Using JAWS to Evaluate Web Accessibility

Introduction

It is important to evaluate the accessibility of web content with a screen reader, but screen readers can be very complicated programs for the occasional user, so many people avoid them. This doesn't need to be the case. While screen readers are complicated, it is possible to test web content for accessibility without being a "power user."

This article is designed to help users who are new to JAWS learn the basic controls for testing web content, and to serve as a reference for the occasional JAWS user. While reading this article, keep a few things in mind:

  • This is not a comprehensive list of JAWS shortcuts, but a list of the essential commands that new or novice JAWS users should probably know. For a more comprehensive list of JAWS keyboard shortcuts, see our list of JAWS keyboard shortcuts or Freedom Scientific's extensive list of shortcuts.
  • If you are new to web accessibility, you should probably begin by reading our introduction to web accessibility as it will provide an overview of how blind users interact with and use the web.
  • If you are new to screen readers, plan on spending more time (perhaps several hours) on this page and the example pages becoming more comfortable using JAWS. Don't get discouraged if things still seem confusing after only a few minutes. Slow down the reading speed and take your time.
  • It is usually easier to work with JAWS on a full keyboard. There is a different keyboard configuration available if you prefer to use a laptop keyboard, but it is not addressed in this article.
  • You should always test the accessibility of your web content with users with various disabilities, including users of different screen readers, especially before making design decisions.

Getting Started

You can download a free demonstration version of JAWS (Windows only) that allows you to run JAWS for 40 minutes without any limitations. After the 40 minutes have expired, you will have to reboot your computer (not just restart JAWS) if you would like to continue testing with JAWS.

Note:

It has been brought to our attention that the terms of use for the JAWS trial specifically prohibits testing of web pages. More details on our blog.

While working in JAWS, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • While JAWS can be used for accessing Windows and most Windows applications, we will be focusing on accessing web content only.
  • Make sure that NumLock is off.
  • You will probably want to test JAWS in Internet Explorer, even if it is not your primary browser.
  • Maximize the browser window.
  • Remember that screen reader users typically do not use a mouse. As you become more comfortable with JAWS, try using only the keyboard.
  • Keep in mind that most IE shortcut keys will work when using JAWS.
  • The page may not scroll while you read, so you may hear content being read by JAWS that isn't visible on the screen.

Reading

The most basic function of a screen reader is to read the content on the page. There are dozens of keyboard shortcuts that allow you to read content by line, sentence, word, character, etc. The following is a list of essential reading shortcuts. With these shortcuts, you should be able to navigate through most content.

  • Insert + : Say All
  • Page Up/Page Down: Increase/Decrease voice rate while using Say All
  • Ctrl: Stop Reading
  • Insert + : Current line
  • Insert + /:Previous/next word
  • : Prior line
  • : Next line
  • /:
    • Previous/Next character
    • Rewind/Fast Forward during Say All
  • F5 / Shift + F5 - Page refresh / Hard page refresh. If you get lost, this is how you can start over.

You may want to practice reading through the content on this page with a screen reader right now. Keep in mind that there is a link at the top of this page to skip to main content (more about skip links).

Images

Every image on a page needs alternative text. If an image does not have alt text, a screen reader will typically ignore it, but the behavior may vary depending on its function.

Image examples and practice

Data Tables

There are two main uses for tables on the web: for layout and to organize data. For simple data tables, the use of the <th> element will help make information more understandable. Even though most modern screen readers can usually determine appropriate headers for simple data tables, that is by no means a guarantee of accessibility; you should still use table headers appropriately. Screen readers still rely on appropriate headers to navigate through more complex tables.

To skip to a table, press the T key. To navigate between cells, hold down Ctrl + Alt and use /// to move from cell to cell. Ctrl + Alt + 5 (on the numeric keypad) will read the row and/or column headers for the current cell.

Table examples and practice

Forms

Forms are used to interact on the web. They allow users to search for content, select and purchase merchandise, to fill out surveys and questionnaires, to register for courses, and a long list of other actions. There are three main things you can do to make forms more accessible for screen reader users:

  1. Use the <label> element to explicitly associate form controls and their descriptions. If a form control does not have an associated label, a screen reader may attempt to determine the appropriate label based on the proximity of adjacent text.
  2. Use the <fieldset> element to group related form elements. This usually includes, but is not limited to, checkboxes and radio buttons.
  3. Avoid JavaScript jump menus.

Use the following shortcuts to navigate through and interact with forms:

  • When you access a form element, press Enter to go into forms mode.
  • Once you are in forms mode, use Tab and Shift + Tab to navigate through the form controls.
  • Simply begin typing in text, password, or text area elements. Quick keys are disabled when you are inserting text in forms mode.
  • Use Spacebar to select and deselect checkboxes.
  • Use /to select from a group of radio buttons.
  • Use/ or the First letter to select an element in combo boxes.
  • If you would like to leave forms mode, hit the + key on the numeric keypad.
  • JAWS automatically leaves forms mode when you press Enter to submit the form, navigate to a new page, or select a button.

Form examples and practice

Practice

  • Review these pages, section by section. At the end of each section, return to the top and navigate to new sections in different ways. For example:
    • Use the Table of Contents
    • Use Ctrl + F to open the Find dialog
    • Navigate by headings (either H or 1-3)
  • There are a couple of elements in this page that are visually hidden, but which are provided to better orient screen reader users. See if you can identify them (hint: one is right before the main content section and the other is right after).
  • Subscribe to the WebAIM Newsletter without using your mouse.
  • Turn off the monitor and repeat some of these tasks.