As a person with low vision who primarily reads print, I don’t have a need to use a screen reader full time for accessing information or for navigating a web page. However, there are some situations where I benefit from using an on-demand screen reader, also known as text-to-speech, for reading text, identifying navigation buttons, or for listening to alt text/image descriptions for images. I’ve used a few different text-to-speech tools for reading webpages, applications, and other types of documents, and today I will be sharing my favorite options for on-demand screen readers, ways to read webpages without a traditional screen reader, and how to use text-to-speech with low vision and print disabilities.
What’s the difference between a screen reader and text-to-speech?
A screen reader is a tool used by people with vision loss that reads information out loud on a webpage or in an application. Screen readers allow users to navigate their device using a keyboard or a series of gestures, and are typically “always on”- if someone has a screen reader enabled, it is reasonable to assume that the user would be unable to use their device if the screen reader were turned off.
Text-to-speech or on-demand screen readers are tools used by people with vision loss or print disabilities that impact the ability to read standard text. They can be activated on an as-needed basis by selecting a shortcut, pressing a button, or using a keyboard/gesture shortcut. Once text-to-speech finishes reading all the information on a page, it shuts off until the user activates it again. Text-to-speech does not use any specific gestures or require the user to change how they interact with their device.
- How To Use VoiceOver With Low Vision
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
- What I’ve Learned About Print Disabilities
Various Microsoft products: Read Aloud
Several popular Microsoft products offer a Read Aloud feature that is separate from the Narrator screen reader and other tools, including Microsoft Word, Microsoft Edge, Microsoft Outlook, and others. Read Aloud can be activated in a few different ways, including selecting the Read Aloud icon, using a keyboard shortcut, or long-pressing/right-clicking on a page with text and selecting Read Aloud from the menu.
I find Read Aloud helpful for PDFs, so I open PDFs in Microsoft Edge and right-click to activate Read Aloud when available. Alternatively, I might use Read Aloud to read information in Jupyter Notebook while it’s running in the Edge browser.
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Firefox and Google Chrome: Read Aloud Add-On
The Read Aloud browser extension/add-on for Firefox and Google Chrome allows users to have text from any webpage or PDF read out loud, with options to customize the voice and speed. Users can activate Read Aloud by selecting the icon in the Chrome or Firefox menu, or by right-clicking on selected text and choosing the Read Aloud option in the drop-down menu. Some voices are available for purchase, but the app is otherwise free.
Google Assistant: Read This
For Android users, Google Assistant can read webpages and articles out loud when a user asks “hey Google, read this.” Users can follow along with the text, see how long it will take to read a page, and control other playback options such as pausing and adjusting voice speed.
To use the Read This feature, users will need to have screen context enabled for Google Assistant. This can be done by opening settings and searching “Use text from screen”, and selecting On.
Android and Chromebook: Select-to-speak
Select-to-speak is an on-demand screen reader from Google that reads selected text on the screen, as well as alt text and other elements on the page that would traditionally be read out loud by a screen reader like TalkBack or ChromeVox. Users can tap the play button to hear everything on the screen, or tap/drag their fingers to select single or multiple items when Select-to-Speak is enabled. This feature is available in all Android versions starting at Android Lollipop (version 5).
To enable Select-to-speak on Android, follow these instructions:
- Open Settings
- Go to the Accessibility section
- Under the Screen Reader section, turn on Select-to-speak, which is above TalkBack
- Activate Select-to-speak by tapping the accessibility shortcut in the bottom right-hand corner of the phone screen.
To enable Select-to-speak on Chromebook, follow these instructions:
- Press the keyboard shortcut Alt-Shift-S
- Select Settings
- Select Accessibility
- Under text-to-speech, turn on Enable Select-to-speak
iOS, iPad OS, and Mac: Speak Selection/Speak Text
Just like Select-to-speak, Speak Selection and Speak Screen will read all text that is selected or on the screen, as well as any alt text or other elements of a page that would traditionally be read by VoiceOver. The voice settings for VoiceOver are the same as they are for Speak Text and Speak Screen, though users do not need to know any VoiceOver gestures to interact with content. Settings for Speak Selection can be customized independently from VoiceOver, though the settings for each feature are similar.
To enable Speak Text and Speak Screen in iOS, follow these instructions:
- Go to the Settings app
- Go to the Accessibility section
- Go to the Spoken Content option, which is in the Vision section
- Turn on speak selection and/or speak screen
- Activate speak selection/speak screen by long-pressing on text content and selecting the Speak option, or swipe down from the top of the page with two fingers
To enable Speak Text and Speak Screen for Mac, follow these instructions:
- Go to the Apple menu and open System Preferences
- Click Accessibility, and then speech
- Select the Speak selected text when the key is pressed checkbox. The default key shortcut is Option-Esc, but users can choose a different key by clicking Change Key, pressing one or more modifier keys (Command, Shift, Option, or Control) together with another key, then clicking OK.
- To activate Speak screen, press the specified key. To stop speaking, press the key again.
Bonus: Simplified Reading Displays
For users that benefit from large print and having consistent formatting for text content, many simplified reading displays such as Microsoft Immersive Reader have built in text-to-speech for reading content, which is helpful for reading text content. I talk more about simplified reading displays in an in-depth post linked below.
More tips for using on-demand screen reader tools and text-to-speech
- Want to use text-to-speech to read books with Amazon Alexa? Check out How Amazon Alexa Can Help You Read
- Another option for having text read out loud is to ask Siri to read what’s on the page, though this requires an internet connection
- Text-to-speech is different from dictation, also known as speech-to-text. Learn more about dictation in Learning To Use Dictation As Assistive Technology With Low Vision