

But let's assume that this function would really be useful for this group. Then the FAs run into the problem that the absolute majority of websites do not have such a feature. The FAs would therefore be limited to the few websites that have an integrated read-aloud function. And you really don't want to expect anyone to do that. So, one would have to know that the website has such a feature before entering it.

Apart from that, only content is actually read aloud, but not navigation, links and other elements. In any case, reading skills are required if one wants to read more than the content and interact with the website. Such tools cannot read out complex content such as tables or forms in a meaningful way.

Even texts that are read aloud are not automatically understandable

A special problem of people with print disabilities is that they are not familiar with more complex texts and the terms used in them. Whether you read a text about mathematical problems yourself or whether it is read to you when you are not in the subject makes no difference to the comprehensibility.

In addition, the read-aloud function often has problems composing expressions correctly. Any screen reader knows not to lower his voice at the point of an abbreviation as if it were a new sentence. The read-aloud functions do exactly that, increasing the cognitive load. The listener is cognitively prepared for a new sentence to come, but it's still the same sentence and by the time he realizes it, half a sentence has already been read out.

Overall, the melody of the speech is just awful. It's not the voice, it's poorly made rules about when the voice rises and falls or what to emphasize. In fact, every screen reader I've ever used does a better job.

Probably for reasons of performance or perhaps for reasons of cost, relatively cheap voices are used for reading, which do not sound particularly pleasant, some seem to be still breaking their voices.

It gets really bad when foreign-language terms are included. Of course, the function has no rules for pronouncing English, French or even Arabic terms. Such expressions are either ignored if they are written in non-Latin characters or are read out with German accent. The screen reader, on the other hand, has many rules for foreign words and can also read them out with the correct emphasis if the terms are marked accordingly. Incidentally, I was able to make all these experiences with the market leader ReadSpeaker.

The function is uncomfortable

We don't like to read back, but we can if necessary. But the read-aloud function can only read, stop or start over the text in one go. The read-aloud function does not allow you to navigate line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph or using the headings. Offering an MP3 file for download is not a viable alternative. As a comparison: It would be as if you always had to read a text from the beginning if you were looking for specific information.

There is also a lot of information that cannot be read aloud properly, at best it is accessible to screen readers. This mainly includes tables. ReadSpeaker and Co. do not offer a reasonable implementation for this either.

The annoying thing is that the programs could be much more user-friendly, they obviously haven't been developed further for decades.

Reading is included

But the strongest counter-argument against a read-aloud function is that practically every more widespread system has a better read-aloud function integrated: iOS, the Mac, Android, Windows, Linux, we find simple and sometimes very beginner-friendly screen readers everywhere. For example, Narrator on Windows has a visual user menu. Granted, Orca with eSpeak isn't perfect for untrained ears, but Linux's market share isn't that high anyway. All other systems have more natural-sounding voices on board. Firefox under Windows 10 has an integrated reading function in the reading view. In its new Chromium-based version, the Edge has integrated the plastic reader, which can be used on any website and is much more convenient than ReadSpeaker and Co. Android and iOS have a read-aloud function in the operating aids that is specially designed for the reading and visually impaired .

These functions are available for any web content. They do not have to be searched for and adjusted every time, as is necessary with read-aloud functions integrated into websites.

In the future, even Alexa and Co. could conveniently explore and read websites . Technically, this would already be possible today

Reading functions are not required by law

Reading functions for websites or mobile apps are not legally required. Neither WCAG nor BITV say a word about it. In this respect, the lack of such a function cannot violate accessibility. On the contrary.

A read-aloud function = no idea about accessibility

Anyone who integrates a reading function into their website reveals that they have no idea and no interest in digital accessibility. It's not mandatory, it's superfluous and, from a usability point of view, it's utter junk.

You know the bomont "sell an eskimo a refrigerator"? A read-aloud function is something like that, a lot of money for zero function. At best, you are paying for a good conscience in the belief that you have done something for accessibility. At the same time, you show anyone in the know that you don't have a clue about accessibility standards.

Read more on Assistive Technology