Like many web accessibility folks, I spend quite a bit of time using screen readers. I use them when conducting accessibility evaluations and when training others. Hardly a week has gone by in the last few years that I haven’t spent some time using a screen reader. They are unique programs that deserve special attention.
With all the time I’ve spent using screen readers, I wonder if my view of accessibility is a bit screen reader-centric. I’m not suggesting that I ignore other accessibility issues. I test for color contrast, enlarge content, check keyboard accessibility, look for visible focus indicators, etc. These principles and activities are part of our trainings as well. But most of this testing and training is done in the browser or by using tools like WAVE or the Web Developer toolbar. The truth is, with the exception of screen readers, I spend very little time using assistive technologies.
In the next few months, I plan to familiarize myself with other common assistive technologies (AT) and share some of my experiences. First on my list is a screen enlarger or magnifier, probably ZoomText. I plan to spend a week or so just playing around and getting used to it. During this time, I will also search for articles, tutorials, forums, etc. that might help me get up to speed. Next I will try tasks, such as checking and composing email or ordering something on Amazon. My "final exam" will be a full day relying on the assistive technology. I am quite nearsighted, so I will probably remove my glasses to keep me from cheating. This will probably be more difficult than it sounds. I am sure it takes much longer than a few days to become proficient with any assistive technology.
At the end of the experience, I will write a blog post recapping my experiences and possible frustrations, with a focus on practical accessibility recommendations that I discovered or that were reinforced during my experience. If the experiment is a success, I may follow up with other assistive technologies or configurations every month or so. A few come to mind:
- Voice-controlled software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking
- Windows high contrast mode
- Keyboard-only, maybe using some kind of AT
I am open to recommendations, but will probably limit this to AT that is relatively easy to learn, and will yield valuable accessibility recommendations.
As I embark on this experiment, my goal is not to promote myself as an AT expert, or as a spokesman for those with disabilities. Spending a few weeks using ZoomText is not a substitute for a lifetime of experiences of individuals who rely on a screen enlarger for their daily computer use. My primary goal is to acquire and pass on a better understanding of how we can make web content more accessible for all users, and how these tools can be used in our own training and evaluations.
Is AT proficiency necessary?
Am I suggesting that every website must be tested with a dozen unique assistive technologies before it can be pronounced "accessible?" No. That would be a step backward. I do not want to return to the days of "until user agents…." any more than web developers want to go back to testing for Netscape 4. WebAIM has always advocated a principle-centered approach to accessibility, and we know that encouraging developers to follow good accessibility principles is challenging enough. However, I think personal experience with some common, but often overlooked, assistive technologies could help me, and hopefully others, better learn and address the diverse needs of users who benefit from accessible design.