Archive for May, 2009

Hear Me Stumble Around White House, Recovery, and Data GOV web sites

May 31, 2009

This post takes a tour by screen reader of the new U.S. government web sites
whitehouse.gov,
recovery.gov, and
data.gov.
Using recorded sessions, I analyze my techniques and problems. Sighted readers will experience some of the confusions and frustrations of a visually impaired person trying to learn the interaction and structure patterns of these website’s. Visually impaired users may glean some ways to avoid pitfalls and determine the value of these government information resources for their purposes. I complain about absence of headings, careless links, and tricky interactions beyond my capabilities although I appreciate the effort to provide high quality government information.

Why is “Hear Me Stumble” useful?

I’ve tried this practice several times in the past year with a mixture of consternation and learning. Basically I record myself using a website to the best of my abilities, talking to myself as I go. The results are useful in several ways:

  1. A historical snapshot of the website under study, the tools I’m using, and my skills is now recorded for posterity.
  2. I use the recordings to diagnose my own deficiencies and document changes in my own web practice.
  3. With increasing confidence in my knowledge of the field of accessibility, I try to explain deficiencies in terms that website designers can understand to improve their designs and implementations Ditto, tool developers such as screen readers and browsers.
  4. The recordings also describe ways of testing that could and should be used before website release to improve the experience for visually impaired users and to meet statutory requirements.

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Yes, if you listen to these recordings, you’ll hear a good bit of frustration with my own mistakes as well as some depressing practice, indeed perhaps malpractice, on the part of website designers. In the case of the .gov websites, we’re watching the expanded use of the Internet for citizen interaction so appropriate corrections of certain problems could have a highly amplified effect across the population of U.S. citizens. Fortuitously, if we apply the ‘curb cuts’ principle, fixing certain problems will likely make the websites better for everybody, disabled or not, and we’re all disabled in the long run. Furthermore, the current websites are exhibiting trends using social media beyond the knowledge of many of my generation, the baby boomers and beyond. In effect, many of the populace who need data available from U.S. government websites are those least likely to be able to benefit.


A big caveat here is that these websites are “young” and experimental, sort of like new drivers proud of their licenses and wheels but not fully understanding the rules of the road. Anxious to get their acts in gear, these drivers are sadly vulnerable to mistakes that might make unfortunate hood ornaments out of senior citizens, ignoring limits of other vehicles and pedestrians using the same roads in different ways. Continuous partial attention dictates websites that change every few seconds, seeking to hook users into feeds and social web practices. This is the most important time in the evolution of these websites to instill good sense, modesty, empathy, etc. as well as correcting patterns known to be detrimental, if not outright illegal. Ok, end of lectures I’ve given many times to teenagers, especially as I become more wary as a non-driver in a cell phone and vehicular world.

An audio tour of WhiteHouse.gov

First, go to http://apodder.org/stumbles to retrieve the two recordings in MP3 format, a total of around 60 minutes.

On May 29, 2009, President Obama and government officials released a cyber security policy statement that I sought to find on the website. The main events described in the recordings were:

  1. I took a “headings tour” of the website, trying to build a mental outline of sections and subsections wherever I heard like “Briefing Room heading 2”. This heading outline seems improved over my January explorations, but perhaps I’m only more familiar. Here is how whitehouse.gov looks to the WebAim WAVE analyzer. Notes: this link will show the current version of the web page not what I say on May 29. Also this is the established accessibility tool, not the newly announced Google W A V E.
  2. I was thrown off by the slide show at the top of the page. Once I hit the cybersecurity story, the next time I traverse this section the story was about the Supreme Court nominee. Earlier, I had stumbled over the 1-2-3-4 series of boxes but not connected them with the slide show. This time, a fairly good eyesight day, I could see the images were changing.
  3. So, listening to the recording, I ask myself, why I didn’t use the search box I found at level 2. Well, some introspection revealed I have been tricked too many times by website searches that bury what I really want in favor of getting me to products or just plain showing irrelevant material. I did try the search for “cybersecurity” the next day and indeed find the relevant references, but cannot determine whether the search would have yielded good results immediately after the announcement. I also found some silly references in the additional results about some conversations with the press secretary. Next time I will try the search, correcting my behavior.
  4. Several times I ran across uninformative links like “Read this post” and “Learn more”. Since I often traverse a page by link, reading one of these links is annoying. I must read backwards through the text to find the subject of the link, muttering to myself “learn more about —- what?”. This is symptomatic of a website design that hasn’t been tested with a screen reader by a member of the web site team. Ok, maybe these web designers like to hear “learn more” repeated six times in a row, but, come on, why not rewrite the text to attach the link to something meaningful and distinctive.

In summary, visually impaired users must come to terms with a slideshow that regularly changes the content of the page without any evident alert (that I could detect). The heading structure helps traverse the page but isn’t entirely intuitive. Link texts are annoyingly un informative and should be changed if the white house web designers want better usability. This web user will give the search box a try earlier next time, recognizing the inevitable need to sort through results but hoping for the most important and relevant content to be highlighted.

An audio tour of recovery.gov and data.gov


Sorry, I just have to rant here. Neither page has significant headings. So, how am I supposed to know what’s on the page without reading line by line? Find my way to the action parts of the page? Ever regain respect for an agency that doesn’t know the mantra — It’s the headings, stupid!!!”. Is this HTML malpractice?

Whoops, I’m mixing metaphors. Is this reckless driving? driving without a license? Certainly, there’s no certification of 508 or other stamp of approval, just wishful reassurance that “we’re trying on accessibility, really” and “we’re a new website, don’t expect too much”. But, hey, this citizen says, why not pay attention to the dozens of websites that and even you tube videos that advocate headings. What about running your pages through validator’s and getting clean reports from nationally recognized accessibility gurus, like WebAim WAVE report on recovery.gov and WebAim WAVE report on data.gov accessibility.

Comments on recovery.gov


I did not have a specific task here, so just wandered around.

  1. The text size adjustment option bemuses me. My browser does that for me. Reading the increase or decrease text size labels are tedious if the page reads from the top. More problematic, is that the text size graphics and buttons are off the displayed section of the page in my browser in some circumstances. In other words, someone who needs them might well not see them off to the far right.
  2. Those pie charts and graphs in the slide show look interesting but they go too fast for me to zoom or magnify. Sigh. This website, indeed the whole U.S. government if its going to work this way, needs a chart explainer or some gentler way of providing data. The timeline is so cool, too bad I cannot use it. I can see it scroll by but how do I read it?
  3. A popup tries to notify exit from recovery.gov. In my browser setup, I have no speech notice, just a box hanging on the screen with a Close button if I can find it. In the recording this threw me off. Why is such a notice needed, anyway?
  4. PDF documents may be standard with a free reader, but they are not pleasant for visually impaired users. I personally almost always crumble a PDF into its TXT form if it’s worth reading for transport to a mobile reader. Actually, I did not encounter any PDF format files to download and try but I’m sure they are there somewhere.
  5. Note: I just discovered more “Learn more” links on the News page. See above.

Comments on data.gov


This page is mainly a large search form. Now, I’m a veteran web and data searcher, but this one got me.

  1. The text is flat without headings. A heading for each part of the complex form would make the difference between usability and frustration. Turn those section titles into headings, please, please.
  2. Components of the form appear not to be labeled properly, if at all. Nothing new here, just good practice for a decade or so, and really important for a person with a screen reader to know what a form field is doing there.
  3. I got hung up in an unfamiliar, and perhaps nonstandard, kind of form. A list of agencies with check boxes is encompassed in a scroll window. This wasn’t apparent to my screen reader so I heard a lot of naked “check box” phrases unless I used line up and down. Since I didn’t know what I was in, I could not find the search button. Looking again the next day, I found the button, decoded that I needed to get out of edit into browse mode to finish the search. I declare this just plain tricky. The technical problem is many agencies that could be represented in a list except that multiple selection from a list is also hard., although standard.
  4. Ok, so if I did get a search performed, how usable are the search results? I did not find an easy way to jump to the search results, nor to navigate through them.

Uh, oh, this is an unhappy camper! How do other technologists feel?


Yep, I really don’t feel very comfortable or welcome at these web sites, despite my tax dollars at work. Granted the websites are juvenile in stages of development and that much work has gone into creating the back ends to deliver the data to the web pages. It’s really exciting that citizens may become data analysts, exploring trends and comparing communities, in the spirit of Jon Udell’s blog on ‘strategies for Internet Citizens’. It is also admirable that so many semi-commercial and open source software products are being tried, albeit without a strong accessibility requirement.


But still, so many sensible, well known rules seem to have been broken that it’s hard for me to believe that accessibility is high enough priority I can feel better about future improvements. Consistently using headings is so simple, it’s sad to see the trade-off of a standard accessibility practice with the greater glitz of scripted slide shows which further mess up accessibility.


I’m just plain disappointed in the Obama administration’s approach to web design.
And I’m not alone, e.g.
Webaxe podcast analyzing recovery.gov and
Jim Thatcher’s analysis of whitehouse.gov,
developers of accessible interactive components,
critique of recovery.gov platform software


. There are people around the country making a living from building accessible websites. There are training programs, such as John Slatan Access U and WebAim Training. Why isn’t this expertise being used in the premiere U.S. websites?


Does feedback matter and how is it solicited and used? Will these websites improve?
For a broader perspective on transparency, currency, and other qualities, check out
Grading the White House from Washington Post, which needs an accessibility panelist.

This post updates and illustrates ‘As Your World changes’ post on whitehouse.gov from January. Rationale for my headings rant is post on “Let’s all use our headings!”. And here is the uplifting message of the curb cuts principle.


For repeating results, I was using NVDA screen reader from NVAccess, version 0.6, Firefox version 3.0.x, Windows XP, Neospeech Paul voice, and PlexTalk Plus as audio recorder. See WebAim tutorial on NVDA accessibility testing describes some of the NVDA operations.

The Pleasures of Audio Reading

May 22, 2009

This post expands my response to an interesting
Reading in the Dark Survey
Sighted readers will learn from the survey how established services provide reading materials to be used with assistive technology. Vision Losers may find new tools and encouragement to maintain and expand their reading lives.

Survey Requesting feedback: thoughts on audio formats and personal reading styles?

Kestrell says:

… hoping to write an article on audio books and multiple literacies but, as far as I can find, there are no available sources discussing the topic of audio formats and literacy, let alone how such literacy may reflect a wide spectrum of reading preferences and personal styles.

Thus, I am hoping some of my friends who read audio format books will be willing to leave some comments here about their own reading of audio format books/podcasts. Feel free to post this in other places.

Some general questions:
Do you read audio format books?
Do you prefer special libraries or do you read more free or commercially-available audiobooks and podcasts?
What is your favorite device or devices for reading?
Do elements such as DRM and other security measures which dictate what device you can read on influence your choices?
Do you agree with David Rose–one of the few people who has written academic writings about audio formats and reading–that reading through listening is slower than reading visually?
How many audiobooks do you read in a week (this can include podcasts, etc.)?
Do you ever get the feeling form others that audiobooks and audio formats are still considered to be not quote real unquote books, or that reading audiobooks requires less literacy skills (in other words, do you feel there is a cultural prejudice toward reading audiobooks)?
anything else you want to say about reading through listening?

This Vision Loser’s Response

Audio formats and services


I read almost exclusively using TTS on mobile readers from DAISY format books and newspapers. I find synthetic speech more flexible and faster than narrated content. For me, human narrators are more distracting than listening “through” the voice into the author’s words. I also liberally bookmark points I can re-read by sentence, paragraph, or page.


Bookshare is my primary source of books and newspapers downloaded onto the Levelstar Icon PDA. I usually transfer books to the APH BookPort and PlexTalk Pocket for reading in bed and on the go, respectively. My news streams are expanded with dozens of RSS feeds of blogs, articles, and podcasts from news, magazines, organizations, and individuals. Recently, twitter supplies a steady stream of links to worthy and interesting articles, followed on either the Icon or browser in Accessible Twitter.

I never seem to follow through with NLS or Audible or other services with DRM and setups. I find the Bookshare DRM just right and respect it fully but could not imagine paying for an electronic book I could not pass on to others. I’m about to try Overdrive at my local library. I’ve been lax about signing up for NLS now that Icon provides download. No excuses, I should diversify my services.


I try to repay authors of shared scanned books with referrals to book clubs and friends, e.g. I’ve several now hooked on Winspear’s “Macy Dobbs” series.

Reading quality and quantity

I belong to two book clubs that meet monthly as well as taking lifelong learning classes at the community college. Book club members know that my ready book supply is limited and take this into consideration when selecting books. My compact with myself is that I buy selected books not on Bookshare and scan and submit them. I hope to catch up submitted already scanned books soon. Conversely, I can often preview a book before selection and make recommendations on topics that interest book club members, e.g. Jill B. Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”. I often annoy an avid reader friend by finishing a book while she is #40 on the local library waiting list. This happens with NYTimes best sellers and Diane Rehm show reader reviews. No, I don’t feel askance looks from other readers but rather the normal responses to an aging female geek.


At any one time, I usually have a dozen books “open” on the Bookport and PlexTalk as I switch among club and course selections, fiction favorites, and heavy nonfiction. However, I usually finish 2 or 3 books a week, reading at night, with another 120 RSS feeds incoming dozens of articles daily. I believe my reading productivity is higher than before vision loss due to expedient technology delivery of content and my natural habits of skimming and reading nonlinearly. Indeed, reading by listening forces focus and concentration in a good sense and, even better, performed in just about any physical setting, posture, or other ambient conditions.
Overall, I am exquisitely satisfied with my reading by listening mode. I have more content, better affordable devices, and breadth of stimulating interests to forge a suitable reading life.

Reading wishes and wants


I do have several frustrations. (1) Books with tables of data lose me as a jumble of numbers unless the text describes the data profile. (2) While I have great access through Bookshare and NFB NewsLine to national newspapers and magazines, my state and local papers use content management systems difficult to read either online or by RSS feed. (3) Google Book Search refuses to equalize my research with others by displaying only images of pages.


For demographics, I’m 66 years old, lost last sliver of reading vision three years ago from myopic degeneration, and was only struggling a few months before settling into Bookshare. As a technologist first exposed to DECTalk in the 1980s, I appreciate TTS as a fantastically under-rated technology. However, others of my generation often respond with what I’ve dubbed “Synthetic voice shock” that scares them away from my reading devices and sources. I’d like to see more gentle introductions from AT vendors and the few rehab services available to retired vision losers. Finally, it would be great to totally obliterate the line between assistive and mainstream technology to expand the market and also enable sighted people to read as well as some of us.

References and Notes on Audio Reading

  1. Relevant previous posts from ‘As Your World Changes’

  2. Audio reading technology
    • LevelStar Icon Mobile Manager and Docking Station is my day-long companion for mail, RSS, twitter, and news. The link to Bookshare Newsstand and book collection sold me on the device. Bookshare can be searched by title, author, or recent additions, and I even hit my 100 limit last month. Newspapers download rapidly and are easy to read — get them before the industry collapses. The book shelf manager and reader are adequate but I prefer to upload in batches to the PC then download to Bookport. The Icon is my main RSS client for over 100 feeds of news, blogs, and podcasts.
    • Sadly, the American Printing House for the Blind is no longer able to maintain or distribute the Bookport due to manufacturing problems. However, some units are still around at blindness used equipment sites. The voice is snappy and it’s easy to browse through pages and leave simple bookmarks. Here is where I have probably dozens of DAISY files started, like a huge pile of books opened and waiting for my return. My biggest problem with this little black box is that my pet dog snags the ear buds as his toy. No other reader comes close to the comfort and joy of the Bookport, which awaits a successor at APH.
    • Demo of PlexTalk Pocket provides a TTS reader in a very small and comfortable package. However, this new product breaks on some books and is awkward managing files. The recording capabilities are awesome, providing great recording directly from a computer and voice memos. With a large SD card, this is also a good accessible MP3 player for podcasts.
  3. Article supporting Writers’ Guild in Kindle dispute illustrates the issues of copyright and author compensation. I personally would favor a micro payment system rather than my personal referral activism. However, in a society where a visually impaired person can be denied health insurance, where 70% unemployment is common, where web site accessibility is routinely ignored, it’s wonderful that readers have opportunities for both pleasure and keeping up with fellow book worshipers.
  4. Setting up podcast, blog, and news feeds is tricky sometimes and tedious. Here is my my OPML feeds for importing into other RSS readers or editing in a NotePad.

  5. Here’s another technology question. Could DAISY standard format, well supported in our assistive reading devices become a format suitable for distributing the promised data from recovery.gov?
    Here is a interview with DAISY founder George Kerscher on XML progress.

  6. Another physiological question is what’s going on in my brain as I switch primarily to audio mode? Are there exercises that can make that switch over more comfortable and accelerated than just picking up devices and training oneself? I’m delving into Blogs on ‘brain plasticity’
  7. (WARNING PDF) Listening to the Literacy Events of a Blind Reader – an essay by Mark Willis asks whether audio reading can cope with the critical thinking required in a complex and sometimes self-contradictory doctrine like Thomas Kuhn’s “Scientific Revolutions”. This would be a great experiment for psychology or self. Let’s also not forget the resources of Book Club Reading Lists to help determine what we missed in a reading or may have gained through audio mental processing.

Audio reading of this blog post