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Getting started with NVDA

Table of Contents

NVDA is a free and open source screen reader from NVAccess. It is available for the Windows operating system and officially supports Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome web browsers. There is also a ton of braille display support!

NVDA is available for download here: nvaccess.org/download

After everything is installed you can press Ctrl + Alt + n to start NVDA. Quitting NVDA is done by pressing NVDA + q, then Enter at the prompt.

The NVDA modifier key

Each screen reader has a special key or key combination to perform tasks. NVDA’s default keyboard modifier key is the Insert key. So, for example, to start reading a web page, you could press Insert + Down Arrow. As an option, if you are using a laptop you can also use the caps lock key as a modifier. This can be set in the Preferences > Keyboard settings... menu.

Reading text

Here are some basic shortcuts to read text using NVDA.

CommandDescription
CtrlStop reading
NVDA + Down arrowStart reading from current position
NVDA + Up arrowRead current line
Ctrl + Left/right arrowRead previous/next word
Ctrl + Up/down arrowRead previous/next paragraph
Up / Down arrowRead previous/next line
Left / Right arrowRead previous/next character

Shortcut keys

These shortcut keys can be used to quickly jump between specific elements on a page. Elements can be cycled through backwards by holding shift, then press the shortcut key.

KeyDescription
TabMove to next focusable element
dNavigate through landmarks
kNavigate through links
hNavigate through headings
1 - 6Navigate through headings level 1 to 6
fNavigate through forms
tNavigate through tables
Ctrl + Alt + Up / Down / Left / Right arrowNavigate table content
bNavigate through buttons
lNavigate through lists
iNavigate through list items
gNavigate through graphics / images

Advanced navigation

By pressing NVDA + F7, NVDA displays a listing of all elements on the page. This is helpful to quickly skip to a specific area or element on the page. It also helps with testing by gaining an understanding of what each element might sound like to the end user. Do those “read more” links give enough context to be useful?

NVDA element list being used on a website

Descriptive output

If you’re used to using VoiceOver and miss the on-screen text description output, NVDA also has this available as a feature. To enable descriptive text output, check the Tools > Speech viewer checkbox. This will open a new, always-on-top, window with a continuous log of text that is being described by NVDA.

NVDA speech viewer being used to help describe a website

A note on styling

One feature that other screen readers have that NVDA doesn’t is custom focus styles. Others like Apple’s VoiceOver or Google’s Chromevox have a custom focus style for links or for input controls that aid in navigation. NVDA does not have a custom focus style so it is very important to style page elements with the :focus pseudo-class. It’s good to make a habit of adding this whenever the :hover pseudo-class is used. Also, avoid using outline: none as this removes focus styles completely from view.

Further reading