In recent months, two words have been spoken together with great excitement and enthusiasm. Those words are "Firefox" and "Accessibility". Firefox is quickly becoming a top choice for those interested in developing accessible content and those wishing to access web content in a more user-friendly and accessible manner.
Firefox- external link is a cross-platform, stand-alone web browser developed by an open source community that is coordinated through the Mozilla- external link project. With a current market share of well over 10% (currently over 26% for the WebAIM site), the Firefox browser is becoming a more popular browsing application, especially in the development community - and now in the accessibility community as well.
When speaking of Firefox accessibility, there are two aspects that must be noted. First is the accessibility of Firefox itself as a web browser. This includes the ability of the assistive technology and browser to work together, usability of the browser interface, and customization for accessibility. Second, the browser and assistive technology must support the accessibility of web content that is accessed by the browser. Firefox supports both of these aspects of accessibility.
The Firefox browser interface is accessible for keyboard users and allows many accessibility customization options, including customizable user styles (for setting font color, contrast, size, etc.) and high contrast, large print themes. Firefox also supports the accessibility features built into web content when used with up-to-date versions of screen readers and other assistive technologies.
The excitement surrounding the accessibility of Firefox can be attributed to its open source nature, focus on standards, and extensibility.
Open Source Accessibility
As an open source project, Firefox is shaped and developed by members of the community. Anyone can contribute to make Firefox better. The needs and wants of the community are represented in the product. This means that accessibility improvements tend to be implemented by users, for users. The Accessibility Project at Mozilla- external link, which coordinates the accessibility efforts across many open source projects, has community members that author code for Firefox accessibility as well as accessibility experts and individuals with disabilities who all contribute to making Firefox more accessible.
Because of the open-source nature of Firefox and the large body of contributors, accessibility has been and continues to be implemented very quickly. Traditionally, screen reader accessibility has been available primarily by using Internet Explorer on Windows. This often meant that new accessibility features were only made available in new versions of Internet Explorer and only if they were implemented into that browser. As of this writing, several assistive technologies (JAWS, Window-Eyes, and ZoomText being the most notable) are available for use with Firefox. Window-Eyes currently provides the best support, but JAWS and ZoomText is being developed to better support Firefox accessibility features.
As a result of the open source nature of Firefox, assistive technology support for Firefox is much easier for assistive technology developers to implement than with other browsers. While accessibility is not yet perfect, the open-source nature of Firefox allows accessibility to increase at a faster rate than previously possible. Because Firefox is a cross-platform product, it opens up many new possibilities for accessibility on other operating systems—there are already several accessibility features, tools, and extensions for Firefox on Mac, Linux, and Unix operating systems.
Focus on Standards
Standards are a driving force for the Firefox development community. Accessibility guidelines have been and continue to be implemented into the development of the browser architecture. With over 1000 contributors to Firefox last year, these guidelines provide a necessary mechanism to ensure that the product meets the needs of all users. The Accessibility (often shortened to a11y - the letter a, 11 characters, then the letter y) Project at Mozilla contributes accessibility work into the Firefox product, as well as across many other Mozilla projects, such as the Thunderbird e-mail client and Sunbird calendar client. XUL- external link (XML User-interface Language), the language which defines the Firefox interface and functionality, supports accessibility. Because these standards and projects are all open-source, anyone can help contribute to making these authoring frameworks more accessible and building Firefox extensions and other tools to enhance accessibility.
The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 provide a mechanism for ensuring web content is accessible. However, in order for web content authored using accessibility guidelines to be accessible to the end user, the user agents (browsers and assistive technologies) must support those guidelines. In other words, it does little good to add alternative text to an image if the screen reader does not read it within the browser. The Mozilla development community has authored Firefox to support web content accessibility, as well as HTML and CSS standards. Firefox goes beyond typical accessibility features as outlined in accessibility guidelines and also supports or will soon support accessibility of multimedia content such as Flash, Dynamic HTML, and AJAX applications when accessible authoring guidelines are implemented in the content.
In addition to the work of Firefox developers and the assistive technology industry, there are many extensions for Firefox that are available to make accessibility even better.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Firefox accessibility is its extensibility. There are many ways that end users and developers can extend and customize Firefox for usability and accessibility. While many customization options are available directly within Firefox, the most common method for customizing and expanding Firefox functionality is through Firefox extensions.
Extensions- external link are small add-ons that add new functionality to Firefox. They can provide functionality as simple as a new toolbar button or as complex as an entirely separate application that functions within the Firefox browser. Extensions allow Firefox to be customized to fit the personal needs of each user, while minimizing the size of the application itself.
Because building extensions is relatively easy, thousands of them have been developed. Most extensions make accessing web content easier and faster or provide functionality that is not natively part of Firefox. Many have been written to increase or support accessibility. There are too many accessibility extensions to list here, but I have highlighted a few notable ones.
This extension helps in the development of accessible and standards-compliant web content. This toolbar provides more options than could possibly be listed here. This is an indispensible tool for web developers. Beyond the wealth of options of HTML and CSS code development features, the toolbar provides the following functionality to support accessible web development and evaluation:
- Display alt text or replace images with alt text.
- Highlight images missing alt text.
- One click validation in HTML/CSS validators and accessibility validation tools.
- Customization to add reporting in other accessibility evaluation tools, such as WAVE.
- Disable style sheets, turn off images, linearize tables and layers, etc., to give a visual representation of what a screen reader would read.
- ... and much more.
See our article on Evaluating Web Sites for Accessibility with the Firefox Web Developer Toolbar.
This extension provides many tools for both web developers and end users. A few notable features include:
- Zoom the page to view larger or smaller font sizing.
- List page information, including lists of images, headers, access keys, navigational lists, frames, tables, mouse events, and more.
- Hide images or replace images with alt text.
- Disable style sheets, use a high contrast style sheet, or define and use a user authored style sheet.
Displays a visual text representation of a web page similar to how a screen reader would read it.
A cross-platform extension that turns Firefox into a self-voicing browser. This screen reader allows advanced navigation and includes many other accessibility features.
Get instant feedback about whether the colors used in a web page are of sufficient contrast.
Verify, with just a click on the browser status bar, the accessibility of the web sites that you are visiting, by means of the TAW3 online service - an online web accessibility analysis tool.
Assign keyboard shortcuts to jump to next and previous links on multipage articles and search result pages.
While there is certainly much to be done in improving accessibility of web content and web applications, the Mozilla project and the Firefox browser are making it easier for developers to develop accessible web content and for individuals with disabilities to get to that content. With an open community of programmers, assistive technology developers, and end users working on accessibility of the Firefox application itself and extensions that enhance usability and accessibility, a whole new world of possibilities has been opened up for the accessibility community.
If you would like to learn more or get involved in Firefox accessibility, visit the following sites:
- Accessibility features of the Firefox browser- external link
- Mozilla Accessibility Project- external link
- Accessibility Developers Newsgroup - news:mozilla.dev.accessibility- external link or https://lists.mozilla.org/listinfo/dev-accessibility- external link
- Mozilla Accessibility Support Newsgroup - news:mozilla.support.accessibility- external link or https://lists.mozilla.org/listinfo/support-accessibility- external link