A Brief History of Screen Readers

by Becky Gibson: For Complete Post, Click Here…

It is hard for a sighted user to imagine navigating the web without actually seeing a page or using a mouse. Blind screen reader users have no problem navigating a web page that is coded correctly and follows basic accessibility guidelines. A screen reader is an assistive technology used by the blind, people with low vision, and people with cognitive or learning disabilities. It is software that interprets the information coded on a screen and presents it to the user in speech or Braille output.

Users commonly navigate through a page or document using keyboard commands. Common commands control navigation by character, by line, by paragraph, and by element. As the user navigates, the screen reader announces each piece of content. The user hears the info and any metadata. This includes alternative text provided for images and specialized accessibility information. There are ways to list and navigate to specific element types such as headings, links, major page sections (“landmarks”), and others. More keyboard commands provide additional features.

The First Screen Reader

IBM Researcher and Accessibility Pioneer, Jim Thatcher, created the first screen reader in 1986. The IBM Screen Reader worked with the text-based Desktop Operating System (DOS). It was initially only available within IBM. Jim and his team continued development and released IBM Screen Reader/2 to work with graphical operating systems such as Windows 95 and IBM OS/2.

Jim Thatcher was a longtime friend of Knowbility who passed away in 2019. Richard Schwerdtfeger, former Chair of the Knowbility board, told the story about working on screen reader development with Jim and others at IBM in a Keynote speech at AccessU in 2017. In recognition of Jim Thatcher’s many contributions to accessibility, his family sponsors the Jim Thatcher Prize which is awarded to a person whose work has resulted in a technical advance in the development of a tool or tools that improve technology and information access and increase participation in learning, working, or civic engagement for people with disabilities.

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