Welcome to a pretty short Atechability article! This time, we will be looking at the differences between screen readers and personal virtual assistants. Unfortunately, there is a common stereotype of “X personal assistant is a great tool for the blind!” Here, we will get that cleared up, once and for all! (Insert emotional/suspense music here)
A Quick Refresher
To refresh your memory, a screen reader is a piece of software that reads the screen to you. Let’s use this analogy. We have two pieces of software talking to each other here. You have a word processor, and the screen reader. Here’s how the conversation goes.
Word Processor: “Hey, you pressed the command to create a new document! I’ll now load up that dialog so you can choose what kind of file you want to make today!”
Screen Reader: “Oh, sweet! They pressed a key on their keyboard! Let’s see what the word processor is telling them. Oh! It seems like it’s a new document dialog! Now I’ll have to run that to my voice box and read it aloud so the user can interact with it and look for what they need!”
All screen readers work alike, and you operate it using either the keyboard, touch screen, or braille device, depending what kind of computer setup you are using. Rather than a blind person looking at the screen, the screen reader reads everything that they are doing. We recommend looking at our web site in the screen reader articles for more information.
Personal Virtual Assistants
These pieces of software have been more of a recent development and still go strong. About ten years ago, Siri from Apple was the first one to be introduced. In the years that followed, other major technology companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have come out with their own variant. But you may ask yourself, what do they do? Well, glad you asked! These personal assistants are found on many computers and mobile devices. You interact with it, by talking to it. For example, you can ask it, “What is the current temperature?” Or, “Send a message to Patrick.” Depending on the model of device, you can do tasks as easy as checking time, making phone calls, to more complex tasks like turning on your lights, if your house is built correctly with smart home technology. Typically, these assistants have a word you can say to activate it, (typically the name of the assistant like “Hey, Siri!”) or you press a button on the device in question.
The Big Difference
While these personal assistants can do quite a bit in regards to productivity, they have their limits. For example, you can ask your virtual assistant, “Send an email,” then dictate the text. But You cannot say, “Attach this file.” The same thing goes with sending text messages. You can send a message, but if you want to attach anything, you’ll have to do it yourself. This, in a blind person’s case, is where the screen reader comes into play. We can independently send emails, with attachments that way. A personal assistant cannot format documents for you. You have to do that yourself. The screen reader will ALWAYS overpower a virtual assistant any day in situations like this. Unfortunately, we have seen articles that say, “Virtual Assistant Helps Blind Person In A Revolutionary Way!” I understand the misconception, just because a phone has Siri or other assistant makes it useful to us. Now, if a person, let’s say, cannot use the phone properly due to a physical impairment, and they are looking for just basics like sending messages, short emails, making phone calls, etcetera, then I can understand the use of just a virtual assistant. But for the advanced users, the screen reader is your best friend. So before you obtain a smartphone or computer, we recommend you do a little research before assuming that the personal assistant will do all the work. We would like to one day see, “Screen Reader Helps A Blind Person In a Revolutionary Way” in the mainstream media.
We hope this short, but to the point article gave you a bit of insight on the major differences between screen readers and virtual assistants. The next time someone tells you, “Oh nice! So how do you use this virtual assistant to navigate your phone?” You can correct them NICELY and let them know what the screen reader is called, and show how you use the phone’s controls to navigate it. Of course, you can always drop us a line if you would like to know more information on this topic! Happy navigating!