Character references: widening screen readers’ eyes

I ran some tests a couple of years ago that looked at how mathematical character references are handled by screen readers, specifically using default configuration in JAWS and Window-Eyes.

Jason Kiss of Accessible Culture has recently published a comprehensive set of results from his testing of how a variety of characters are dealt with by recent versions of JAWS and Window-Eyes: JAWS, Window-Eyes and Character References.


A web author may expect characters such as the minus sign – a proper − or − as opposed to a simple dash – would be read out in an appropriate way by a screen reader. However, the most prevalent screen reader, JAWS, does not announce the character and the next most popular screen reader, Window-Eyes, reads it as “dash”.

Using JAWS, the results seem to be consistent even when you change the verbosity level, the punctuation level or the synthesiser used. It’d be interesting to know if anyone has managed to get a screen reader to announce these characters using the more advanced settings.

Personally, I’d like to see (or hear!) screen readers announcing additional characters; it would add to the character palette we can draw from when writing content, which I would expect to be even more important as the Web embraces internationalisation and localisation.

In the meantime, Jason provides a convenient table of results comparing the speech output from JAWS and Window-Eyes.

Update: Having posted about Jason’s work on Accessify Forum, I thought I’d add that some characters that do get spoken are not announced as one might expect:

  • Both JAWS and Window-Eyes read a square root symbol (√) as the letter v and pi (π) as the letter p.
  • While Window-Eyes makes minor tweaks to its speech output to make it a bit more user-friendly, it doesn’t always do what I think it should. As mentioned above, it says “dash” for the proper minus sign character.
  • Window-Eyes announces quite a lot of characters as “question”. Presumably Window-Eyes hasn’t understood these characters so it is announcing the character as it would a question mark, which users may realise it means that Window-Eyes hasn’t understood. However, saying “question” is probably worse than simply not announcing anything at all.