If you’d told me two or three years ago that I’d be spending an evening on a webinar all about Microsoft Narrator, I’d tell you that you were mad! But yes, that’s exactly what happened recently and I think it may change how I use my computer forever.
If you don’t know already, Microsoft Narrator is the free built-in screenreader for Windows PCs. This allows blind people, or those whose vision has fallen so low that they cannot see the screen anymore, to listen to what is onscreen using the keyboard to navigate the computer.
For as long as I remember, there was always one screenreader on PCs that was talked about, and that was JAWS. This had become the industry standard for employers and companies who employed blind people. However, JAWS itself was a niche product and that meant the cost to buy it was set quite high. In the UK, a government scheme called Access to Work, which provides funding towards the cost of such software and other hardware, would allow someone who needed JAWS (for example) to receive it at no cost to them or even their employer. For home users though, it was only an option if you had a spare few hundred pounds you didn’t need.
This cost led to a group of blind people getting together who knew how to code, and they developed an application called NVDA. It’s also a screenreader with many of the same functions as JAWS but it is free to download for PCs, with an option to donate to the cause.
Over in Apple’s world, they’d been developing their version of a screenreader for the Mac called Voiceover which today is available on any new Mac or MacBook you buy. It isn’t a download or something that is optional – in fact – it’s right there in your settings under ‘Accessibility’. This is the same Voiceover software used now in iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs, even the humble HomePod!
More recently, Google have been getting into the spirit of building in screenreader support in their Chromebook lineup. ChromeVox is their iteration and again is freely available and preinstalled on every new machine.
So surely you would assume that if Apple and Google can build in a free screenreader then Microsoft could do the same? Well, not only would you be right, but you would very quickly learn that they already have one – called Narrator.
But, and for many years it was a big but, this was not a serious option for anyone wanting to use their computer without the screen. Narrator in its early days would be decent enough to get you around the basic operating system, and even up until last year it would get you as far as online to download another screenreader such as NVDA!
For me it was a bit of a running joke but I was so pleased to learn that Microsoft had started thinking more seriously about the ailing software and around the middle of last year announced a major upgrade.
Narrator in 2018 became a usable and useful tool and it was clear that the upgrade made it functional. No more sluggish audio feedback or delays, better use of keyboard commands and a smoother interaction with all aspects of Windows 10, including the Edge browser.
And that brings me to my evening of joy in the company of Microsoft for their first accessibiity webinar all about Narrator. In the hour long event I learned about new features that dropped in October’s latest Windows update, including a new keyboard layout which to all intents and purposes is the same as the one used by JAWS and NVDA. There is also additional support for braille users and even image recognition using artificial intelligence.
The event highlighted to me that finally Microsoft have grabbed hold of the nettle and are taking accessibility for all users seriously from now on. I for one am very impressed with the new Narrator and I’m considering moving away fully from JAWS soon. The integration with Office, Edge and other applications makes this a much more attractive option. It isn’t perfect by any stretch but it’s a damn sight nearer to where it was even a year ago. Being late for the party doesn’t mean it’s all over. In fact, this party now feels like it’s getting underway properly.
I’d love to know what you think of the new Narrator. Leave a reply below.
I am an absolute geek who loves technology. I also happen to be severely sight impaired and that has meant my journey with new technology has been challenging. What I've learnt is what I want to share with others and I do that on air in the UK on RNIB Connect Radio's weekly Tech Talk radio show and podcast, and on AMI-Audio's Double Tap Canada radio show and podcast. I'm also a very lucky husband and the owner of the world's coolest dog!