WebAim released their 2009 Screen Reader Survey last week, a follow up from last years Screen Reader survey. Very good reading it makes too but of particular interest are results around screen reader choice on the desktop and increased screen reader access on mobile.

For years it’s felt like screen reader users have mainly used IE on the desktop in combination with the major screen readers Jaws by Freedom Scientific and WindowEyes by GW Micro. It’s not that other platforms don’t support screen readers (we have Orca on Linux, VoiceOver on Mac) it’s just that IE seems to have dominated.

As such what types of content and web technologies users can and can’t access has very much been driven by what the three software vendors Microsoft, Freedom Scientific and GW Micro have supported. This has made access to the open web a bit lopsided cutting down on choice for the end user, competition and by extension innovation. SVG is an example of a web technology that has possibly suffered by not being supported by IE and in turn by Jaws and WindowEyes.

What’s interesting to see in this year’s survey is that Jaws and WindowEyes – while still the most used – have some stiff competition at snapping at their heels from open source, free screen readers (NVDA and  SAToGo ) and VoiceOver which is available with Mac:

  • JAWS 75.2%
  • Window Eyes 23.5%
  • VoiceOver 14.6%
  • System Access or System Access To Go 22.3%
  • NVDA 25.6%

While this year’s stats show little shift for Jaws and WindowEyes usage overall there is a significant leap forward for NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) and VoiceOver:

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.

The upsurge in VoiceOver could be explained in part by iPhone now providing VoiceOver support; all of a sudden there is a very real reason to switch to Mac if you can use a screen reader you are familiar with on both your desktop and mobile.

This could also explain the increase of screen reader users on mobile reported this year with 53% of survey respondents with disabilities confirming they use a screen reader on a mobile device. This is up from 12% last year (although last year’s survey doesn’t distinguish disabled from non-disabled users).

I wonder how much this is to do with the ‘iPhone Factor’ but also can’t help thinking that social networking has done for the mobile web what Kylie Minogue did for Agent Provocateur – everybody wants some. And for me at least 2009 feels like the year that we all sat up and paid attention to the potential of mobile for people with disabilities.

We’re still faced with one massive problem with mobile access however and that’s the lack of an open, cross platform accessibility API that mobile screen readers can hook into. On desktop we have IAccessible2, MSAA and UI Automation (amongst others) but on mobile users are tied into one platform often only supporting one browser (such as iPhone, Blackberry RIM and others) so while desktop has opened up we find ourselves in a 1990’s type impasse with users left with little room to choose on mobile. Opera works well with VoiceOver but we have no way of telling if it works on the iPhone as it’s not supported. My hope is that with more users there’ll be more momentum behind breaking this stand off and opening up the market and ultimately giving users not only choice but portability between platforms.

It’s good to also see the free, open source NVDA on the up. They’ve worked hard to include WAI-ARIA support and are becoming a key tool for web developers when testing. The Jaws demo version used to be popular among developers but with the license becoming less developer friendly NVDA is becoming a safer option.

It’s early days but the rise of VoiceOver and NVDA combined with alternative browsers such as Opera, Safari and Firefox may break the hold that screen reader giants Jaws and WindowEyes have over the market, helping to open up competition and with it how fast screen readers innovate in supporting new technologies such as HTML5, SVG and so on. This will be a win all round for both users and developers.

Update 12 November, 2009

Jared’s presentation The Legend of the Typical Screen Reader User summarises many of the points above. He also includes quotes from screen reader users at the end in response to the question “What suggestions do you have for developers/manufacturers of screen readers?” which he mentions in his comments below.

Mobile accessibility resources: