Top 5 NVDA Tips and Tricks You Need To Know

Frequent visitors of Hiking Across Horizons will tell you that I am a passionate proponent of the free, open source and community-driven NVDA screen reader. My ardour towards this software can be perceived via my past writings on the subject – The Non Visual Desktop Access Movement and Will VFO Acquire NV Access?. Both these have been lengthy discourses and intellectual theories with reference to NVDA’s present and future, but I have never done a user-oriented post sharing some essential but seldom discussed tips and tricks with regards to NVDA. That, my friends, is what this post shall be devoted to.

Note: Please keep in mind that this post may prove inevitably incomprehensible for my sighted readers, more experienced NVDA users may be acquainted with some tips and tricks I discuss already but still learn a few things anew, because NVDA newbies are the ones for whom this post may prove to be a must-read.
Without further ado, here’s presenting the top 5 NVDA tips and tricks you need to know:

1. The Screen Layout & Its Toggle

According to the NVDA User Guide that ships freely with every copy of NVDA and which can thus be accessed via the NVDA menu>Help submenu>User Guide, the Use screen layout option present in NVDA’s Browse Mode settings dialog is described as “This option allows you to specify whether content in browse mode should place content such as links and other fields on their own line, or if it should keep them in the flow of text as it is visually shown.”

  • When screen layout is enabled – Links and other fields are rendered to an NVDA user in a manner similar to the visual presentation. In other words, if there are multiple links on the same line visually, or a form field and its corresponding label appear together on one line to a sighted viewer, NVDA will also present them as two controls on the same line. This is the default state of this check box.
  • When screen layout is disabled – Links and other fields are presented to an NVDA user in a non-standard manner, placing every link, button and form field on a separate line for an often more convenient navigation experience. Although there may be numerous controls structurally presented on one and the same line, NVDA automatically puts each of them on a dedicated line, creating a more constructively dissected UX. While this affects the streamlining of visual VS speech presentation for a sighted VS blind user, I am of the general belief that this state is and should be used far more often than the other.

I recommend enabling screen layout only for sites like Wikipedia where a significant portion of text is hyperlinked, or where the required content is placed inside any element, for with screen layout disabled, constant arrowing around would render the experience quite inefficient. Having said that, for all general purposes of web browsing, screen layout would be better off disabled so that superfluous clutter, multiple links situated horizontally, and excess information at one go all become problems which are broken down into different lines and are thus tackled effectively.
To toggle screen layout on the fly, your default binding is NVDA+V.

2. Audio VS Speech Feedback for Browse VS Focus Mode

According to NVDA’s User Guide, the Audio indication of focus and browse modes setting again part of NVDA’s Browse Mode settings dialog is described as “If this option is enabled, NVDA will play special sounds when it switches between browse mode and focus mode, rather than speaking the change.”
NVDA allows the user to toggle between browse mode and focus mode by pressing NVDA+Space in web browsers, MS Word, and a few other supported programs. The afore stated option controls whether the change in modes should be indicated via speech feedback or auditory cues.

  • When checked/enabled – Whenever the user automatically or manually switches from browse mode to focus mode or vice versa, NVDA conveys this information by playing a special sound scheme respectively different for the two distinct modes. This is the default state of this option since audio indications seamlessly and efficiently do the job. However, there is debate on the subtleness/obstructiveness of the current browse mode and focus mode sound schemes built into NVDA. Regardless, if you seek alternatives, simply read on.
  • When unchecked/disabled – Instead of playing those potentially bothersome auditory indications when you change modes, NVDA simply verbaly speaks ‘browse mode’ or ‘focus mode’ depending on the mode you have switched to. Personally speaking, I have preferred and retained this state for said option since a very long time now, because the current browse mode and focus mode sounds can prove quite inaudible when I am in excessively noisy places, and equally deafening when I am using earphones on an isolated island. Ok, I haven’t used NVDA on any isolated island, but one gets the point… I prefer speech feedback over sound feedback in most cases, for blatantly loud sounds can be a pain in the ear, whereas speech feedback just lucidly immerses into all the other speech synthesis taking place.

3. Customize NVDA’s Sound Schemes

So, you are dissatisfied with NVDA’s in-built sound cues. You wish to change them to something else you have up your sleeve which you find clearer, subtler and better. But how do you modify those NVDA sounds – browse mode, focus mode, spelling error, start and exit sounds (along with the error sound played only in development snapshots)? Steps to achieve this are as follows:

  1. Go the directory path C:\Program Files (x86)\NVDA\waves if you are using a 64 bit system and C:\Program Files \NVDA\waves if running a 32 bit Windows version.
  2. Observe the exact names of files attributed to various NVDA functions and note that they are in the .wav format.
  3. Go to that self-made or better-liked sound’s audio file wherever it is located on your computer, convert it to .wav if it already isn’t a WAV file, rename it to match the exact file name of the NVDA sound you intend to alter, and then finally copy it.
  4. Paste it in the Waves folder, and make sure to not skip, but replace.
  5. Press Ctrl+Alt+N to restart NVDA, and lo and behold, notice your beloved sound schemes taking effect!

4. The Unbound Document Formatting Reporting Commands

If you have ever opened NVDA’s Document Formatting settings dialog (NVDA+Ctrl+D), you would recognize the overabundance of options to toggle reporting of various HTML elements, document information types, etc. in there. You wonder reverently about how great it would be if you could maybe, just maybe, be able to toggle reporting of some of those document formatting options on-the-fly via a quick keyboard shortcut. If so, snap out of those daydreams and follow these steps to achieve the same:

  1. Go to the NVDA menu>Preferences submenu>Input gestures… to launch NVDA’s Input Gestures dialog.
  2. Press ‘d’ to jump to the Document Formatting category and press the right arrow to expand the previously collapsed submenu.
  3. Arrow down through as many as 25 document formatting reporting commands part of the category in the Input Gestures dialog, and notice that unlike most other submenu items in the entire dialog, options like ‘Cycles through line indentation settings’ or ‘Toggles on and off reporting if clickable’ are just names of functions, with no further submenu in them listing their keyboard shortcut. What this means is that all these are functionalities which can be accessed via a gesture, but by default, they are unbound, i.e. they have no predefined key binding attributed to them.
  4. Assuming you want to add a shortcut to Toggle on and off the reporting of links, arrow to the corresponding option, and press Alt+A (keyboard accelerator for the Add button) in response to which NVDA says ‘Enter input gesture 1 of 1’.
  5. Here, you need to simply issue the combination of keys you wish to set as the keyboard shortcut for that function, and in this link reporting toggle case, the two most logical bindings that come to mind are NVDA+Ctrl+Shift+L or NVDA+Ctrl+Shift+K, either of which you must simply press and then release.
  6. Once the desired key command is issued, a context menu appears listing the key combination you just pressed as a confirmation, further allowing you to associate it with either your current keyboard layout or both layouts. Normally, choose the option containing ‘(keyboard, all layouts)’, unless, of course, you require separate shortcuts for the laptop and Desktop keyboard layouts.
  7. Once you have added/modified input gestures to your heart’s content, Tab to the Ok button and hit Enter to save your changes.

5. Get Extra Voices for NVDA

This is so simple to understand and repeatedly stated in the NVDA community, but still, the need to include this piece of information persists. Myths and misconceptions about NVDA’s speech synthesis support and misguided initial impressions on the basis of the default ESpeak-NG TTS engine have been demystified, busted and elucidated time and time again, but just not enough to erase this notion completely. Therefore, I reiterate this one more time – ESpeak-NG may sound somewhat robotic and unpleasant at first, but some get accustomed to it, some experiment with different ESpeak-NG voice variants, whereas the majority just grab another favourite TTS which has a version compatible with NVDA, such as, but not limited to, Nuance Vocalizer, Acapela, Microsoft SAPI 4 and 5, and the list goes on. All in all, a comprehensive list of free and commercial, human-like and robotic, mono-lingual or multi-lingual extra voices you can bundle with NVDA is available here.

Do you want more such tips and tricks for NVDA or other assistive technologies? Have any other related NVDA advices you would like to share? Leave a reply down below, and always feel free to share this post and follow the blog for more!

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Author: Bhavya Shah

Bhavya is a fifteen year old philosophical techie from Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Being passionate about STEM and ICT, global politics and MUN conferences, humanitarean and disability rights, he enjoys singing in accompaniment with his flute or guitar, reading novel literature and perusing the Internet. The only trait distinguishing him from the crowd is his inability to see - starkly/simply put; blindness.

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