Tuesday, June 14, 2011

NVDA Project: a Screen Reader by the people for the people

By Luke Hsieh, AT Advocate at the Community Access Center, Riverside

As far as computer screen readers go, JAWS from Freedom Scientific has become something of an absolute standard. Last time I checked, a copy of JAWS standard version costs $895. In case the irony escapes you, $895 is approximately the same amount of a Supplemental Security Income Check for the month.  (Hmmm…I wonder when they are going to make the next shark movie.)

So, when two blind computer programmers did not want to pay that kind of money for computers to talk, they reasoned, rightly, that others probably don't want to pay that kind of money to make the computer talk either. Together they wrote their own screen reader and very generously offered it as open source software. It’s called NonVisual Desktop Access, or NVDA.

I would hate open source software if I worked for Microsoft, but I don't, so I absolutely adore it. Anyone can download, modify, use, copy, or share the software just as long as nobody makes any money on it. So IVONA just downloaded the thing, packaged it with their voice engine and voila! They have an accessibility pack. But wait, didn't I say that nobody is supposed to make money off the screen reader? Well, the screen reader is free, but the voice engine is not, so you get the picture.

The NVDA screen reader comes with its own voice engine, but I could barely understand anything it says. It's like hearing myself in a tape recorder, and I wonder why anyone would model the voice engine after me. So that voice engine had to go. Luckily the two programmers don't have too much qualm about people changing voice engines. So I use IVONA Emma II British English Voice Engine on NVDA, and the result is promising enough for me to want to tell you about it. Now that I have told you about it, it is your turn to download and see or hear for yourself. 


  1. Luke - That's a great resource for windows users! I had never heard of it before now. I work a bit with open an source operating system - Linux Ubuntu. Do you know of any screen readers for Linux or better yet a replacement fro Dragon! Thanks! - Steve

  2. Linux Ubuntu or Linux Mint are something I have always said I was going to get into but never actually do. But I think the subject deserves its own book to do it justice. Accessibility features for Linux Kernal Based Operating System. What say you?