Posts Tagged ‘screen reader’

Vision What do Vision Losers want to know about technology?

April 5, 2010

Hey, I’ve been off on a tangent from writing about adjusting to vision loss rather on a rant about and praise for website accessibility. Also absorbing my blogging efforts was a 2nd run of Sharing and Learning on the Social Web, a lifelong learning course. My main personal tutors remain the wise people of #a11y on Twitter and their endless supply of illuminating blog posts and opinions. You can track my fluctuating interests and activities on Twitter @slger123.

To get back in action on this blog, I thought the WordPress stat search terms might translate into a sort of FAQ or update on what I’ve learned recently. Below are subtopics suggested by my interpretations of the terms people used to reach this blog. Often inaccurately, some people searching for tidbits on movies or books called ‘twilight’ might be surprised to read a review of the memories of an elder gent battling macular degeneration in the 1980s. Too bad, but there are also people searching for personal experience losing vision and on technology for overcoming limitations of vision loss. These folks are my target audience who might benefit from my ramblings and research. By the way, comments or guest posts would be very welcome..

This post focuses on technology while the next post addresses more personal and social issues.

Technology Theme: synthetic speech, screen readers software, eBooks, talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • stuff for blind people
  • writing for screen readers
  • artificial digital voice mp3
  • non-visual reading strategies
  • book readers for people with legal blind
  • technology for people with a print-disability
  • apps for reading text
  • what are the best synthetic voices
  • maryanne wolf brain’s plasticity
  • reading on smart phones
  • disabled people using technology
  • synthetic voice of booksense
  • technology for legally blind students
  • audio reading devices
  • reading text application
  • synthetic speech in mobile device
  • the use of technology and loss of eyesight
  • installer of message turn into narrator

NVDA screen reader and its voices

    Specific terms on NVDA reaching this blog:

  • NVDA accessibility review
  • voices for nvda
  • nvda windows screen reader+festival tts 1
  • videos of non visual desktop access
  • lag in screen reader speaking keys
  • nvda education accessibility

Terminology: screen reader software provides audio feedback by synthetic voice to users operating primarily on a keyboard, announcing events, listing menus, and reading globs of text.

How is NVDA progressing as a tool for Vision Losers?
Very well with increased acceptance. NVDA (non Visual Desktop Access) is a free screen reader developing under an international project of innovative and energetic participants with support from Mozilla and Yahoo!. I use NVDA for all my web browsing and Windows work, although I probably spend more hours with nonPC devices like the Levelstar Icon for Twitter, email, news, RSS as well as bookSense and Bookport for reading and podcast listening. NVDA continues to be easy to install, responsive, gradually gaining capabilities like Flash and PDF, but occasionally choking from memory hog applications and heavy duty file transfers. Rarely do I think I’m failing from NVDA limitations but I must continually upgrade my skills and complaint about website accessibility (oops, there I go again). Go to:

The voice issue for NVDA is its default startup with a free open source synthesizer called eSpeak. The very flexible youngsters living with TTS (text-to-speech) their whole lives are fine with this responsive voice which can be carried anywhere on a memory stick and adapted for many languages. However, oldsters often suffer from Synthetic voice shock” and run away from the offensive voices. Now devices like Amazon Kindle and the iPod/iTouch gadgets use a Nuance-branded voice quality between eSpeak and even more natural voices from Neo Speech, ATT, and other vendors. Frankly, this senior citizen prefers older robotic style voices for book reading especially when managed by excellent firmware like Bookport Classic from APH. Here’s the deal: (1) give eSpeak a chance then (2) investigate better voices available at Voice and TextAloud Store at Look carefully at licensing as some voices work only with specific applications. The main thing to remember is that your brain can adapt to listening via TTS with some practice and then you’ll have a world of books, web pages, newspapers, etc. plus this marvelous screen reader.

Apple Mania effects on Vision Losers

Translation:What are the pro and con arguments for switching to Apple computers and handheld devices for their built in TTS?
Good question. Screenless Switcher is a movement of visually impaired people off PCs to Macs because the latest Mac OS offers VoiceOver text-to-speech built in. Moreover, the same capabilities are available on the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad, with different specific voices. Frankly, I don’t have experience to feel comfortable with VoiceOver nor knowledge of how many apps actually use the built-in capabilities. I’m just starting to use an iTouch (iPod Touch) solely for experimentation and evaluation. So far, I haven’t got the hang of it, drawing my training from podcasts demonstrating iPhone and iTouch. Although I consider myself skilled at using TTS and synthetic speech, I have trouble accurately understanding the voice on the iTouch, necessary to comfortably blend with gesturing around a tiny screen and, gulp, onscreen keyboard. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here as I need enough apps and content to make the iTouch compelling to gain usage fluency but need more fluency and comfort to get the apps that might hook me. In other words, I’m suffering from mild synthetic voice shock compounded by gesture shyness and iTunes overload.

My biggest reservation is the iTunes strong hold on content and apps because iTunes is a royal mess and not entirely accessible on Windows, not to mention wanting to sell things I can get for free. Instead of iTunes, I get my podcasts in the Levelstar Icon RSS client and move them freely to other devices like the Booksense. Like many others with long Internet experrience, such as RSS creator and web tech critic Dave Winer, I am uncomfortable at Apple’s controlling content and applications and our very own materials, limiting users to consumers and not fostering their own creativity. Could I produce this blog on an iPad? I don’t know. Also, Apple’s very innovative approach to design doesn’t result in much help to the web as a whole where everybody is considered competitors rather than collaborators for Apple’s market share. Great company and products, but not compelling to me. The Google OS Android marketplace is more open and will rescue many apps also developed for Apple products but doesn’t seem to be yet accessible at a basic level or in available apps. Maybe 2010 is the year to just listen and learn while these devices and software and markets develop while I continue to live comfortably on my Windows PC, Icon Mobile Manager and docking station, and book readers. Oh, yeah, I’m also interested in Gnome accessibility, but that’s a future story.

The glorious talking ATM

Terms used to reach this blog

  • talking ATM instructions
  • security features for blind in ATM

What could be more liberating than to walk up to a bank ATM and transact your business even if you cannot see the screen? Well, this is happening many locations and is an example for the next stage of independence: store checkout systems. Here’s my experience. Someone from the bank or experienced user needs to show you where and how to insert your card and ear buds plug. After that the ATM should provide instructions on voice adjustment and menu operations. You won’t be popular if you practice first time at a busy location or time of day, but after that you should be as fast as anybody fumbling around from inside a car or just walking by. Two pieces of advice: (1) pay particular attention to CANCEL so you can get away gracefully at any moment and (2) always remove ear buds before striding off with your cash. I’ve had a few problems: an out of paper or mis-feed doesn’t deliver a requested receipt, the insert card protocol changed from inline and hold to insert and remove, an unwanted offer of a credit card delayed transaction completion, and it’s hard to tell when a station is completely offline. I’ve also dropped the card, sent my cane rolling under a car, and been recorded in profanity and gestures by the surveillance camera. My biggest security concern, given the usual afternoon traffic in the ATM parking lot, is the failure to eject or catch a receipt, which I no longer request. But overall, conquering the ATM is a great step for any Vision Loser. It would also work for MP3 addicts who cannot see the screen on a sunny day.

Using WordPress</h4



  • Wordpress blogging platform accessibility >

  • wordpress widget for visual impaired

Translation: (1) Does WordPress have a widget for blog readers with vision impairments, e.g. to increase contrast or text size? (2) Does WordPress editing have adjustments for bloggers with vision impairment?

(2) Yes, ‘screen settings’ provides alternative modes of interaction, e.g. drag and drop uses a combo to indicate position in a selected navigation bar. In general, although each blog post has many panels of editing, e.g. for tags, title, text, visibility, etc. these are arranged in groups often collapsed until clicked for editing, if needed. Parts of the page are labeled with headings (yay, H2, H3,…) that enable a blog writer with a screen reader to navigate rapidly around the page. Overall, good job, WordPress!

However, (1) blog reader accessibility is a bit more problematic. My twitter community often asks for the most accessible theme but doesn’t seem to converge on an answer. Using myself as tester, I find WordPress blogs easy to navigate by headings and links using the NVDA screen reader. But I’m not reading by eyesight so cannot tell how well my own blog looks to either sighted people or ones adjusting fonts and contrasts. Any feedback would be appreciated, but so far no complaints. Frankly, I think blogs as posts separated by headings are ideal for screen reading and better than scrolling if articles are long, like mine. Sighted people don’t grok the semantics of H2 for posts, h3, etc. for subsections, etc. My pet peeve is themes that place long navigation sidebars *before* the contnent rather than to the right. When using a screen reader I need to bypass these and the situation is even worse when the page downloads as a post to my RSS clinet. So, recommendation on WordPress theme: 2 column with content preceding navigation, except for header title and About.

Books. iBooks, eBooks, Kindle, Google Book Search, DAISY, etc.


  • kindle+accessibility
  • how to snapshot page in google book
  • is kindle suitable for the visually impaired?
  • how to unlock books “from kindle” 1
  • is a kindle good for partially blind peo 1
  • access ability of the kindle

I’ll return to this broad term of readers and reading in a later post. Meantime, here’s an Nytimes Op article on life cycle and ecosystem costs of print and electronic books. My concern is that getting a book into one’s sensory system, whether by vision or audio, is only the first step in reading any material. I’m working on a checklist for choices and evaluation of qualities of reading. More later.

Searching deeper into Google using the Controversy Discovery Engine

You know how the first several results from a Google search are often institutions promoting products or summaries from top ranked websites? These are often helpful but even more useful, substantive, and controversial aspects may be pushed far down in the search list pages. There’s a way to bring these more analytic pages to the surface by easily extending the search terms with words that rarely appear in promotional articles, terms that revolve around controversy and evidence. Controversy Discovery engine assists this expanded searching. Just type in the term as you would to Google and choose from one or both lists of synonym clusters to add to the term. The magic here is nothing more than asking for more detailed and analytic language in the search results. You are free to download this page to your own desktop to avoid any additional tracking of search results through its host site and to have it available any time or if you want to modify its lexicon of synonyms.
Some examples:

  1. “print disability” + dispute
  2. “legally blind” + evidence Search
  3. “NVDA screen reader” + research Search
  4. “white cane” + opinion Search
  5. “Amazon Kindle” accessibility + controversy Search

    Feedback would be much appreciated if you find this deeper search useful.

    Adjustment themes: canes, orientation and mobility, accessibility advocacy, social media, voting, resilience, memories, …

    Coming in next post!

CT for Everyone includes Accessibility!

January 24, 2010

This post responds to a solicitation for ideas on “Computational Thinking for Everyone” at This is a more succinct version of previous blog essays aimed at computing science educators and researchers. .

Principle of “Clarifying Mundane Matters”: Use CT to refresh and deepen understanding of seemingly simple problems.

“Appreciate diverse abilities” Principle: Use CT to understand differing human abilities with respect to computational structures.

Multi-level Principle: Literacy, fluency, and CT apply to organizations as well as individuals.

An example domain is web accessibility for print-disabled people who use assistive technology such as screen readers to navigate, read, and interact with web pages. ,I write as a computing professional, self-trained with intermediate skill level and assistive technology consumer experience.

Consider the following mundane tasks: (1) complete the NAP form the CT workshop free PDF; (2) retrieve two papers on CT from ACM Digital Library; (3) find the next upcoming colloquium talk at some CS department; (4) plan and mark the sessions you want at an upcoming conference; (5) retrieve the data set of your locality’s projects from

Such tasks should require only a few minutes, not demanding vision only. Computational thinkers can conceptualize underlying queries, abstractions, and navigation strategies, perhaps expressed with HTML syntax. Indeed, imagine yourself equipped with hearing a synthetic voice announcing events as you TAB and key your way around these document objects. Of course, there may be many representations of, say, a web form, perhaps a table of labels and form field? But how is a screen reader to associate a label to announce with each edit box? Also, a page of departmental activities or a list of search results might be shown as a layout table with styles indicating different roles of text fragments. No go for a screen reader user who must plow through linearly, applying heuristics to induce page components and meaningful descriptions of clusters of text fragments. Does this suggest AI to help the dumb literal screen reader package? Maybe, but is that a good social solution?

Rather, standards can be negotiated so that browsers and screen readers can parsed with semantic identifications and useful descriptions announced to skilled users. Indeed, W3C standards compiled user observations, reasoning principles (perceivable, operable, understandable,robust), common sense, and experience surveys to yield a fledgling “science of accessibility”. Our mundane form problem is standardly prescribed explicit relational notations to pair label text with form elements, adding a line of code to eliminate hours of screen reader user guessing. Semantics for page outlines are simply headings H1,H2,… H6 properly ordered and appropriately worded. Voila, linear or random search is eliminated with further gains in design integrity, maintainability, and search engine positioning. Incidentally, screen reader surveys confirm form labels and poor or no heading structure as main barriers and annoyances.

While the ultimate test is whether the screen reader user is substantially as capable as a sighted performer, engineering practices are readily available. An online evaluator, such as WAVE from can statically analyze and display page structure and flag standards anomalies. Development by “progressive enhancement” builds styling, scripting, and flash onto POSH (Plain Old Semantic HTML). Browsers, especially in mobile devices, and across economic and disability divides are thereby enabled for “graceful degradation”.

The conference schedule problem illustrates bad effects of wrong level or loss of data structure in the delivery format, typically PDF. A conference program is certainly well structured with presentation properties (title, author, abstract, etc.) with relationships to sessions, tracks, and locations. PDF promotes printable or purely visual representations, leaving print-disabled readers with a jumble of text or dependence on sighted interpreters with separated note-taking. Hypertext offers some structure within browser constraints. A non-traditional solution could be the hierarchical document structuring of the widely used open XML-based DAISY specification. Convenient pocket-sized screen-less devices navigate and read DAISY with natural TTS and easy marking or recorded notes. Watch for these capabilities coming soon on mainstream mobile platforms. CT must explore alternative document representations and find the most versatile structure-preserving generation and transformation techniques, especially when visual reading is limited by screen space, ambient conditions, or print disabilities. Moreover, increased offering of government and science data sets demands full utilization of data structure beyond a PDF-crippled distribution strategy.

Honestly, many CS organizations need a makeover for their web sites to keep up with trends now driven by .gov innovations coupled with world-wide web standards. Knowing after vision adaptation and accessibility indoctrination far more than when I was active five years ago, I wonder: where students experience working with persons with disabilities, using assistive technologies; how students with disabilities learn from inaccessible pedagogical tools; how students gain fluency with accessible product presentations; and then become good consumers and caretakers, managers and procurers, developers and trainers in the workforce and personal lives. So, I challenge ‘CT for Everybody’ to use CT to rigorously and responsibly address the above mundane problems and expand CT to formalize the “science of accessibility” for integration into pedagogy and practice. Practically speaking, it’s easy to start by entering your URL into then trace error reports into the standards’ explanations. For a more vibrant experience, install the free, open Windows NVDA screen reader or turn on Mac VoiceOver, turn off your screen, and use CT to accomplish tasks at a more semantic than visual level. Another opportunity is to work with local A.D.A. professionals and evaluate research and pedagogical products and materials with real persons with disabilities.

Using the framework of the Workshop Report, are these examples really CT? In the context of social good and broadening participation, this terminology matters less than that “a visually impaired user of assistive technology almost gave up filling a form requesting a free PDF for lack of labeled form fields”. How mundane! But, what an opportunity loss from multiplying this flaw across form instances and user efforts! My concern is institutional, rather than individual, illiteracy and unFITness. somebody in an organization needs to be responsible for assuring such flaws are removed or never committed, requiring others handling resources and commitment, usually via a published “accessibility statement”. Literacy is a matter of organizational awareness and Fluency yields a favorable outcome for as many people as possible. My suggested remedy is some rigorous thinking and remedial actions that respect standard sand experimental data in the form of complaints and surveys. My hope is that “CT for Everyone” will encompass objectives like “universal design” and increased benefits of CT applied within computer science education ultimately influencing Everybody. Thank you.

References: “Universal Design for Web Applications” by Wendy Chisholm and Matt May; #a11y or #accessibility tagged tweets; the Amazon Kindle settlement from; my blog “As Your World Changes” at

Stumbling Around .gov Websites: Good, Bad, and Goofy

November 22, 2009

Recently, attention returned to concern about
the role of accessibility in the U.S. government transparency movement. While gov website operators might well deserve a good grade for effort, most sites have obvious failings that experts and users repeatedly point out. In this post, I show some of my personal problems and suggest corrective actions. Visually impaired people can hear a realistic experience with a capable, free screen reader to better understand how websites respond to an intermediate level visually impaired, task oriented user. Sighted readers and accessibility specialists are urged to consider alternatives to reduce causes for stumbling around.

Hear me Stumble Recording

Download MP3 recording (38 minutes, 17 MB) trying tasks at whitehouse, disability, data, and recovery .gov. Starting with some typical tasks, I get into each website far enough to identify and stumble over some problem, then later come back and analyze the cause in both the website and my own practice, written up below. These little experiments are certainly not definitive because someone more experienced with the website might take a very different route or the proper screen reader action just might not occur to me at the moment. So, listen if you’re patient and interested to these 4 segments and follow along in your browser to perhaps grok what I’m missing in the recording.

For the record, I was using Windows XP, Firefox 3.5, NVDA RC 09, and PlexTalk Pocket as recorder.

The BLUF — great availability of useful information but fall short of
excellence in usability

BLUF=bottom line Up front

The Obama administration has unleashed an enormous flow of energy and
information for citizens to use for their personal lives, political causes, and
general improvement of society. I really appreciate the nuggets of
explanations dispensed in RSs feeds and twitter streams, amplified by social
media communicators interested in technology and organizations with a special
thread of accessibility. I offer these stumbles as the only feedback I can
provide, hoping my analyses eventually reach into the administration and d.c.
government apparatus. My stumbles are not flat on my face, fallen and cannot
get up, but rather trips over seed bumps, unnecessary traversals around hazy
obstacles, and stops to reconsider the surroundings to decide my next safe
steps. Just like real physical life, these stumbles absorb way too much energy,
often discouraging me from completing a task. Informed by my own experience
building interfaces, databases, and websites plus software engineering methods
of testing, use cases, complexity measures, and design exploration, I truly
believe each stumble indicates a serious design flaw. The good news is that
while my stumbles may partially track with vision loss and continuing learning the rules of accessibility and assistive technology,
of the ‘curb cut’ principle suggest corrections will smooth the
way for other, abled users who are also troubled with usability difficulties
they cannot understand without the accessibility and usability framework.

Summary of my stumbles on typical .gov tasks

  1. Website:

    Task: Find a recent blog post received by RSS

    : stumble: Post was not in recent list, didn’t know how to use archives, didn’t trust search

    Follow up: Navigated around November archive, eventually found links to previous articles

    Suggestions: Factor archives, Use landmark pattern for list sections

    Comments: Now has a text only version but similar navigation problems

    Grade: C. Text Only site isn’t much of an accessibility improvement, please work on organizing this mass of information. RSS feeds more useful than website. Also, use your clout to force social media services to become accessible, too.

  2. Website:

    Task: Discover information about public transportation in local community

    : stumble: Found ” Transportation” main topic but could not reach specific information

    Follow up: Read “how to use” and eventually figured out info organized by state

    Suggestions: “See sidebar” isn’t sufficient so data needs better organization

    Comments: Site content is effectively transmitted by RSS and Twitter. good survey can help improve site

    Grade B: Good process, but not yet organized properly or communicating website use

  3. Website:

    Task: Trial download of a data set using search form

    : stumble: Very hard to understand search form components distracting headings and social media,

    Follow up: Eventually got search results, but unsatisfactorily

    Suggestions: Start over

    Comments: Only for wonks on salary, not advised for citizens

    Grade: Incomplete, do over, or adapt expensive interface and data management

  4. Website:

    Task: Find recovery funding projects in Arizona

    : stumble: Locating form for query and then results

    Follow up: Found the form under non descriptive heading, easily set query, drilled down past top of page to text version of results table

    Suggestions: Make the “Track the money” foremost part of page, submerging feature awards and website data

    Comments: $10M+ project needs more usability and accessibility input

Individual Website Analyses — this National Landmark needs ARIA landmarks

I don’t visit this site often but I do read occasional blog and press briefings in my Levelstar Icon RSS client. One article caught my attention, about encouraging Middle Eastern girls, and seemed worth a tweet to my followers with similar interests. But I needed a good web address so set off to navigate myself through the site.

I was surprised to find a link to an “accessible” version, not sure what that mean. It turns out to be “text only” which doesn’t mean much to me if the navigation is the same as a screen reader is abstracting from text decorations anyway. Hence, I was faced with a branching decision with no criteria for which branch to take, somewhat confusing.

As usual to refresh or familiarize myself, I take a “heading tour” to learn the main sections of the site and target the section for my task. Soon, I find the “blog” section but the article list is mainly on President Obama’s Asian trip, not reaching back as far as the article I wanted was a few days old. I declared a “Stumble” by not knowing how to use the archives, needing to train myself and wander a bit more off recording.

Following up later, I found myself confused about the organization of past material. I took the November link but ended up in more heaps of videos, blog posts, briefings, etc. Eventually, I got to blog article lists and found the web construct that linked to past articles, looks like “previous 1 2…. next”.

Answer: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano blog post on ‘Meeting female students in Abu Dhabi’

To analyze a bit further, let’s separate accessibility from usability. This task seemed to take a little more effort than needed, because I stumbled around learning the archive information architecture and list results patterns. Nothing in the screen reader or the HTML seemed problematic. Headings helped, not hindered. Perhaps this is a stubble that can only be prevented by more practice, but it’s possible we have a jumble of website content that could be factored to make paths easier to follow.

Traversing a list divided into sections is a common pattern, often intermixed with links to articles and media. The list of blog posts was indeed an HTML list that could be followed by items, but got strange at the end the next-previous section is labeled with something like LSQUO, which makes no sense in a screen reader. This construct is also easy to miss using links rather than items. Could this pattern be

standardized (see below)?

Duh, why didn’t I just use the website Search? Unfortunately, I have a deeply ingrained mistrust of site searches, mainly from getting gobs of results that don’t help. Like, how would I know the rules for making a good search query? Is it “Napolitano Abu Dhabi” with quotes where, and default being conjunction? And these words are not the easiest names to type correctly, so is there spelling correction? Well, it turned out “Napolitano” (2nd try) turned up the article about 4 results down but with the same search result bar construct. OK, I’m convinced to bring Search back into my website explorer toolkit. and will work to overcome bad experiences from past generations of website searches.

Overall, I grade myself as a B with my improving mental map of the site, but definitely prefer using the content by RSS feed, i.e. getting blog and briefings spoken from mobile device. Sorry, but still gets a C in my ratings, mostly from the need to have a stellar, near perfect website to model for not only .gov but also community, state gov, professional associations, universities, etc. Only 10 months into the website, the amount of content, useful individually, may grow into a giant heap of links that drive citizens away. Regarding accessibility, I simply don’t see the rationale for the text only site and recommend looking ahead to using better overall structure with landmarks (see below). is very useful but maybe convoluted? is a regular in both my RSS feed list and Twitter tweetroll. The site has a general framework of disability needs and resources. New resources and classes of resources per day of the week are routinely broadcast. I have a warm feeling when I see these, like somebody is actually looking out for me in that great USG bureaucracy.

For some local surveys, I anticipate needing data and examples of regional transportation systems supported by public and disabled communities. Ok, I know I’m delusional that a conservative wealthy retirement oriented city will even consider such a thing as services for economic, environmental, or social reasons. But, hey, there’s a sliver of hope. Indeed, this is a typical way the USG can foster citizen innovation through better and more transparent data.

The website navigation sidebar is straightforward with tasks and information topics. In the recorded session, I picked Transportation and then got stuck. I had a page headed Transportation, nice, with topic overview, but no real information, just a use the sidebar. Ok, but how? why? After, in my follow up, I figured out that information was organized by state, which makes sense, but wasn’t explicit when I stumbled.

Choosing Arizona from the state list, I found a number of resources, none of which lead directly to the Tri-city Prescott area. Tucson was well represented, but I knew that, been there, seen the buses, and vision services. Overall, I found this site satisfactory, with an encouraging amount of information, but I’m still somewhat befuddled about the relationship between topics and sidebar and details.

At one point, I was presented with a survey. Sure, I’ll give you feedback, thanks for asking. As usual, I didn’t know how long the survey would take, like how many questions. First accessibility glitch was that required fields were designated by some symbol not read by a screen reader in normal mode, probably an asterisk *. That meant I had to switch into listening more punctuation in the screen reader or just answer all questions. Silly, why not say REQUIRED, rather than use a little symbol. Next, I couldn’t figure out the form of answers, which turned out to be radio buttons labeled 1 to 10 and NA. Ok, that’s a lot of tabbing but not overwhelming, as I whizzed through the questions. Then, came a switch to some combo boxes for answers. Annoying, suggesting the survey wasn’t vetted by many people using screen readers, but not really too bad. Do other gov sites have comparable surveys? They should.

Overall, I rate myself and with a B. I need more practice, and the website developers need more feedback. But really, I know they’re trying, and somebody will likely read this blog. Good job, and I truly appreciate the resources, framework, and the RSS and tweets. for wonks, not citizens

Oh, my, this site is annoying. The headings are sparse and inappropriate. There’s a sideline off to social media sites that aren’t accessible and in the way. A link says “Click here” which indicates deprecated thinking and cluelessness about hyperlinking.

The main purpose of this site is a distribution point for datasets collected from various government agencies distributed in XML, CSV, and other formats usable in spreadsheets and statistical analyzers. Great, but the form is a mess.

I tried to query fo ex ampler datasets, any topic, from National Science Foundation. The agency list is long, painfully, with check boxes. That’s about 40 tab or next line key strokes to get to NSF. Then I found the Submit button. Not so good, which I learned by reading “No search results” at the bottom of the page! Most important effect of a search is to know if it succeeded, produces results, geez! What did I do wrong? Do I need to select format and make an explicit query? Ok, tried that with term “computers”, All Categories, All Agencies. Got 2 results this time, both on illegal exports, spooky and uninteresting.

Argh, I gave up. I’m sure this site will eventually be useful for policy wonks willing to train and practice, but I, an ordinary citizen with a research background, didn’t feel like I could get much out of here. Sadly, the form’s long list of check box agency names uncoordinated and un searchable was painful. But worse was not getting direct feedback about number of or absence of search results combined with uncertainty about the query actually executed. I had little confidence in either the site or myself as searcher, but, luckily, I don’t forecast any personal need for Sayonara.

So, I rate this sucker a big Incomplete with good intents but pretty clueless about accessibility and usability. Hey, download NVDA and try this out yourselves, designers. There are lots of ways to design forms and search results. Back to the design stage, please Now that is launched at great expense, perhaps some of the interface and data management functionality can be used to refresh, but who am I to reorganize .gov :-).. Usable but Cluttered

Well, it wasn’t fun but I can use this website. The big problem is clutter. I go here to “Track the Money” and cannot find the form to do so. Uh, oh. Plenty of stuff about the site itself, some of the big featured expenditures, but where’s the form. Oh, there it is, under heading “Data, Data, and More Data”, cute but not obvious. This time, I decided to drill down on National Science Foundation awards in Arizona. Unlike, the agency selection was single choice reached by the convention of first letter, N, and a few key strokes to make the selection. All right, but now what?

So, the search seems successful yielding another page with lots of accessibility and agency clutter at the top I had to listen through. Back and forth a bit, I found the link to text presentation of the data, accompanied with a blue map.

Looking for text data, same boring junk at the top then up comes the table of rows of actual data. It’s hard to navigate by row and column, some columns have no real information, like I know I asked for ” National Science Foundation”, read in every row. But painfully working row by row I can find an interesting item like $80K created .17 job –wow! Indeed, the award details is there and readable and interesting.

The big problem with this iteration of is that the website is in the way. I definitely do not plan to post anything on MySpace social media service but I have to listen to or bypass this silly text and thought too often to learn what’s on a page. It just seems goofy to send a Recovery dataset to a “friend” on a social network, although it could be relevant in a mature Twitter thread. If the gov goal is to incorporate social media into its normal workflow, then there are big questions of stability, accessibility, and much more of these profit-seeking, ad-driven enterprises.

I give myself an A for conquering this site, although I’m still stumbling around tables of data. gets a B for assembling this information in readable form, although not in dataset forms as relative to missions like In other words, it looks like a lot of page scraping to identify trends. My suggestion is simple: get the “Track the money” form front and center and press the website, social media, and features into the background. Overall, better than I expected, although the recording and further use leave a feeling of irritation, like having to sweep off a desk of junk to find a phone to get the information needed. Like, just give me control and let me track the money myself. I’ll be back.

General Suggestions for Improvement

It’s Time to Bring Landmarks to .gov

I’m getting spoiled by really accessible websites like AccessibleTwitter and BookShare that use the ARIA landmark feature to structure pages and search results. For example, the .gov sites could be separated into (1) agency logo and babble, (2) navigation, (3) main content, (4) reference to other gov sites and external services. Bookshare shows how to organize search results integrated with the next-previous results page bar.

Indeed, this brings up the issue of consistency among .gov websites, which could be kind of nice and helpful. Not meaning to squelch individuality of agencies or artistic license or experimentation with diversity, but a citizen wanting a simple answer to an information question isn’t as impressed with decorations as with ease of use, especially on return visits. And visually impaired users especially appreciate predictability, a trait shared with most human beings, when confronted with pure tasks. With all due respect,most visits to gov websites are not for tours through marble halls or to expand social networks to include anonymous civil servants, but rather to get a piece of info as fast and readable as possible.

Should gov sites link to inaccessible social web services? NO!

All gov 2.0 buzz seems to involve social media, as in Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes Flickr and MySpace. But the accessibility of most of these sites is way below that of the .gov sites. Can a website assert it is accessible if it links to patently inaccessible services? I think not. The good news is the movement toward alternatives like Accessible Twitter and accessible versions of YouTube. These should be mentioned in accessibility statements. Or, better yet, no links to unless these billion-dollar enterprises raise their accessibility levels to the acceptable status demonstrate by these alternatives. Perhaps there should be a warning label on sites known to be poorly designed or not for the newbie. The US government uses its clout for diversity, why not also for accessibility?

After spending several hours on these websites, knowing a lot myself about social media, the focus on social stuff seems rather silly considering the weight of the data involved. Am I, is anybody, going to post a link on MySpace or Facebook of a significant query and insight? I doubt it. Rather, these sites give an impression of trying to be oh, so cool, gotta get our stuff out to the fan pages on Facebook. Gimme a break. From a screen reader user, this is just pure clutter in the way of your main mission, stuff I have to listen to redundantly and irrelatively. Try it yourself and determine what value is really added from social media service references so prominently in users’ faces/ears. Even scarier, if gov agencies are adopting these inaccessible, unstable services for actual business, the traditional discrimination policies must come into play, as well as questions about judgement. For example, Twitter is a great news medium, but its rules can, and do, change at any moment.

How about a gov BEST and WORST practices competition?

I personally don’t get any value, but rather irritation, from the skip links and text size adjustments. First, the skip links are often just plain wrong, often enough to mistrust and not worth a false link and recovery. Text size adjustments are relevant to those who need large fonts not supplied by browser adjustments. Pages with good headings and landmarks don’t require skip links. Pages that aren’t crowded with text don’t need on-page text size adjustments.. To me, these are accessibility decorations that amount to screen reader noise. It’s rather jarring to find major inconsistencies among gov websites, e.g. text-only at but not others, different HTML form patterns, and greatly varying degrees of conventional accessibility.

As complained about in the blog lists, there’s a common pattern that might be nicely standardized. A list of, say 100, items is divided into sections with a bar of links: previous, 1, 2, … next. If you’re drilling down through several pages of results, getting easily into this bar is important. A landmark is a natural way of identifying results.

Does every search form have to be constructed differently? Above tasks required me to figure out the subdivisions of forms (usually not labeled) and then the form elements. There’s probably a special class of gov site users who can whack their way through a form down to a data set in no time. But the ordinary citizen has to struggle through understanding then mastering the form, finding results, and interpreting answers, which can take hours. How about an award for government service by providing a superior form that other sites can emulate? And give those web designers a bonus or promotion, too!

Sum up, getting better? Yes or No?

Overall, although using these sites made me rather grumpy, the trend is toward better accessibility, more usability, and genuine transformation of how citizens use USG data. My wishes are:

  1. Work on clutter and removal and helping users find direct paths to important data, i.e. work on the most significant use cases.
  2. Designers and maintainers of these website should listen to recorded TTS of their pages and contents for several hours to really appreciate the clutter effect of featuritis, accessibility decorations, and social media silliness.
  3. Cut down on the social media crap and rethink what really matters. Yes, these services are useful but really, do they deserve so much prominence? Will they still be here 3 years from now?
    It just seems incongruous to think of sharing recovery datasets with ad-hungry “friend” oriented services. Most serious is the hypocrisy of declaring accessibility on a gov website when these lucrative services so actively ignore accessibility and force visually impaired service users to volunteer developed accessible alternatives.

  4. The most important use of this data is not visible to most citizens. Namely, RSS feeds are the best way for someone to monitor these sites, scanning article titles, downloaded to a mobile device, with rare visits to actual websites. How can the USG foster better offline use of important government developments?
  5. Is there a “curb cut” effect from feedback like this? I hope so, that fixing stumbles precipitated by accessibility bumps and usability gaps will help everybody.
  6. Finally, a cautionary warning I just heard from my CNN news feed. Many recovery awards seem to have fallen into fallacious congressional districts, making the whole record keeping of job data questionable. Apparently citizens reporting award data don’t know what congressional district they belong to (I’m AZ ONE, I think, maybe). Now, data base developers and instructors know, there’s a TRIGGER for that. Zip codes usually map to unique districts but that might not be a requirement or implemented yet. Just saying.

Related Posts

Story: A Screen Reader Salvages a Legacy System

October 30, 2009

This post tells a story of how the NVDA Screen Reader helped a person with vision loss solve a former employment situation puzzle. Way to go, grandpa Dave, and thanks for permission to reprint from the NVDA discussion list on

Grandpa Dave’s Story

From: Dave Mack
To: nvda

Date: Oct 29

Subj: [nvda] Just sharing a feel good experience with NVDA
Hi, again, folks, Grandpa Dave in California, here –
I have hesitated sharing a recent experience I had using NVDA because I know this list is primarily for purposes of reporting bugs and fixes using NVDA. However, since this is the first community of blind and visually-impaired users I have joined since losing my ability to read the screen visually, I have decided to go ahead and share this feel-good experience where my vision loss has turned out to be an asset for a group of sighted folks. A while ago, a list member shared their experience helping a sighted friend whose monitor had gone blank by fixing the problem using NVDA on a pen drive so I decided to go ahead and share this experience as well – though not involving a pen drive but most definitely involving my NVDA screen reader.

Well, I just had a great experience using NVDA to help some sighted folks where I used to work and where I retired from ten years ago. I got a phone call from the current president of the local Federal labor union I belonged to and she explained that the new union treasurer was having a problem updating their large membership database with changes in the union’s payroll deductions that they needed to forward to the agency’s central payroll for processing. She said they had been working off-and-on for almost three weeks and no one could resolve the problem even though they were following the payroll change instructions I had left on the computer back in the days I had written their database as an amateur programmer. I was shocked to hear they were still using my membership database program as I had written it almost three decades ago! I told her I didn’t remember much abouthe dBase programming language but I asked her to email me the original instructions I had left on the computer and a copy of the input commands they were keying into the computer. I told her I was now visually impaired, but was learning to use the NVDA screen reader and would do my best to help. She said even several of the Agency’s programmers were
stumped but they did not know the dBase program language.

A half hour later I received two email attachments, one containing my thirty-year-old instructions and another containing the commands they were manually keying into their old pre-Windows computer, still being used by the union’s treasurer once-a-month for payroll deduction purposes. Well, as soon as I brought up the two documents and listened to a comparison using NVDA, I heard a difference between what they were entering and what my instructions had been. They were leaving out some “dots, or periods, which should be included in their input strings into the computer. I called the Union’s current president back within minutes of receiving the email. Everyone was shocked and said they could not see the dots or periods. I told them to remember they were probably still using a thirty-year-old low resolution computer monitor and old dot-matrix printer which were making the dots or periods appear to be part of letters they were situated between.

Later in the day I got a called back from the Local President saying I had definitely identified the problem and thanking me profusely and said she was telling everyone I had found the cause of the problem by listening to errors non of the sighted folks had been able to see . And, yes, they were going to upgrade their computer system now after all these many years. (laughing) I told her to remember this experience the next time anyone makes a wisecrack about folks with so-called impairments. She said it was a good lesson for all. Then she admitted that the reason they had not contacted me sooner was that they had heard through the grapevine that I was now legally blind and everyone assumed I would not be able to be of assistance. What a mistake and waste of time that ignorant assumption was, she confessed.

Well, that’s my feel good story, but, then, it’s probably old hat for many of you. I just wanted to share it as it was my first experience teaching a little lesson to sighted people in my
own small way. with the help of NVDA. –

Grandpa Dave in California

Moral of the Story: Screen Readers Augment our Senses in Many Ways = Invitation to Comment

Do you have a story where a screen reader or similar audio technology solved problems where normal use of senses failed? Please post a comment.

And isn’t it great that us older folks have such a productive and usable way of overcoming our vision losses? Thanks, NVDA projectn developers, sponsors, and testers.

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,, and
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.


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

First, go to 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 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 and

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 and WebAim WAVE report on accessibility.

Comments on

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 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

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 and
Jim Thatcher’s analysis of,
developers of accessible interactive components,
critique of 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 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.

My Accessibility Check: Images and their Surrogates

February 28, 2009

This post is part of a series on my experiences with web accessibility. Each post condenses what I’ve learned from before and after as a real-life Vision Loser continuing 30 years of Internet use and as a new student of accessibility theory and practice. Sighted readers will learn a bit more about how a low vision persons uses the web and other Vision Losers may sense some of the rationale behind the annotation of graphics.

Why are ALT tags Rule #1 of web accessibility

Ok, so web pages are inherently visually motivated to exploit the power of browsers and graphic images to convey information to users. But does that mean that images can be used freely, for either decorative or information roles, without the slightest indication of their purpose on a page? Wouldn’t that be cruel to people without vision? Of course! And with increase in use of mobile devices with smaller screens, images may also be problematic for sighted people. And browsing without images showing remains common where bandwidth is limited by availability or cost. Hence, providing surrogates for images acquired the primary position in accessibility rule making.

Web standards make it implicit that web content should be perceivable necessitating alternative textual descriptions of graphics. That implementation of this rule is dead simple, to write a description as an accompaniment, denoted by the HTML identifier ALT.

Are ALT tags simple and easy to use?

Well, yes, it’s easy to add such tags. Creating web pages the power user way, with a Notepad, one adds ALT=”the description” to accompany the location , denoted by SRC, of the image. No big deal, but what would the description say? the color of the image? ithe who or where? the artful ambience? The trick here is that the ALT description should give exactly the information needed to place the image usefully in the context of the page, no more, and no less. Ouch, that requires thinking, like why have the image in the first place and what’s its role in the narrative of the page, in addition to attracting eyes and stimulating visual cortexes?

And, wouldn’t you know it, there are more messy questions as described in Web Accessibility Gone Wild from some images are purely decorative and some are used for layout of the page, neither of which require a real ALT description, which would only get in the way of screen readers. And there are charts and graphs where the data displayed is integral to the point of the web page. And some images just take a lot of words to describe. Furthermore, images are often associated with links where the descriptions overlap. Happily, the above article provides good commen sense practices for these situations.

Examples of Accessibility Issues for ALT and images

Images without ALT tags are often cited as “obstacles for the unsighted”, but this Vision Loser has only one experience like this. As described in previous post on “pie charts and literacy” inability to read a pie chart may have doomed my retirement funds during an analysis by my ‘Wealth Manager’. Not really, we’re all doomed, but inability to read the pie chart of asset allocations was a real bummer for me. The problem here is not so much that the pie slice relative sizes and labels were unavailable in a PDF document, but that I could not get my hands into the original data. Pie charts are not so much images as representations of data that stimulate questions about relationships within that data. I am still looking for the pie chart I can manipulate to get those relationships out of the data imprisoned in documents.

Generally, it does help to have image descriptions like ““bicyclists using curb cut in complex intersection” to force my brain into thinking about physical locations and moving objects. But rarely do I find the absence of a good description as a barrier to understanding the content of a page. With low vision myself, I don’t have much practice using images and ALT text, requiring a sighted helper to assure images are what they say.

On the other hand, now that I’m an accessibility advocate, it is annoying to find violations of Rule #1 because this may show a rather serious ignorance of or callousness toward accessibility. I recently found this in a left unnamed output of an NSF project on Broadening Participation in Computing. An excellent project to entice student interest in computing through a journalist pathway produced a newsletter with articles illustrated by images that read out to me as “497” and “2934”. All I could think of was a missed opportunity to raise the awareness of student authors about accessibility issues, like “how would your great-grandpa’s bad eyes read this page?” Our tax dollars should be properly used only when results are fully accessible. But don’t get me started on university and professional organization web sites!

What next for ALT?

Of course, there’s more to graphic media with Flash and animation. But the message of ALT seems to be:

  1. Leave off ALT tags if you want to put up a clear “No blind need apply” sign to your visiting potential clients and students.
  2. Put in the time thinking and checking out your web pages for image usefulness. Turn off images in your browser and see what’s missed. Do images still matter? Are they well supplemented by ALT descriptions?
  3. Decorative images may be vestigial ways of thinking about getting column 2 of text to start at position 43 when that’s going to interfere with text sizing requirements or be bungled in one or another browser. Or, even worse, really stupid cases are when a screen reader reads out “spacer, spacer” between words, indicating you didn’t know how to or care to test with a screen reader.

My Accessibility Check: Let’s All Use Our Headings!

January 30, 2009

Cringing all the time, I am cleaning up my web sites and these blog pages to conform to accessibility standards and my own growing experience with usability. I plan to break down this effort into HTML facets prioritized by the trouble I have using these features as I browse and perform transactions: headings, links, forms, navigation, graphics, etc.

Sighted readers of this post should learn more about the importance of headings to guide low vision and blind readers. New Vision Losers may learn some benefits of and tricks for using a screen reader. Listen to an excellent video on the importance of headings.

The Values of Standards

For this exercise, I will be using the WebAIM simplified WCAG checklist. . The w3 standards are certainly thorough, technically rooted, and well stated. But each facet of web use is complex in its own way with technical lingo related to not only browsers and HTML but also human psychology and usability studies. Even richer are the problems of maintaining and using the ecosystem of trillions of web pages created in only 15 years by several generations of web developers using constantly changing web technology. Anyone approaching a standards activity is faced with numerous trade-offs, in social as well as technical values. So any checklist like this appears neutral about the relative importance of each criterion, leaving it up to accessibility statements to identify their values and responses.

If one were to assess values, questions would include: how much harm would be done by violation of a certain criterion? how many users would be harmed and to what degree? My accessibility checking process is based on my personal difficulties, with occasional harm to me but more often to the web page purveyor if I give up or move away in disgust. I have gradually zoomed in on Headings as a key criterion for usability of a web page design intent and execution, regarding the content and use cases for the web site.

Headings 101

Since the big inning of HTML time, an ea on ago around 1993, came the simple system: H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6. Browsers agreed to display these in different font sizes. Headings were a direct take-off on the section structure everyone learns in creating documents:, like chapter, section, subsection, etc. These looked really great in early browsers and conveyed the transferable semantics of sections and subsections, especially when heading wording was carefully crafted so that the headings alone conveyed a good outline of the page.

Then came page styles, with more concern for fonts, colors, and page layout. Standard heading styles didn’t always mesh well with desired look as pages were divided into frames, columns, and navigation bars. So headings became more problematic and lost use. Search engines have been said to apply extra weight to heading terms on the assumption these were chosen to emphasize a section’s purpose and content. But super powerful indexing of terms on a page lessened the impact of headings.

Now, what do the standards say? Right up front, in 1.3.1 calls for semantics on web pages, not only headings but also proper tagging for lists, quotes, and real tables of data. “Semantics” means “meaning”, i.e. a heading covers a block of the page and lower level headings are lower in those sections. Following this logical argument, a page has a subject at level H1, sections that correspond to both content and use of the page. Here come some tricky parts if headings are used faithfully, e.g. what is the level of a search box, or page maintenance information, or, for that matter, the main content of the page?

The Webaxe podcast and blog on accessibility is an excellent tutorial and reference to other webs sources on accessibility. Here is WCAG 2.0 Guidelines for section headings

Rationale for using headings

Usability for screen readers

A screen reader strips out the visual only aspects of web pages and reads out the primary content: headings, lists, tables, graphic descriptions, links, etc. as well as paragraphs. My NVDA screen reader has explicit settings as to which HTML elements to read out as well as settings for the voice, e.g. amount of punctuation and indication of capitalization.

The first thing I do using Firefox and NVDA screen reader reaching a new web page is hit the h key to tour the page by headings, listening to both the descriptions and the levels, trying to build a mental map of the page. I can also use the 1,2,… keys to traverse the page by level of headings.

You tube video demo and appeal for using headings tells the story exceptionally well. With headings on a page, you are off and running into the content immediately. Without headings, I try looking for meaningful links, then lists, tables. Failing along the way, I grow increasingly grumpy if the page is long and must be covered line by line or by tabbing among HTML elements in the top-bottom, left-right reading order.

General readability and write ability

Just as I am never really satisfied with my own heading structure, I react to the intuitive flow of reasoning I discover in a page’s outline. The screen reader has a marvelous way of building or destroying confidence in the underlying design of the page and content. I can “feel” the flow of a page and the thinking of its authors.

With headings, I can drill down into the subjects that interest me, traverse backward and forward in skimming fashion, and maintain an understanding of the page’s content and my location within it. No headings and I must read linearly or traverse lower level elements, which often is appropriate for list elements but not strings of graphics or paragraphs.

Quality control and maintenance

Software engineers gradually learn the value of design, following templates, working top down, modularizing content, and many other principles. We learn that lack of structure will kill us when we need to make changes, which will happen sooner or later. We also understand a process called re factoring that systematically moves functions, expands classes, and regularizes parts of a system. It’s only a belief on my part, but I wonder if a page developer not using headings really knows what the page should be saying. Of course, real life suggests that the original developer is often long gone and the page owners are maintain the page themselves as their situations change. No wonder pages turn out so messy!

Another reason I react to poor heading structure is that I know the page has not been adequately tested with a screen reader and an at tentative human. If the only headings on a page are H5 and H1 that’s better the nothing, but why would the tester not recognize and fix this anomaly? Often this signifies that the page developers are following standards without real understanding or care. Another reason is the industrial origins of screen readers with $1000 price tags and adverse licensing that makes it difficult to test a page. NVDA obviates that reason, but there are still difficulties with the tester’s ability to understand a synthetic voice and work screenless.

Examples of headings

Here are some pages I like and dislike for their use of headings. Other visually impaired readers most likely will have other feelings based on their skills, tools, interest in the web site and content, and mental state.

Good use of headings

  1. web standards parent makes the tradeoff of using mostly level H2 sections with many additional pages in this large site. More subheadings could be used, it seems to me, for example in the months for presentations on the talks page.
  2.>/a> maintains excellent structure in its templates and working pages, such as tags. However, the main page jumps around from H1 to H6, obviously in search of some look I cannot appreciate via screen reader.
  3. google search results are organized by H2 for sponsored and search results with the results in a list at H3 level. Since headings are also links, this makes browsing a list of links quite rapid. However, in a stroke of inconsistency, news results and some other types of searches are not so tagged with headings., making the results far less useful with a screen reader.

Poor use of headings

  1. Word Web Online has only an H1 and would benefit from subsections for parts of speech, e.g. immediately calling a noun usage and telling other uses. Also sections for other dictionaries and linguistic tools would help.
  2. Association for Computing Machinery is the premiere computing professional association, that I unfortunately belong to for access to its digital library of publications. The heading structure is H1, H5, H5, H5, H1. What were they thinking? The page is not so badly organized but the heading read out is jarring.
  3. Computing Research Association has no headings or semantic cues. The page is laid out in visual sections but without any of that information transmitted via screen reader.

Exceptions from using standard headings

  1. While main is a royal mess with a page full of links difficult to classify by headings, alternative mobile accessible has no headings at all. I find this acceptable in the spirit of minimalism that can be traversed in a few tabs or immediately to the product search box.

How did we stray from the wisdom of headings?

One reason for haphazard use of headings is certainly the conflict of the visual appearance of headings with desired look of pages, although this can be cured by style sheets. It is also difficult to reconcile section headings with navigation elements and actions from use cases on the same page as descriptive content. However, my bet is that a little more thinking could come up with palatable heading descriptions that would satisfy a screen reader user as well as a visual user. Additional arguments based on engineering principles for quality and maintenance are difficult to teach within software engineering but gradually become the stuff of bitter experience for truly professional web developers.

So, what do I advise?

  1. Use as many headings on your pages as you have logical groups of elements. If This one step is the most accessible step you can make for the broadest range of users.
  2. Try but don’t fuss too much over the true hierarchy, i.e. an H4 under an H2 or H2 topics not really at the same level. Using a screen reader will be much easier although the anomalies will be noticeable. However, each anomaly is something to question about your overall page structure.
  3. Of course, there are really no-win situations. An example is the use of headings within a blog post that don’t fit into the levels of a posting list as in wordpress tag surfer.
  4. Test your page using NVDA or a proprietary screen reader listening carefully to the sections and page outline. This is easy. Just start NVDA, set the preferences to the page elements you want, bring up Firefox with your page and type the h key around your headings. Other browsers may perform differently and you might need a more soothing synthetic voice but this should be part of any test environment.

Lessons from 2008 ‘As your world changes’

December 31, 2008

This list compiles postings from 2008 as my Lessons Learned.

Progress in adjusting to vision loss

  1. Analytic approach for personal safety risksThinking about risks
  2. Gearing up and voting independently in 2008 elections Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing
  3. Understanding values of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability
  4. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Understanding of software applications limits and alternatives Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Appreciating the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  7. Identify accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  8. Compile and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
    Hyperlinks considered harmful

  9. Use better information for medical opinions Controversy Discovery Engine

Community Interactions

    Safety issues walking partially sighted in a neighborhood. Thinking about risks

  1. Spreading information and interest in accessible audio voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Assembling list of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  3. Illustrating value of white canes Grabbing my identity cane and the culture of disability

Information for Computing Professionals

  1. Success and glitches in accessible electronic voting
    Accessible voting worked, Voting without viewing

  2. Explain and demonstrate how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found Hyperlinks considered harmful
  3. Demonstrate and explain the power of and objections to synthetic voices Synthetic voice shock reverberates across the divides
  4. Future thinking for assistive technology and accessibility Is there a killer app for accessibility?, Curb Cuts principle for rebooting computing,
  5. Demonstrate accessibility issues Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  6. Illustration of quality assurance failure in major software product Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  7. Dissemination of alternative deep search method controversy Discovery Engine

Actions and Follow up

  1. Start ‘accessibility arrow’ monthly series on WCAG standards, and good and bad examples Hear me stumble! web accessibility problems
  2. Develop “adopt an intersection” accessible street crossing plan Thinking about risks
  3. Learn about emergency preparedness and alert systems for disabled Thinking about risks
  4. Maintain web page of social services in local community and nationally Prescott Arizona Visually Impaired resources
  5. Investigate SSA, tax, HIPAA, and other official information representations and accessibility Intuit TurboTax high contrast glitch
  6. Revisit and analyze how I read, write, and process information nonVisual reading technologies, <a href=”#Writing by listening, Literacy lost and found
  7. recast accessibility, reading, writing, information processing in Computational thinking terms
  8. Promote needs for and opportunities of assistive technology and accessibility at Rebooting Computing summit, January 2009
  9. Recognize and explain high quality software and hardware products, e.g. Jarte editor in screen reader mode
  10. Promote for medical information gathering controversy Discovery Engine

Best Stuff found in 2008

  1. ‘Reading in the dark’ blog for opinions and pointers on books, media studies, and accessibility opportunities. And many other blogs, too.
  2. content platform for supporting edit ability, accessible templates, and tag surfing
  3. Jarte editor for easy editing based on reliable Windows Wordpad engine with added multi-documents, contextual spell checker, and screen reader mode
  4. (PD) Becky Gibson, web accessibility architect
    demo of DOJO keyboard, high contrast, and screen reader demos of ARIA applications

Links to blog postings

  1. Thinking about Risks blog Permalink
    December 2008

  2. Accessible voting worked blog Permalink
    November 2008

  3. Using the Curb Cuts Principle blog Permalink
    October 2008

  4. Literacy blog Permalink
    September 2008

  5. Voting Without Viewing blog Permalink
    August 2008

  6. Synthetic Voice Shock blog Permalink
    July 2008

  7. Hyperlinks Considered Harmful blog PermalinkJuly 2008

  8. Controversy Discovery Engine for Medical Opinions
    June 2008

  9. Technology for nonVisual Reading blog Permalink
    June 2008

  10. Writing by Listening blog Permalink
    May 2008

  11. Identity Cane and Disability Culture blog Permalink May 2008
    May 2008

  12. Intuit against High Contrast blog Permalink
    March 2008

  13. ‘Hear me stumble’ blog Permalink March 2008

  14. Killer App for Accessibility blog Permalink
    January 2008

  15. Prescott Visually Impaired Services blog Permalink
    January 2008

All posts for 2008 — HTML and audio

Synthetic Voice Shock Reverberates Across the Divides!

July 30, 2008

Synthetic Voice Shock — oh, those awful voices!

As I communicate with other persons with progressive vision loss, I often sense a quite negative reaction to synthetic, or so-called ‘robotic’, voices that enable reading digital materials and interfacing with computers. Indeed, that’s how I felt a few years ago. Let’s call this reaction "synthetic voice shock" as in:

  • I cannot understand that voice!!!
  • The voice is so inhuman, inexpressive, robotic, unpleasant!
  • How could I possibly benefit from using anything that hard to listen to?
  • If that’s how the blind read, I am definitely not ready to take that step.

Conversely, those long experienced with screen readers and reading appliances may be surprised at these adverse reactions to the text-to-speech technology they listen to many hours a day. They know the clear benefits of such voices, rarely experience difficult understandability, exploit voice regularity and adjustability, and innovate better ways of "living big" in the sighted world, to quote the LevelStar motto.

The ‘Synthetic Speech’ divide

Synthetic voice reactions appear to criss-cross many so-called divides: digital, generational, disability, and developer. The free WebAnywhere is the latest example with a robotic voice that must be overcome in order to gain the possible benefits of its wide dissemination. Other examples are talking ATM centers and accessible audio for voting machines. The NVDA installation and default voice can repel even sighted individuals who could benefit from a free screen reader as a web page accessibility checker or a way to learn about the audio assistive mode. Bookshare illustrates book reading potential by a robotic, rather than natural, voice. Developers of these tools seen the synthetic voice as a means to gain the benefits of their tools while users not accustomed to speech-enabled hardware and software run the other way at the unfriendliness and additional stress of learning an auditory rather than visual sensory practice.

This is especially unfortunate when people losing vision may turn to magnifiers that can only improve spot reading, when extra hours and energy are spent twiddling fonts then working line by line through displayed text, when mobile devices are not explored, when pleasures of book reading and quality of information from news are reduced.

Addressing Synthetic Voice Shock

I would like to turn this posting into messages directed at developers, Vision Losers, caretakers, and rehab personnel.

To Vision Losers who could benefit sooner or later

Please be patient and separate voice quality from reading opportunities when you evaluate potential assistive technology.

The robotic voice you encounter with screen readers is used because it is fast and flexible and widely accepted by the blind community. But there do exist better natural voices that can be used for reading books, news, and much more. While these voices seem initially offensive, synthetic voices are actually one of the great wonders of technology by opening the audio world to the blind and gradually becoming common in telephony and help desks.

As one with Myopic Macular Degeneration forced to break away from visual dependency and embrace audio information, I testify it takes a little patience and self-training and then you hear past these voices and your brain naturally absorbs the underlying content. Of course, desperation from print disability is a great motivator! Once overcoming the resistance to synthetic voices, a whole new world of spoken content becomes available using innovative devices sold primarily to younger generations of educated blind persons. Freed of the struggle to read and write using defective eyesight, there is enormous power to absorb an unbelievable amount of high quality materials. As a technologist myself, I made this passage quickly and really enjoyed the learning challenge, which has made me into an evangelist for the audio world of assistive technology.

If you have low vision training available, ask about learning to listen through synthetic speech. For the rest of our networked lives, synthetic voices may be as important as eccentric viewing and using contrast to manage objects.

So, when you encounter one of these voices, maybe think of them as another rite of passage to remain fully engaged with the world. Also, please consider how we can help others with partial sight. With innovations from web anywhere and free screen readers, like NVDA, there could be many more low cost speaking devices available world wide.

To Those developing reading tools with Text-to-Speech


Do not expect that all users of your technology will be converts from within the visually impaired communities familiar with TTS. Provide a voice tuned in pitch and speed and simplicity for starters to achieve the necessary intelligibility and sufficient pleasantness. Suggest that better voices are also available and show how to achieve their use.

It’s tough to spent development effort on such a mundane matter as the voice, but technology adoption lessons show that it only takes a small bit of discouragement to ruin a user’s experience and send a tool they could really use straight into their recycle bin. Demos and warnings could be added to specifically address Synthetic Voice Shock and show off the awesome benefits to be gained. The choice of a freely available voice is a perfectly rational design decision but may indicate a lack of sensitivity to the needs of those newly losing vision forced to learn not only the mechanics of a tool but also how to lis en to this foreign speech.

To Sighted persons helping Vision Losers

You should be tech savvy enough to separate out the voice interface from the core of the tool you might be evaluating for a family member or demonstration. Remember the recipient of the installed software will be facing both synthetic voice shock and possibly dependency on the tool as well as long learning curve. Somehow, you need to make the argument that the voice is a help not a hindrance. Of course, you need to be able to understand the voice yourself, perhaps translate its idiosyncrasies, and tune its pitch and speed. A synthetic voice is a killer software parameter.

You may need to seek out better speech options, even outlay a few bucks to upgrade to premium voices or a low cost tool. Amortizing $100 for voice interface over the lifetime hours of listening to valuable materials, maintaining an independent life style, and expanding communication makes voices such a great bargain.

And, who knows, many of the voice-enabled apps may help your own time shifting, multi-tasking, mobile life styles.

To Rehab Trainers

From the meager amount of rehab available to me, the issue of Synthetic Voice Shock is not addressed at all. Eccentric viewing, the principles of contrast for managing objects, a host of useful independent living gadgets, font choices, etc. are traditional modules in standard rehab programs. Perhaps it would be good to have a simple lesson listening to pleasant natural voices combined with more rough menu readers just to show it can be done. Listening to synthetic voices should not be treated like torture but rather like a rite of passage to gain the benefits brought by assistive technology vendors and already widely accepted in the visually impaired communities. Indeed, inability to conquer Synthetic Voice Shock might be considered a disability in itself.

As I have personally experienced, it must be especially difficult to handle Vision Losers with constantly changing eyesight and a mixed bag of residual abilities. It could be very difficult to tell Vision Losers they might fare better reading like a totally blind person. But when it comes to computer technology, that step into the audio world can both reduce stress of struggling to see poorly in a world geared toward hyperactive visually oriented youngsters, especially when print disability opens the flow of quality reading materials, often ahead of the technology curve for sighted people.

The most useful training I can imagine is a session reading an article from AARP or sports Illustrated or New York times editorial copied into a version of TextAloud, or similar application, with premium voices. Close those eyes and just relax and listen and imagine doing that anywhere, in any bodily position, with a daily routine of desirable reading materials. To demonstrate the screen reader aspect, the much maligned Microsoft sam in Narrator can quickly show how menus, windows, and file lists can be traversed by reading and key strokes. The takeaway of such a session should be that there are other, perhaps eventually better, ways of reading print materials and interacting with computers than struggling with deteriorating vision, assuming hearing is sufficient.

So, let us pay attention to Voice Shock

In summary, more attention should be paid to the pattern of adverse reactions of Vision Losers unfamiliar with the benefits of the synthetic speech interaction that enables so many assistive tools and interfaces.

References on Synthetic Voice Shock

  1. Wikipedia on Synthetic Speech. Technical and historical, back to 1939 Worlds Fair.
  2. Wired for Speech, research and book by Clifford Nass. Experiments with effects of gender, ethnicity, personality in perception of synthetic speech.
  3. Audio demonstrations using synthetic speech
  4. NosillaCast podcaster Allison Sheridan interviewing her macular degenerate mother on her new reading device. Everyzing is a general search engine for audio, as in podcasts.
  5. Example of a blog with natural synthetic speech reading. Warning: Political!
  6. Google for ‘systhetic voice online demo’ for examples across the synthetic voice marketplace. Most will download as WAY files.
  7. The following products illustrate Synthetic Voice Shock.
  8. Podcast Interview with ‘As Your World Changes’ blog author covering many issues of audio assistive technology
  9. Audio reading of this posting in male and female voices

Hear me stumble — web accessibility observations

March 16, 2008

This posting lists several good and bad examples of web accessibility and usability situations in an instructive sense, including recorded sessions of this intrepid logger guiding her web page readers.

Background Postings and Standards

recurring Problems that are easily fixed

  1. Problem: useless links click Here — huh, for what?

    The unfortunate user must expend extra energy to read surrounding context to find what the click is for. This mistake usually indicates poor communication skills and lack of testing using a screen reader. variations include: Learn More, read more, and the especially illuminating here. similarly, a document may be identified then followed by its type a line like PDF or HTML or size 5 MB.

    Recommendation: Page content writers should read out loud the list of links by screen reader or by eye scanning and assure clarity where each link leads. And there is no excuse for not using a screen reader with the nvda, free, open source, easily installed screen reader .

  2. Problem: blog postings blocked by links — when good blogs go bad.

    conventional web layouts contain site navigation, rolls of links to related content, meta data about site and author, news, etc. screen readers follow a left upper corner, top, left, order that forces reading or bypassing links to reach actual page content, which sighted readers look for in the middle of a page. a repeat visitor rarely has interest in these links. blog and other content management systems usually provide a choice of page layout Reading a links-first blog format takes up screen reader time, even with a jump to heading. More disastrously, an RSS client often receives all the links on a text version of a posting, taking a minute or more to read before content, making some blogs effectively unbearable in RSS format.

    Recommendation: Design pages and choose layouts to favor quick access to recurring content, placing honorific stuff right and below what your main page matter.

    Examples: two of my favorite tech blogs, Good example: Jon Udell blog and Bad example: Phil windley’s technometria.

  3. Problem: Learning the structure of a page — it’s the headings, stupid!

    we all know to sprinkle headings through our documents to break into and describe sections, even applying this to bills and forms. for a screen reader user, headings provide the primary way of moving among sections, often preceded by an exploratory “heading tour” to identify the page sections ahead. without sections, the screen reader’s finer detail units are links, lists, and paragraphs, but this rapidly degenerates into interminable tabs and keystrokes like taking steps into a cave without knowing where the path will lead. conversely, a well-sectioned document also broken into pages can be very rapidly browsed with a screen reader, perhaps even faster than a scrolling sighted reader. can cover graphics and font styles. Chunks of text can be skipped for more detailed reading later. Nothing substitutes for having a sense of the page’s structure in outline form.

    Recommendation: Make sure all page sections are well described by HTML H1, H2, H3,… headings with informative descriptions. Now, is that so hard?

    Examples Good example:”> program organized by days and topic and Good Example: browsing wai-aria documentation

  4. Problem: switchingfrom browser to an external app — .txt imprisoned in .doc or .pdf

    Browsers are now integrated with external applications like Microsoft word or adobe PDF. but that meanss a screen reader user must first launch that app, and, of course, MS OFFICE is not free! reading the document involves a different set of keystrokes and conventions with PDF often losing any previous document structure. Ironically, frequently, the document being read is little more than text any way! This vision Loser simply saves DOC or PDF and then strips the document down to TXT for reading in Notepad or on an external reader like APH Bookport or Levelstar Icon. With gratitude, another path is google search “View as HTML” and HTML save As in mobile gmail. This argument also applies to mail attachment — imprisoning text memos in a WORD format attachment requires a lot of extra work by a visually impaired recipient, and “click on attachment” is often a security risk.

    Recommendation: Web authors should save a version of a document as HTML and Make that a primary link, offering a PDF for portability (that’s the P in PDF). HTML is the document format that literate web writers should be using, e.g. to exploit hyperlinks, and not at all the private domain of web designers and New Media or IT departments. Strictly speaking any PDF should be produced in accessible format for extensive reading.

More complicated web accessibility Problems

  1. Problem: Locked out of the chat room — social Media Overkill.

    recently, one of my favorite podcasters started live chat sessions with call-in. I wanted to ask a question and join in so showed up at the web page at the appointed time, having pre-registered and browsed the site the day before. Uh, oh, I couldn’t find an entry point, didn’t even know what I was looking for. worse yet, an audio had started playing – was that the current session? No, it was prerecorded, drowning out my screen reader with no way of silencing the cacophony. Eventually I waded through a ton of links to other shows, popular podcasters, special offers and found a PLAY button. Now, all this with a screen reader contending with an audio discussion, and then the text chat was completely inaccessible to the screen reader. well, that podcaster lost a fan’s admiration for choosing BlogTalkRadion as a meeting place uncomfortable for me. The key problem was that the main purpose — to bring people together — was obscured by the now socially acceptable business practice of trying to draw attention to other podcasts and \shows – current, popular, categories, rated, which we term “social media over-kill”.
    The irony is that the blind and visually impaired communities have superior chat facilities, as exemplified by accessible, built on Talking communities supporting happily chatting friends of Bookshare book club meetings.

    Recommendation: when choosing a hosting service, check out its accessibility policy, not just how free it might be, if you want to retain your whole audience and its respect. service providers, please write and follow an accessibility policy and stress its use to service users. service providers, content management system designers, and designer assistants all have a great social responsibility – and opportunity – to be inclusive and to educate service users.

  2. Problem: Muddled, missing, mixed use cases — accessibility and mobility needs are met together.

    consider if you know exactly the book you want to buy at amazon or another big web seller. a trip into amazon takes you through myriad departments of other types of products, offers Recommendations, specials, bundles, and even a chance to become a reseller yourself. but all I wanted to do was get that one book into my cart! Well, luckily, limited screen space on phones and PDA’s is leading to overhauls of web sites to alternatives that offer simple and straight paths to the most common goals for impatient, on-the-go users. contrast clutter full scale with accessible, mobile . Now, not all of Amazon is on the accessible alternative, and they don’t tell you what’s missing, e.g. changing an e-mail address in profile.

    Recommendation: web designers can take the opportunity to produce an accessible version of a site along with a mobile-friendly or mobile-optimized version. and don’t forget to tell screen reader users with a non-intrusive link at the top of the page to the alternative. and, save the specials and Recommendations until after the sale.

  3. Problem: forms take forever to fill out and an error can be costly, causing form-o-phobia.

    It’s not just me, the usability literature notes something like 5 times longer for visually impaired form-fillers than sighted users. problems include: identifying required versus optional and what actually goes in a field; non-standard formats for dates, social security numbers, phone numbers; unpredictability of length of forms; time-outs and site failures; and difficulty finding the notification of errors or requirements for verifications. Then there are all those registration “opportunities”, without explanation of benefits of registering, without acknowledgment of the pain to be incurred. No thanks, no forms please.
    Is there a better way? Maybe, as suggested by Jon Udell’s article on batch form-filling for civilians suggesting the use of text strings completed by simple editing and input to an API or query processor. geez, this is so brilliant!

    Recommendation: web designers should take every care to label all fields clearly and acknowledge the time and pain of a visually impaired user. If possible, watch one of us use your form until you cannot stand the pain any longer. and recognize the difference in skill levels and experience and tenacity of a broad audience. forms are where you capture or lose a client. and, don’t even think of putting a graphic only CAPTCHA at the end at risk of eternal damnation. On the other side, visually impaired users need to practice form-filling and accept it as a necessary evil that could ruin your day. We all need to look for better ways, like Jon Udell’s text line suggestion.

Personal Observations and Grand Claims

With a year’s experience using a screen reader, I am still a novice and use articles like this to apportion responsibility for failures
to accomplish web tasks. With a 4-decade career in computing paralleling the lifetime of the Internet, I am acutely aware of many sources of failures: selection, training, and skill level with software, like browsers and screen readers; network and workstation architectures that dictate performance; application requirements analysis and design, as in web 2.0 interactions; educational backgrounds and career motivations of web designers; human proclivity toward ascribing beauty to color and graphics I can no longer appreciate; the levels of personal, team, and enterprise processes that influence application usability; the immense costs of maintenance and upgrade of web sites; and now, the structure of the assistive technology industry, the many human factors of accessibility, and the social resistance to disability issues. Mainly I am trying to take responsibility for building my skills to remain productive in society, and especially to pass along technology lessons to other Vision Losers.

Rarely am I completely stymied but far too often the energy required is the limiting factor. I use the “minimum of 5 times ” rule to estimate effort required for a task, based on memory of past trials. Often, just the thought of the work involved deters me from trying a web site, like registering and then facing a CAPTCHA, maybe putting off to a future idle day. Flippantly, I wish all young web designers would test their web sites during a bout with the flu, so they might appreciate the effects of reduced energy on every click and key stroke.

A second observation is how much the web is overly populated with extremely complex web sites, exacerbated by the trend to social media linking. Every link bypassed in a blog or information page is a decrement in energy available for reading, navigating, information seeking, and transactions. Web designers often seem to cram too many functions onto pages and fail to identify the primary use cases and prioritize for screen reader users. I am delighted at the trend toward mobile friendly pages as very helpful in countering complexity and offering redesign opportunities.

In recent discussions with web accessibility practitioners I sometimes found myself thinking as the beggarly, or maybe miserly,old lady who could not shell out $1000 for an industry standard screen reader like Jaws or Window Eyes and got stuck with a third world open source software tool. There is some truth in the monetary argument as I fail to fall into the social services classes: veteran, worker, job seeker, student, or poverty level. But I have also made a technical choice in screen reader, nvda, based on confidence in its developers, satisfaction with its early capabilities, ease of use and installation, and belief in the efficacy of the open source model of development. I also am concerned at a shaky industry chain of developers, screen reader vendors, and rehab organizations that will soon be coming under more international pressure as a free screen reader takes hold in other countries, perhaps with easy adaptability for local languages and web conventions. I cheer for the Australian Torvalds of assistive technology.

Finally, I find myself moving away from the PC and browser with increasing use of the Levelstar Icon PDA. News comes from the NFB News line to Bookshare to the Icon’s Newstand without a visit to a slow web site. Blogs and feeds bring more news from CNN, USAToday, CNET, and many political and professional organizations — again obviating a browser session in favor of RSS. And the Icon’s little browser often suffices for comfortably reading search results, pages, and blogs not embroiled in JavaScript/AJAX interfaces.

Ok, hear me stumble! Listen to recorded sessions.

Here are two recorded sessions of screen reader uses at Amazon and Fidelity. The Amazon demo follows me through the process of getting a pre-selected book into the cart, using the newer accessible and the classic web sites. The Fidelity example shows an exploration of a web site that has its whole enterprise mapped into menus.