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Screen reader & AT issues


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21/22 May 2008 I was an instructor at the State of Alaska's first web accessibility Training at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


It was an eye opener.


I have been preaching accessibility for 8 years, most all in theory. But for the first time I was able to watch and speak with a Blind user and the instructor who teaches blind users how to use software such as JAWS. Here are some points worth mentioning.

  • alt attributes - to a screen reader, it makes no difference if you use alt="" or alt=" ", it means the same, just be sure to use it.
  • Headers (H1 - H6) are of major importance. Not just semantics, but headers can be and are used all the time by screen reader users to navigate. A structured layout with headers is more efficient for users than a skip link (but please keep offering those too).
  • Lists - not only are lists a semantically correct form for a menu, and allow us to easily format menus with rollover, focus and hover effects... but lists are the next best for navigation as the screen reader can skip from one list to another navigating the site and the list is announced as being a list with 7 items and then the items are read off. Always use lists for listed items and menus, never use code to make a faux list with bullet symbols as this takes away it usefulness for everyone.
  • Real screen reader users do so with an amazing speed, I could hardly follow what he was doing at default speed. when he upped it to his normal speed he uses it sounded like some alien in a cartoon played at high speed, I understood nothing.
  • Screen readers can have other voices downloaded for a price, some as worthless as Wing Dings, "Bob in a hallway," sound like bob in a tin can. Many screen reader users have many voice files and dictate which are used where like on a cell phone. A female may read the site, but a form may be read by a male voice so it indicates aside from the announcements what they are doing.
  • Refreshable Brail user agents are far more common then I had thought, many blind really prefer them. A 32 character display like we were shown costs around $5,000, it will display half an average sentence. 64 character ones will do a whole sentence, smaller are available that cover just a web words, but are more mobile.
  • There are portable screen readers about the size of an old walkman. These can be hung around the neck and plugged into any computer and offer earphones for the user. They can be uses without earphones when plugged into the speakers directly. Icon was used by the demonstrator.
  • Programs like JAWS can be used with JavaScript/Ajax, but with extreme care. Always use DOM and change the DOM on the page on the fly so that the page reflects the current status.
  • Never set a drop down so that it automatically goes to the focus/highlighted target, Jaws will always go directly to the very first link as that will always be the first with focus and the user is stuck.
  • Always handle forms with either immediate error handling on the field they are in, or if error handling is later after the form is sent off, the error message must always be the top of the page, otherwise it goes back to the page and starts reading the whole form again and the user does not know why. With the error message topside it is read first "I have found the following errors: Format incorrect in date field", the error statement where the error is can then link to take the user directly to that field rather than have to tab all the way through for each.
  • If you use Ajax for a page and it constantly refreshes, it interrupts the user. If you type into Goggle search bar and that triggers a list of possible searches, the screen reader will begin to read those, when you add the next letter and the list refreshes, the screen reader starts again at the top, breaking it off where it was in mid word and starting again... fast tippers will get allot of syllables. So be aware of this.
  • Any time the page itself is refreshed the screen reader will start again at the top, so dom changes should be in the page so the reader starts where you changed the content and not all the way at the top every time.
  • Forcing new windows will not cause a new instance of the screen reader so two are reading, not in the new generations. However by opening a new window or tab, it steals the focus and the screen reader will stop reading the current content, and begin reading the new content before the old is finished. Allowing the user to choose a new tab gives them control with the reader over what they want to hear.
  • Screen readers have two pointers. A visual pointer you can see and move with your mouse and a virtual pointer that is controlled by the keyboard that is what the blind use. When testing, disconnect your mouse or you can get lost of the virtual pointer is at one place and the mouse pointer at another.
  • Test with a Demo. JAWS has a demo that is good for 30 minutes after you boot your computer (it reads everything, OS actions and browser/software actions). You are sighted and will not use it like a blind user will, so it does not mean it is accessible, but turn of your monitor when you can, close your eyes if you can't and unplug the mouse so you use only the keyboard. This will not only give you an idea of the difficulties, but you will hear where you misspelled words, where you have made mistakes, where your text is not as clear as you thought (faux proof reading. your eyes know what you wanted to write, your ears will hear the truth). It is worth testing and even practicing... but remember that you do not use it like a longtime blind user.
  • You can have a look at a sampling of available Assistive Technology and their prices at www.Enablemart.com
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