Survey of Preferences of Screen Readers Users

Important!

Follow-up surveys were administered in October 2009, December 2010, and May 2012. Be sure to check out the results of these surveys for updated data and trends.

Introduction

In December 2008 through January 2009, WebAIM conducted a survey of preferences of screen reader users. We received 1121 valid responses to the screen reader survey.

A few disclaimers and notices:

  • Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.
  • The sample was not controlled and is likely not representative of all screen reader users.
  • Care should be taken in interpreting these results. Some questions were of a technical nature and we understand that many participants may not have been very technically savvy. Responses may also be based upon user experiences with web content that is generally inaccessible. We cannot help but wonder if responses may have been different if screen reader interactions with web content were typically very positive.
  • We hope to conduct a survey of this nature again in the future. If you have recommendations or questions you would like asked, please let us know.

Demographics

Pie chart of screen reader use types

Which of the following best describes you?
Response# of Respondents% of Respondents
I use a screen reader all the time due to a disability100689.7%
I use a screen reader part of the time due to a disability433.8%
I use a screen reader often, but do not have a disability that requires a screen reader131.2%
I use a screen reader occasionally to perform accessibility evaluation595.3%

Disabilities Reported

Disabilities Reported

Which of the following disabilities do you have?
Response# of Respondents% of Respondents
Blindness89880.1%
Low Vision/Visually-Impaired17715.8%
Cognitive8.7%
Deafness/Hard-of-Hearing474.2%
Motor242.1%
No disability605.4%

Users could select multiple options. 118 respondents (10.4%) reported multiple disabilities. 52 (4.6%) reported blindness and low vision/visually impaired. 33 respondents (2.9%) reported being both deaf and blind.

Computer and Screen Reader Proficiency

Pie Chart of Computer Proficiency

Please rate your computer proficiency
Response% of Respondents
Expert22%
Advanced44%
Intermediate27%
Beginner8%

Pie Chart of Screen Reader Proficiency

Please rate your screen reader proficiency
Response% of Respondents
Expert17%
Advanced41%
Intermediate32%
Beginner9%

The responses for computer proficiency and screen reader proficiency were similar. Those who use screen readers for evaluation rated their screen reader proficiency much lower (80% chose Beginner or Intermediate) than those that always use screen readers (only 37% chose Beginner or Intermediate).

Screen Reader Usage

Screen Reader Types

Of the 1121 respondents, 74% use JAWS, 23% use Window-Eyes, 8% use NVDA, and 6% use VoiceOver. While several other screen readers were reported, these were the most prominently reported. Individual versions of screen readers are not yet computed, but generally the majority of users are using the most up-to-date version of their screen reader.

Screen Reader Updates

Screen Reader Updates

How soon do you update your screen reader after a new version is released?
Upgrade Window% of Respondents
Immediately41%
First 6 months25%
6-12 months9%
1-2 years9%
2-3 years4%
3+ years6%
No response6%

Most respondents update their screen reader version soon after a new version is released (74.6% within the first year). However, a significant number of users may still be using screen readers that are 3 years old or older.

Screen Reader Customization

Screen Reader Customization

How customized are your screen reader settings? (e.g., changed verbosity, installed scripts, etc.)
Response% of Respondents
A lot29%
Somewhat40%
Slightly21%
Not at all7%
No response4%

Most screen reader users customize their screen readers. Those that reported no disability are much less likely to customize their screen readers - a lot or some customization was reported by only 27.6% of respondents with no disability versus 71.4% for those that reported blindness.

Hardware Devices

Hardware Devices

78% of respondents reported using a screen reader on a desktop computer, 54% use a screen reader on a laptop, and 12% use a screen reader on a mobile phone. While many respondents report using a BrailleNote, PacMate, PDA or other devices, the totals for these has not yet been calculated and are not included in the numbers reported above. No respondents who use screen readers for evaluation reported using a screen reader on a mobile device.

Browsers

Graph of browsers used

Which web browser(s) do you currently use with a screen reader?
Browser% of Respondents
IE633%
IE768%
IE82%
Firefox39%
Safari6%

Respondents with no disability were nearly twice as likely to list Firefox as blind respondents - 66% to 37%.

Note: The survey question did not ask for the predominant browser used, but for any browsers used with a screen reader. IE8 and Safari numbers were from free-form responses (i.e., they were not listed as available options to select). The percentage of Safari users is over double that of the overall population - this may be due in part to the fact that some in the Mac community actively solicited survey participation and encouraged respondents to indicate their Safari use, perhaps partially due to feeling snubbed because we didn't list them with IE and Firefox as direct choices.

Home Page Behavior

Pie chart showing home page behavior

When first accessing a new, unfamiliar home page, I'm most likely to...
Response% of Respondents
Read through the home page46%
Navigate through or listen to the links on the page35%
Use the Search to find what I'm looking for13%
Look for a site map or site index3%
No Response2%

Glaringly omitted from the list of possible responses was "Navigate using headings". Considering the prevalence of heading navigation, this may have altered the results for this question.

Interestingly, the more proficient screen reader users are more likely to read through the home page and use links less often than less proficient screen reader users. This may be due to faster reading speeds for more experienced users. The home page strategies used were very similar regardless of proficiency, disability, or amount of screen reader use.

"Skip" Links

Use of 'skip' links

I use "skip to content" or "skip navigation" links...
Response% of Respondents
Whenever they're available22%
Often16%
Sometimes28%
Seldom19%
Never10%
No Response4%

I prefer that the 'skip' link be called...

I prefer that the 'skip' link be called...
Response% of Respondents
Skip to content22%
Skip to main content28%
Skip navigation6%
No preference36%
No Response7%

"Skip to main content" and "Skip to content" were by far more popular than the very common "Skip navigation", though many users had no preference at all. Those that seldom or never used "skip" links were more likely to have no preference regarding what the link is called.

Access keys

Chart showing use of access keys

I use Access keys...
Response% of Respondents
Whenever they're available22%
Often13%
Sometimes24%
Seldom20%
Never16%
No Response5%

Responses to this question varied greatly with no real consensus on use. Beginner screen reader users were much more likely to use access keys than expert screen reader users.

Headings

Chart showing navigation by headings

I navigate by headings...
Response% of Respondents
Whenever they're available52%
Often24%
Sometimes14%
Seldom5%
Never2%
No Response3%

The responses to this question provided one of the greatest surprises to us. It is clear that providing a heading structure is important to screen reader users with 76% always or often navigating by headings when they are available. Use of heading navigation increased with screen reader proficiency with them being used always or often by 90.7% of expert users, 79.3% of advanced users, 69.9% of intermediate users, and 55.4% of beginners.

Search

Chart showing use of search

I use site search functionality...
Response% of Respondents
Whenever it's available26%
Often25%
Sometimes31%
Seldom11%
Never4%
No Response5%

Over half of the respondent always or often use search when it's available. This emphasizes the importance of not only providing search functionality, but providing it in an easy-to-find and use manner.

Locating Search

Chart showing methods of finding search

How do you usually try to locate the site search?
Response% of Respondents
Read through the page content until the search form is encountered6%
Tab through page elements until the search form is encountered8%
Find the word "Search"18%
Jump to the first text/edit field on the page25%
Jump to the first button on a page and go back one element2%
Jump to the first form element in a page36%
No response4%

Respondents use a wide variety of techniques for finding the site search. Proficient screen reader users were more than twice as likely to jump directly to the form or text/edit field than less proficient users. Less proficient users were nearly three times more likely to use more manual methods (reading, tabbing, or finding) than more proficient users.

Site Maps

Chart showing use of site maps

If a site map is available, how often do you use it?
Response% of Respondents
Whenever it's available8%
Often10%
Sometimes26%
Seldom27%
Never24%
No Response5%

This response also provided a great diversity of responses, though a majority of respondents seldom or never use site maps. There was no marked difference in the use of site maps across screen reader proficiency or disability. In general, it appears that site maps may be beneficial, but are not commonly accessed by screen reader users.

Text-only versions

Chart showing use of text-only versions

If a text only version of a web site is available, how often do you use it?
Response% of Respondents
Whenever it's available24%
Often13%
Sometimes24%
Seldom23%
Never13%
No Response4%

This question triggered much curiosity. Text-only versions are always used by many and never used by many. As such, it is very difficult to interpret the value they have for screen reader users. More proficient screen reader users were much less likely to use text-only versions than less proficient users. This may suggest that proficient users employ sufficient techniques to render the main version acceptable to them. Or, it may suggest that proficient users do not gain value in using text-only versions, which are often less than optimal.

Screen Reader-only Content

Chart showing use of screen reader-only content

If content is identified as being "for screen reader users", how often do you use it?
Response% of Respondents
Whenever it's available38%
Often15%
Sometimes25%
Seldom13%
Never4%
No Response5%

We found it interesting that users are much more likely to use content as identified as "for screen reader users" than they are to access text-only versions. Perhaps identifying content as being specific for this audience attracts higher levels of use.

Pop-up Windows

Chart showing use of pop-up windows

How difficult are pop-up windows to you?
Response% of Respondents
Very difficult25%
Somewhat difficult28%
Not very difficult26%
Not at all difficult17%
No opinion5%

The very evenly divided split among responses here is interesting. A closer analysis, however, reveals that pop-up windows are reported as very difficult twice as often by less proficient screen reader users than with higher proficiency. Alternatively, more proficient users were three times more likely to indicate that pop-up windows are not at all difficult. This shows that less proficient screen reader users (which represent 41% of respondents) have more difficult experiences with pop-up windows.

Web 2.0

Chart showing Web 2.0 accessibility

How accessible are typical Web 2.0 and dynamic web applications to you?
Response% of Respondents
Very accessible4%
Somewhat accessible24%
Not very accessible16%
Not at all accessible2%
I don't know54%

The majority of respondents don't know how accessible these technologies are, or quite possibly, they didn't know what we were asking. Firefox users were much more likely to give a favorable response, perhaps a reflection of Firefox support for ARIA, etc. Evaluators and those without disabilities were nearly twice as likely to indicate that these applications are not very or not at all accessible than those that always use screen readers or have disabilities. This may suggest that these applications are actually more accessible than evaluators believe them to be, or alternatively, that screen reader users with disabilities are less knowledgeable about the true inaccessibility of these technologies.

Images

Images to enhance the mood or feel of a web page

Chart showing preferences for decorative/mood images

If an image is used solely to enhance the mood or feel of a web page, I'd prefer that the image...
Response% of Respondents
Be described by my screen reader59%
Be ignored by my screen reader31%
No opinion10%

It's difficult to make a recommendation with such divided responses. As accessibility 'experts', we tend to recommend that developers not provide alternative text for such images, and this is partially reflected in the survey responses. We found a distinct difference between user groups. 66% of evaluators preferred that the image be ignored, compared to only 28% of those that always use a screen reader. Similarly, 65% of those with no disability preferred that the image be ignored, compared to 29% of those with disabilities. There were, however, only marginal differences in this preference when analyzed by screen reader proficiency - with more proficient users wanting descriptions slightly more often. This may be due to high reading rates and the ability of proficient users to sort out unwanted information.

Interpreting the results of this is difficult. It is clear that there is a disconnect between what evaluators/those without disabilities and full-time/disabled screen reader users want. In general, further analysis is needed before recommending to developers that such images always be given descriptive alternative text, particularly when we consider that the less proficient screen reader users tend to want less description.

Identification of photos

Chart showing preferences for photo identification

If a web page contains a photo of the White House, I prefer that the image be identified as...
Response% of Respondents
Photo of the White House80%
The White House12%
No opinion8%

It was very clear that the vast majority of screen reader users prefer to have photos identified as such. Interestingly, those that do not have a disability were three times more likely to prefer the briefer alt text than those that do have a disability. The tendency toward the briefer alternative also increased slightly with screen reader proficiency (a trend seemingly opposite of that found above for decorative-type images).

Note: This should not be interpreted to mean that users prefer that all images be identified. In other words, this doesn't mean that alt="graphic of my house" is preferred over alt="my house". The results here refer to photographs only.

Identification of logos

Chart showing preferences for logo identification

The Acme Corporation web site has a logo at the beginning of the page that links to their homepage. I prefer that the image be identified as...
Response% of Respondents
Acme Corporation14%
Acme Corporation logo24%
Acme Corporation homepage24%
Acme Corporation logo with link to homepage32%
No opinion7%

Once again, the overall numbers make it hard to recommend a strategy for logo alternative text. In general, those with disabilities, those that use a screen reader more, and those with higher screen reader proficiency all tended to prefer the more brief alternative texts more than those with no disabilities, less frequent use, and lower proficiency. 49% of evaluators preferred "Acme Corporation logo with link to homepage" compared to only 30% of those that always use a screen reader.

Repeated Links

Chart showing ease of repeated links

How difficult are different links with the same text repeated multiple times on the same page (e.g., "more", "add to cart", "details")?
Response% of Respondents
Very easy20%
Somewhat easy25%
Somewhat difficult31%
Very difficult13%
I don't know10%

An almost identical number of respondents found repeated links easy as found them difficult. 69.4% of evaluators found them difficult compared to only 42.6% of those that always use a screen reader. Those with higher screen reader proficiency naturally found these links easier.

Flash

Chart showing ease of Flash content

Flash content is...
Response% of Respondents
Very easy3%
Somewhat easy11%
Somewhat difficult37%
Very difficult34%
I don't know15%

Of all of the survey results, this one is likely the most telling. 71.5% of screen reader users reported that Flash is difficult while only 14.2% reported that it is easy. Responses varied little based on proficiency, time spent using a screen reader, and disability. It is very clear from these results and the many strong comments about Flash inaccessibility that screen reader users have significant issues accessing Flash content.

Frames

Chart showing ease of frames

Frames are...
Response% of Respondents
Very easy29%
Somewhat easy29%
Somewhat difficult19%
Very difficult8%
I don't know14%

While the majority (58%) of users reported that frames are easy, those that are blind were 3 1/2 times more likely to indicate that they are easy than those with no disability. Similarly, those that always use a screen reader reported frames as easy nearly 3 times more often than evaluators. This perhaps suggests a misconception among those that do not have disabilities that frames are very inaccessible when in fact those with disabilities find them easy.

Note: The survey question did not distinguish between frames that may require navigation and inline frames (iframes) which are read inline.

Acrobat/PDF

Chart showing ease of PDF files

Acrobat/PDF files are...
Response% of Respondents
Very easy15%
Somewhat easy29%
Somewhat difficult31%
Very difficult17%
I don't know7%

Once again, the same number reported PDF as being easy as found it difficult. It's hard to infer anything from this except that user experiences with Acrobat files seem to vary greatly.

Favorite and Avoided Web sites

Two of the questions in WebAIM's recent screen reader survey asked users which sites they find more difficult or easier to use. Listed below are the top ten answers from each category.

Question: List a few of your favorite web sites used for search, reference, entertainment, shopping, or anything else.

Favorite web sites
Web site Number of respondents
Google 671
Amazon 270
Wikipedia 95
Yahoo 79
eBay 68
BBC 52
Facebook 43
YouTube 42
Audible 39
Bookshare 38

Question: What are a few web sites or types of web sites that you would like to visit, but avoid because of accessibility issues?

Web sites avoided
Web site Number of respondents
Flash-based sites 85
Shopping sites 56
Amazon 46
Facebook 45
News sites 39
MySpace 37
Yahoo 29
eBay 21
YouTube 21
Travel sites 21

Five sites are found in both top 10 lists of web sites (commonly used/commonly avoided):

Web site Easy Difficult
Amazon 270 46
Facebook 43 45
Yahoo 79 29
eBay 68 21
YouTube 42 21

270 users wrote Amazon in as a favorite site, while only 46 put it down as a site they avoided. YouTube also had a strong response in favor of the site - twice the number of screen reader users indicated it as a favorite site rather than one they avoid. Of the top 10 sites, only Facebook was listed more often as a site avoided than one used.

We could find no association between screen reader proficiency and the likelihood of listing a particular site. For instance, it is no more likely for a user with advanced proficiency to list eBay as either a used or avoided site than it is for a beginner user to list it.

Many users commented on difficult web sites in the form of general site types, such as flash-based or travel/airline sites. Even with different web sites grouped into categories, respondents were more likely to identify sites they visit than sites they don't visit. The top 10 used sites above were identified a total of 1397 times, whereas the top ten web sites that screen reader users avoided were identified only 400 times. Considering this difference, the number of times a site was listed as one that was avoided carries much significance. For example, while 43 respondents listed Facebook as a site they use and 45 respondents listed Facebook as a site they avoid. When you consider the prevalence of sites being listed, Facebook accounts for 11% of the web sites listed to avoid and only 3% of those that users find easy. In short, Facebook was much more likely to be listed as a site that was avoided than as one that was commonly used.

Comments from Screen Reader Users

"I don't use things such as MySpace because I hate the automatic flash player that's louder than your average train."

"...like myspace when people have music and I cannot hear my screen reader."

"I like visiting sites where I can shop, but the descriptions of items are most often not detailed enough for me to be sure of what I'll get."

"...I like to visit authors' web sites, but often, they're not screen reader friendly, so I avoid them, though I have written to a few of my favorite authors to let them know of this issue and have seen some success.

"I just go and if it's a problem I don't go back. But I try to let their webmaster know how I feel."

"Facebook is becoming especially annoying. I can force it to work, but it's TOTALLY inefficient and not a pleasure to use. It's becoming critical for business visibility, though."

"I find web sites which refresh on the fly very difficult. The frequent refreshing causes my screen reader to stop reading what I'm reading, and jump to the top of the page."

"Image links which do not have alt tags are also very difficult, since the screen reader can not decipher what the link is."

Conclusion

Perhaps the most significant conclusion we can make from these survey results is that there is no typical screen reader user. As developers, we sometimes view screen reader accessibility as JAWS or Window Eyes or VoiceOver (or whatever) compatibility. This survey emphasizes that screen reader accessibility is about real people - and people that have diverse abilities and preferences. As developers, we must do our best to accommodate the needs of this diverse group.

In general, these results suggest that following accessibility guidelines and standards, using technologies that support high levels of accessibility, and providing users with options is of the highest importance. The wide range of user responses makes it difficult to provide definitive recommendations for many things. It may also be interpreted that some things (such as relatively insignificant differences in alternative text or the wording of the "skip" link) really don't have much of an impact on screen reader users. On the other hand, the survey also indicates a very strong favorability toward headings and a very high level of difficulty with Flash content.

We hope that these results will provide insight to developers and cause us to rethink and better analyze development choices that we make for screen reader users.