Navigating the internet using only the screen reader


4 min read

I recently tried doing tasks on the internet without using the mouse (or trackpad). Now I'm going to do the same using a screen reader (the one on my computer is Orca).

To stop me peeking, I'm sticking a piece of paper to the top of my screen.

Task 1: Gmail

Find a starred email in Gmail, go to the link within it, read the article in the link, then unstar the email and return to the inbox

This was made easier by already having done this using only the keyboard and remembering the shortcuts. I just used the shortcut to get the starred emails, pressed j until I found the one I wanted, then tab until I found the link within it I wanted. Although of course this was made slower by waiting for Orca to read things out.

I did press ? to get the keyboard shortcuts, to test that out. Waiting for Orca to read everything rather than just scanning it and picking out what I needed is a lot slower. And I was a bit confused about what it was saying - possibly because I have it set to read things a bit too fast.

But on the whole it was pretty painless.

Task 2: YouTube

Find my watch later list, watch a video on it that's not last on the list, look at the comments, then remove it from the watch later list

This was hard work. I'm not as familiar with the site and I usually have my watch later list bookmarked, so I just go to that.

I initially skipped navigation and after a lot of tabbing realised the navigation was the bit I needed... I ended up refreshing the page, tabbing some more and eventually getting to my watch later list. And then it got weird because it told me it had pressed enter and I thought "does that mean I'm now on the watch later page?". I ended up looking to find that I was. But I was really expecting it to tell me that.

And eventually made my way to the videos. It read out the title of the video and who did it, but it would have been nice if it had read out the time.

It also keeps talking as the video auto-plays...

I took the paper down and turned Orca off while I watched the video. Once it got to the end I put it all back and pressed a tab a lot to read the comments. Although they were weird - I had to look and see what was going on. It was reading out a lot of "parens", which I guessed meant brackets. It was a coding video, so it's understandable that people might have them in their comments. But it turned out that some of them were smilies! It's really not as obvious that "colon right parens" is a smiley face.

Removing the video from the watch list was fine, although it wasn't entirely obvious that's what had happened.

Task 3: BBC iPlayer

Go to the BBC iPlayer, search for Click and play the most recent episode.

There was a lot of tabbing here - but looking back when I last did this task I said the same thing. I had just forgotten how bad it was. However, I noticed that this site read a lot of things out every time a page loaded, which the other two didn't. And it told me about whether every link had been visited.

When I got the video listing it read out the description, told me how long it was and that I'd already watched it. Which is really useful information. I don't know if it was just coincidence, but the video didn't make a whole lot of noise while Orca was still speaking.


I expecting Gmail to be easy since I was already familiar with it, and it was. But what surprised me was the BBC website. I hated it last time due to all the tabbing. There was still a lot of tabbing, but I felt like I knew more about what was going on than with YouTube (which also had quite a lot of tabbing). The BBC website just had the best experience and I wasn't trying to picture the site in my head as I tabbed.