Access All Areas

One of the happy side effects of the CSS revolution has been the new spotlight that it has given to web accessibility issues. Often designers and developers who were initially drawn to table-less layout for other reasons (i.e. speed, adaptability, philosophical reasons, etc), have become increasingly convinced of the benefits and importance of providing accessible content as they progressed.

Of course, becoming a convinced of the worth of accessibility is one thing, but developing the workaday processes that translate those principles into well-tested, working applications is quite another.

Normally when an important new browser/device appears on the scene, supporting it is not much more difficult than installing the new client and testing your work on it. At worst, you may need to scrounge an old Mac to run Safari and IE5Mac on (as we do), or perhaps a Knoppix CD for Konquerer. And even if you’re not a dedicated Opera diva, you can still easily test your pages on that browser without any outlay.

Screen reader seem to be a much more difficult prospect.

Freedom Scientific’s Jaws, which is generally acknowledged to control a majority share of the screen reader market, is a case in point.

Imagine you just got through explaining to your boss why it would be useful to have? Great! Next just explain to him/her it will cost them $US895.

And after cleaning up the coffee he just coughed and spluttered across the desk, slip in that there will also another $US120 for ‘software maintenance’.

And that’s not even the ‘Pro’ version.

But.. what about the trial version? Surely we can improvize for testing?” your boss implores. “Sure!” you reply hopefully. “The ‘trial version’ is only $39.95 for a 60-day time-limited demo…. but don’t worry, that $40 is subtracted if you purchase the full purchase” you assure him.

Your boss doesn’t look overly assured as he searches wildly for something heavy to throw at you.

Evidently it’s cheaper to be cad.

So, is Jaws an incredibly complex piece of software to build and maintain? I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that question, but I do remember my Amiga doing a pretty fair text-to-speech in about 1984. Obviously screen readers are more than a voice, but how much more?

Perhaps Freedom Scientific aren’t actually all that interested in a more accessible web. While developers continue to churn out inaccesible content, there will always be a need for a complex ‘accessifier application’ to try to make sense of it all. Alternatively, if we all built sites that were easy to use without vision, maybe much simpler (and cheaper) tools would evolve, killing Jaw’s market.

If we wanted to be petty, maybe that’s a small motivation for more accessible design in itself?

So, assuming you weren’t able to convince your boss into shelling out for Jaws, what are some of the processes you can use to make your work as accessible as possible? We’re still looking for more answers to this question ourselves, but here’s a start.

CSS layout is a nice starting point, but not really the answer. Although well-structured, semantic CSS layout tends to lend itself to more accessible design, it’s been proven many times that it’s quite possible to build a very inaccessible CSS-based site.

Testing your design in Links, Lynx or even Delorie’s Lynx Emulator is a useful method for vetting your pages. Although text browsers and screen readers are fundamentally different beasts, a text browser will allow you to get a clear stripped back view of your underlying structure, while also making any dependancies on imagery or JavaScript obvious.

Of course, evaluating your pages using the numerous online accessibility rating tools such as Webaim’s Accessibility Valet, HiSoftware’s AccMonitor Online, Watchfire’s Bobby Service and others are brilliant for targetting problem areas towards the completion of a project.

What other tricks or processes you swear by?

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  • http://www.splintered.co.uk redux

    I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that question, but I do remember my Amiga doing a pretty fair text-to-speech in about 1984. Obviously screen readers are more than a voice, but how much more?

    however, did you amiga offer voice support for the entire OS, letting you use the workbench, open applications, etc with full voice support?
    that’s the kicker with proper screenreaders. they provide a layer that sits above the entire operating system. windows, because of its MSAA framework, lets applications such as JAWS hook right into its innards at a fairly fundamental level.
    yes, JAWS is pricey, no doubt about it. but comparing it to simple text-to-speech is like comparing an entire public transport infrastructure with a lambretta motorcycle…
    if all you’re after is testing webpages, FreedomScientific ConnectOutloud is for you (and is built on exactly the same core web browsing component as the full version of JAWS)…at a price that’s right.

  • http://baytandtakl.com klink

    While not a true alternative to using JAWS, have you tried the free Firefox plug-in called Fangs Screen Reader Emulator?
    http://www.standards-schmandards.com/

    It is unfortunate that Freedom Scientific doesn’t offer some inexpensive way for developers to test that their sites work with their readers. As mentioned by redux above, ConnectOutloud seems to at least bring the price in range for a design studio that wishes to go that route.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    if all you’re after is testing webpages, FreedomScientific ConnectOutloud is for you (and is built on exactly the same core web browsing component as the full version of JAWS)…at a price that’s right.

    Thanks for pointing that out, redux. While $249 certainly isn’t a throw-away amount for most companies, at that price it does start to present an option.

  • Mike W.

    Have you seen Texthelp Systems ScreenReader. It is a great product and only costs $39.00 for a download (full version) or $59.00 for a shipped disk (full version).

  • http://www.digitalgreenlight.com busy

    Opera 8 Beta has a screenreader, and it’s free. I’ve had a difficult time trying to make it work though, because you have to talk into the microphone to get it going, and it doesn’t do very well when guessing your voice commands.

  • clintonG

    I worked in Social Services long enough to know a disability pimp when I see one.

    FreedomScientific — are disability pimps — imagine demanding nearly a thousand dollars to enable a blind person to enjoy some of the same benefits as sighted persons while the company presents itself as a vendor who fulfills a compassionate need (what a farce).

    Freedom Scientific not only pimps the blind they are pimping you and I as it is we that pay to enable the pimps to remain at the trough.

    IMO what we should all be doing — all of us — if we care to do so and acknowledge the veracity of my contention regarding disability pimps — is petitioning company’s such as Microsoft and IBM who already have investments in assistive technology.

    Microsoft may be especially receptive to such pleas as Windows includes the fundamentals already. Furthermore, Melinda Gates has a soft spot for humanity that has rubbed off on her husband who has been doing a lot of giving lately.

    Write to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation [1] and suggest how wonderful it would be if Microsoft developed a no-cost screen reader solution to put the disability pimps out of business.

    Perhaps some of us could work together to apply for a grant in this regard. I can be reached at METROmilwaukee.com.

    [1] http://www.gatesfoundation.org/