Basic screen reader commands for accessibility testing

Posted on Monday, 5 January 2015 by Léonie Watson

Updated 1st Feb 2016.

When you test your website with a screen reader there are a few basic commands you should know. Just remember not to make design decisions based only on your tests. Even with these useful screen reader commands, you won’t experience things in the same way as a person who uses a screen reader all the time.

There isn’t much information available about the platforms, devices and screen readers that people use. The best source of information we have is the WebAIM screen reader survey (last conducted in January 2014). It’s based on a very small sample of people, but it still provides a useful glimpse into the technologies used by blind or partially sighted people. This post focuses on four popular desktop screen readers: Jaws, Narrator, NVDA and VoiceOver.

Jaws

Jaws is a proprietary screen reader for Windows from Freedom Scientific. It can be installed on the desktop or run from a portable USB drive. A paid license is required.

Jaws browser support

Jaws officially supports Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Jaws commands

Jaws uses the Numpad Insert key to modify the behaviour of other keys on a desktop keyboard, or the Capslock key on a laptop keyboard. This is known as the Jaws key.

Jaws key commands
Action Command
Read from cursor point to the bottom of the page Jaws key + Numpad 2
Move to next focusable element Tab
Move to next landmark r
Move to main landmark q
Move to next heading h
Move to next list l
Move to next graphic g
Move to next form field f
Move to next table t
Navigate table content Control + Alt + up/down/left/right arrow keys
Show list of all landmarks Jaws key + Control + r
Show list of all headings Jaws key + f6
Show list of all links Jaws key + f7
Stop Jaws talking Control
Toggle virtual cursor on/off Jaws key + z
Refresh virtual buffer Jaws key + Escape

Note: Use the Shift key with the above commands to move to the previous instance of the element instead of the next. For example Shift + h moves to the previous heading.

Jaws further help

The Jaws user guide contains further information.

Narrator

Narrator is the integrated screen reader available in Windows. In Windows 10, turn Narrator on/off with Windows + Enter.

Narrator browser support

Narrator officially supports Internet Explorer and Edge.

Narrator commands

Narrator uses the Capslock key to modify the behaviour of other keys on a desktop or laptop keyboard. This is known as the Narrator key.

Narrator key commands
Action Command
Read from cursor point to the bottom of the page Capslock + m
Move to next item Capslock + right arrow
Move to previous item Capslock + left arrow
Move to main landmark Capslock + n
Move to next heading Capslock + j
Move to next table Capslock + k
Navigate table content Capslock + f3/f4
Stop Narrator talking Control

Note: Use the Shift key with the above commands to move to the previous instance of the element instead of the next. For example Shift + Capslock + j moves to the previous heading.

Narrator further help

The Windows keyboard shortcuts guide includes all available Narrator commands.

NVDA

NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) is a free (open source) screen reader for Windows from NVAccess. It can be installed to the desktop or run from a portable USB drive.

NVDA browser support

NVDA officially supports Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.

NVDA commands

NVDA uses the Numpad Insert key to modify the behaviour of other keys on a desktop keyboard, or the Capslock key on a laptop keyboard. This is known as the NVDA key.

NVDA key commands
Action Command
Read from cursor point to the bottom of the page NVDA key + Numpad 2
Move to next focusable element Tab
Move to next landmark d
Move to next heading h
Move to next list l
Move to next graphic g
Move to next form field f
Move to next table t
Navigate table content Control + Alt + up/down/left/right arrow keys
Show list of all headings, landmarks or links NVDA key + f7
Stop NVDA talking Control
Toggle browse mode on/off NVDA key + Space
Refresh virtual buffer NVDA key + f5

Note: Use the Shift key with the above commands to move to the previous instance of the element instead of the next. For example Shift + Tab moves to the previous focusable element.

NVDA further information

The NVDA user guide has further information.

VoiceOver

VoiceOver is the integrated screen reader available in Mac OSX (and all Apple iDevices). In Mac OSX turn VoiceOver on/off with Command f5.

VoiceOver browser support

VoiceOver officially supports Safari.

VoiceOver commands

VoiceOver uses the Control + Option keys to modify the behaviour of other keys. This is known as the VoiceOver (VO) key.

VoiceOver key commands
Action Command
Read from cursor point to the bottom of the page VO + a
Move to next focusable element Tab
Move to next landmark N/A
Move to next heading VO + Command + h
Move to next list VO + Command + x
Move to next graphic VO + Command + g
Move to next form field VO + Command + j
Move to next table VO + Command + t
Navigate table content VO + up/down/left/right arrow keys
Show all headings, links, landmarks (and other elements) on the rotor VO + u (then left/right/up/down cursor keys)
Stop VoiceOver talking Control

Note: Use the Shift key with the above commands to move to the previous instance of the element instead of the next. For example VO + Command + Shift + x moves to the previous list.

VoiceOver further information

The VoiceOver users guide has further information.

There are a lot more key commands available for each screen reader. The commands in this post are not intended to be a comprehensive tutorial, but they will help you navigate a website to get a sense of how things work. If possible organise some usability testing with screen reader users (and people with other types of disability) to get a real understanding of how people experience your website.

About Léonie Watson

Léonie is Communications director and Principal engineer at TPG, co-chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group working on HTML and Web Components, writer for Smashing magazine, SitePoint.com and Net magazine, and regular conference speaker.

Comments

  1. Hi. This is a great article. I wanted to add one correction regarding the table navigation commands for NVDA. NVDA uses the control and alt combinations with the arrow keys to navigate within tables. Thanks for writing this.

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