Screen Readers and Links
Above: Experience how screen readers assist people who are blind read the Web and electronic documents. This video was produced by The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
People who use screen readers to access the Web most often use their keyboard rather than their mouse, so keyboard accessibility is an important first step in making hypertext links accessible to screen reader users. Beyond basic keyboard accessibility, it helps to know how screen reader users access links.
Screen readers inform users that a piece of text (or a graphic) is a link.
JAWS says "link" before each link. For example, a link that says "products" would be read as "link products" by JAWS. IBM Home Page Reader switches voices. A male-sounding voice reads regular text and a female-sounding voice reads link text.
Implication: Links do not need to say "link" in the link text, because all users already know that the link is a link. This is more of an issue with graphics used as links. The alt text for a graphic does not need to say "link" or "link to." Otherwise, JAWS users will hear "link graphic link to products," which is redundant.
Screen reader users often navigate from link to link, skipping the text in between. Tabbing from link to link is a way of skimming Web content, especially if users are trying to find a particular section of a website.
Implication 1: Links should make sense out of context. Phrases such as "click here," "more," "click for details," and so on are almost completely meaningless when read out of context. At the same time, it would be overkill to ensure that every detail about a link destination is discernable by listening to the link context. Users wouldn't want to hear "Products page on which a list of all of our products are presented, including software products and training products, with a list of prices and availability by region (this page uses the same navigation template as the page you are now on)." Perhaps a better alternative would be a link that simply says "Products."
Implication 2: Place the distinguishing information of links at the beginning of a link. Don't put extra information first, For example, don't say "Link opens in a new window: Products." Instead, say "Products (opens in a new window)" (or something along those lines). This is especially important in this example if several links open in a new window. With the explanatory information first instead of the main information, screen reader users would have to listen to the phrase "link opens in a new window" over and over again. They will have a harder time distinguishing between different links, or at least it will take them longer.
Screen reader users sometimes obtain an alphabetically-organized list of links.
Screen readers allow users to extract the links into an alphabetically-organized list, using a keyboard shortcut within their screen reader software for that purpose. This is especially useful if they have an idea of what letter the link they are looking for starts with.
Implication: Use link words and phrases that can be intuitively organized in alphabetical order. For example, the phrase "contact us" is a common one that users may want to access. If the link says "you can contact us," or "how to contact us," or some other phrase that is less intuitive, users may have a more difficult time finding the link.