Assistive technology is a software application that helps individuals with disabilities to improve their daily productivity. Common examples of assistive technology are screen readers and braille displays.
Using screen readers, people with vision loss can perceive, operate, and understand visual input from software, websites, mobile applications, or documents through audio output. To interact with a screen reader, a user must use a set of gestures and keyboard commands and these commands are sometimes unique to the screen reader.
According to the result of a 2021 survey published by WebAIM, people with disabilities are more likely to use JAWS or NVDA as their primary screen reader. However, it’s important to note that no one screen reader can be said to be the best as most people who are blind use different screen readers for different purposes.
For instance, NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is more language-agnostic than Job Access With Speech (JAWS). JAWS is arguably more popular, but NVDA has recently gained recently ground. So when comparing, one must know that it all comes down to user preference. That said, let’s take a look at some of the differences between these two popular screen readers.
JAWS vs NVDA
JAWS is only available as a paid software, either as an enterprise package or single-use licenses ($90 a year, roughly $900 as a one-time purchase). NVDA on the other hand is a free open-source software available for Windows users.
NVDA is recommended if you plan to use it to assist with a Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) audit since JAWS uses more heuristics than NVDA. While heuristics improve the user experience with non-compliant code, they also mean that JAWS hides non-compliances that would show up with NVDA. This is why you should report WCAG non-compliances based on the code, not based on how the screen reader behaves.
You can also use JAWS if you want to evaluate the user experience since it is the most widely used screen reader.
It is possible to test the same web page in the same browser and find different results using the screen readers. For example, when evaluating a web page, due to some idiosyncrasies, NVDA might not work in Firefox while Jaws would. It’s also possible to have a situation where one browser works and another doesn’t for both screen readers. Testing this way enables you to isolate the cause.
Ultimately, it comes down to your end-users. This is especially true if the website is for commercial purposes. If so, JAWS is the most commonly used screen reader in private and public sectors, so it might be the best option for testing.
JAWS is the world’s most popular screen reader as I said earlier. JAWS has the most configurable options. JAWS has a learning curve and is designed for a Windows PC platform. JAWS is memory intensive and can freeze the computer because of its demands on a computer’s RAM. In 2017, JAWS reportedly led to many computers crashing when used with Microsoft Office 2016. Lastly, JAWS has better braille support.
For basic screen reader functionality, such as: identifying appropriate roles of elements, navigating by headings, navigating by landmarks, and navigating by lists of different types of elements, you can’t really pick a winner. In some cases, they announce things differently. JAWS is a little more verbose than NVDA sometimes.
Ease of Use
JAWS and NVDA are probably on the same level here. Users say that they’re both easy to use once you get the hang of them. But due to the fact that JAWS updates have to be purchased, more users tend to prefer NVDA in the long run.
Compatibility with Operating Systems and Browsers.
Both JAWS and NVDA are compatible with Windows OS. In terms of browsers, Freedom Scientific says;
“JAWS works with Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Support for Microsoft Edge is continuing to improve as well.”
NVDA on the other hand works best with Chrome, Firefox, and Edge.
Community – NVDA has an active response support community.
The choice boils down to personal preferences and limits. For most people, NVDA would be better, because it is free and available in many languages. On the other hand, JAWS is more widely used and better known. The choice is yours — JAWS or NVDA?