The modern era has brought many advantages for those who are blind or visually impaired. One of the most important tools a blind user uses with modern computing devices is a screen reader. Traditionally, screen readers have been very expensive third-party programs that were very difficult to obtain depending on one’s financial status. However, several free yet capable screen readers have emerged in the last 20 years. The two that we will be discussing are Apple’s VoiceOver for macOS and the Nonvisual Desktop Access or NVDA for Windows. Both are powerful screen readers in their own right, but they have their strengths and weaknesses which I will discuss in more detail. Hopefully by the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of each product and its individual strengths/weaknesses.
Nonvisual Desktop Access or NVDA for short is a free and open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system. The organization behind the project is an Australian company called NV Access (www.nvaccess.org). It has been around since 2006 and primarily competes with the JAWS for Windows screen reader produced by Freedom Scientific or Vispero as they are now known by. It offers many of the same features that JAWS offers and should be suitable for 99% of screen reader users. The philosophy behind NVDA is extremely compelling. It is offered free of charge to anyone in the world, meaning there is no longer a financial barrier for blind people to work, learn, or do anything else on a computer. NV Access does rely on donations, either from individuals or grants from large companies, so if you can donate, it is very much worth it to help this amazing project continue long into the future. The obvious benefit is that a blind person can compete on a level playing field with sighted peers at no more cost than anyone else. Updates to NVDA are also free, and NV Access releases 3-4 updates per year that fix bugs and add new features.
Since NVDA is open source, anyone is free to review the source code and propose changes. While anyone can propose a change and submit code, it’s still reviewed and approved by NV Access before it is included in anything anyone can download. This ensures the security of the software from unauthorised changes and means that the final product available from https://www.nvaccess.org/ is just as secure and well vetted as the closed source from another company. Thousands of people from all over the world constantly contribute to the project which benefits everyone in the end. NVDA is a screen reader made for the blind by the blind. NV Access is overseen by a board of directors (of whom at least 33% must be blind or vision impaired, according to their constitution.
VoiceOver is Apple’s built-in and the only screen reader for the Mac. It has been around since 2005, although the last significant update was in 2011 with Mac OS X Lion. VoiceOver works well with Apple’s built-in apps and used to be very reliable. Since it is built into the system, anyone can walk up to a Mac running a modern version of macOS and get it talking by pressing Command+F5. Apple should be commended for building a very capable screen reader into the system and showing the rest of the world that it is possible to build very robust accessibility features into mainstream products.
As previously mentioned, however, VoiceOver is not as reliable as it could or should be. Apple has not made significant changes in nearly a decade, and bugs are rarely if ever fixed. Issues have piled up over the years and the experience, while still good, is far from satisfactory depending on the tasks you wish to do. The latest trend appears to be introducing bugs that make certain things unusable. For example, there is a bug in macOS Big Sur where VoiceOver crashes when opening the Disk Utility application in macOS Recovery. This is absolutely unacceptable and would be fixed promptly if it was impacting sighted users, yet someone somewhere decided it was okay to release with this broken feature for blind users. This goes against Apple’s commitment to accessibility and the high standard of quality many would associate with the company.
Because VoiceOver is part of the system, you must wait for Apple to update the system to see if anything has been added or fixed. Since Apple’s operating systems are not open source, this means Apple is the only one that can maintain the screen reader. The fact they are not is very sad, as VoiceOver has the potential to do many great things if the appropriate resources were dedicated to it. Perhaps the reason for this neglect is the extreme popularity of Apple’s mobile iOS devices, as VoiceOver on that platform is constantly refined. We may never know, as Apple is very tight-lipped and secretive when it comes to their future developments. Unlike the open communication and collaboration model with NV Access, Apple does not communicate with the disability community. Again, this is most likely due to the secretive nature of the company, but things would probably be much better if Apple employees were willing and/or able to speak openly about accessibility with the users they serve.
I have done my best to outline the major differences between NVDA on Windows and VoiceOver on the Mac. While both products are good, I personally lean in favor of NVDA. Microsoft Windows is by far the most popular system in the world, and NVDA is a great tool in the toolbox. Its open source nature is a major plus and means the innovation and ability to keep up with the ever increasing changes in Windows is almost certain. In contrast, Apple’s neglect has turned me personally away from the Mac. I do not recommend people invest in Macs anymore either, as it has been clear for many years that Apple’s focus is on iOS. While it’s sad these events have transpired, we must never forget or disrespect the work Apple has done. Apple is a pioneer in the realm of mainstream accessibility, and now everyone else including Microsoft is trying to catch up. This is a very good thing as it pushes the entire industry forward and ultimately means access for blind users is only getting better and better as the years march on.