How can I show my boss what our pages sound like on a screen reader without actually buying screen reader (reading?) software?
Listening to a web page, especially your own, in a screen reader is a powerful way to demonstrate the accessibility (and particularly, the lack of accessibility) of the page. It is impactful when you experience a page as a user with a visual disability might experience it.
Types of Screen Readers
There are many different screen readers available. The most common is JAWS which costs around $1000 and is rather complex. Fortunately, there are several other screen readers that are less expensive. For Windows, NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free, open source screen reader that is very commonly used. If you have a Mac or iOS device, it comes with the VoiceOver screen reader which can be easily enabled in the system preferences.
As an alternative to a screen reader, you can also use online tools, such as WAVE or the Fangs Screen Reader Emulator, to get a visual presentation of potential accessibility and screen reader compatibility issues.
Using a Screen Reader
Using a screen readers can be a bit overwhelming and complex. WebAIM.org has articles for getting started with JAWS, NVDA, and VoiceOver. When using a screen reader, it is best to turn off or hide the screen. And don’t use your mouse or trackpad. This helps ensure a more authentic experience — most screen reader users can’t see the screen or use a mouse.
First, listen to the entire page. Pay attention to the things that are being read. Is the order of content logical? Do non-text elements have text alternatives? Is page structure (such as headings, lists, etc.) presented? Don’t worry too much about pronunciation or the way things are spoken; instead make sure the content of the page is being read.
Then take some time to navigate the page using the Tab key (and Shift + Tab to navigate backward) to cycle through links and form controls. Is each link descriptive of its function? Do all form controls have a descriptive label? You can also navigate through other elements, such as headings, landmarks, and tables, to explore the structure and functionality of the page (shortcut keys for these are found in the articles above).
Finally, interact with any functionality on the page. Ensure you can submit forms and that any error messages are accessible, especially if you cannot see them. Make sure interactive widgets and controls are presented in a useful way.