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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

Screen readers and web browsers – what’s the best pairing for testing?

Testing web content for accessibility can be a difficult task, but fortunately there’s some great guidance from W3C in the form of the Website Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) 1.0. However, many people get stuck at Step 1 – defining the evaluation scope.  While setting a conformance target is generally straightforward such as WCAG 2.0 Level AA, it’s much harder to decide baseline-related issues such as which assistive technologies should be used for testing against the WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria and in which browsers the content should be displayed.  Recently encouraged by a student question in the course I teach, I’ve put together some information on the topic for you to consider.  

Before outlining my thoughts though there’s two important things to keep in mind: firstly, if you are doing a web audit for a client, the answer to ‘what browser and screen readers should I use to form a baseline?’ should generally be answered as ‘whatever the client wants’.  You’re certainly welcome to point them to this post if it helps to explain your point of view about accuracy of testing, but I appreciate there may be very specific reasons why the client wants to test out, say, JAWS with Chrome.  While some pairings in industry may be unusual, there’s often a method to the madness especially in locked-down enterprise-level systems where the Standard Operating Environment (SOE) gets changed for no one. Secondly, keep in mind that this assessment is a point in time and is purely my opinion based on working in the industry and many anecdotal conversations with screen reader users, so this can change quickly.

With that in mind, here are my recommended pairings for screen readers and web browsers.

1.    NVDA and Mozilla Firefox

If you want to test in a traditional desktop environment on a Windows platform, it’s hard to go past NVDA with Firefox.  NVDA is a fantastic screen reader with the developers at NV Access working hard to ensure the screen reader is up-to-date with great support across a number of recent Windows versions.  In addition, updates tend to come out very quickly ensuring that it caters for changes to web standards and best of all, it’s free. 

 The benefits of NVDA are also in many ways the benefits of Firefox. The browser focuses heavily on standards-compliance with a legacy of effective support in this area and it plays very well with NVDA. As Firefox is also updated regularly you’re well placed to use these two together to maximise your accessibility testing with a degree of certainty for the results and at no charge to your organisation.

 2.    JAWS and Microsoft Internet Explorer

While NVDA and Firefox is arguably the most accurate paring for testing, there’s no denying that JAWS remains the king of screen readers and it’s likely that organisations will want to know how things go for JAWS users as a result.  In my opinion JAWS testing should remain with Microsoft Internet Explorer despite the browser being so old that its existence in Windows 10 is barely acknowledged to the point that you probably didn’t realise it’s still there.  The reality is that there’s still a lot of screen reader users that rely on old versions of JAWS due to the cost of upgrading, and its slow upgrade cycle has caused issues for it with other more modern web browsers.  People testing websites often get frustrated with this combination as Internet Explorer is not the most standards-compliant browser, and JAWS certainly has its own quirks so the two combined may show up errors that you don’t believe most users would experience, yet this pairing is still reflective of a large number of desktop users and you may need to consider this if your organisation has JAWS users.

 3.    VoiceOver (iOS) and Safari (iOS)

 With WCAG 2.1 on the way a time is coming when testing on a mobile will be an essential part of WCAG conformance, and with that in mind it’s important to know which pairing is best for mobile devices. On iOS devices such as an iPhone or iPad, it’s a pretty easy choice – use the built-in VoiceOver screen reader with the built-in Safari browser. Both work great together and in my experience there’s no other iOS browser that comes close to VoiceOver support.

 4.    Android TalkBack and Google Chrome

As noted above, with WCAG 2.1 coming it’s likely you will need to test on mobile devices, and the best Android option is to test using the TalkBack screen reader with the Chrome browser which works very well, better than any other web browser I’ve tested.  If you have to choose only one mobile platform for testing though I’d go iOS at this point as while Android dominates the market in the general population, Apple iOS is far more popular among people who are blind or vision impaired – and I’m acknowledging this despite being primarily an Android user myself.  That said, there’s nothing wrong in using Android for testing and if you do, go for TalkBack with Chrome.

5.    ChromeVox and Google Chrome (desktop)

From a  testing perspective, you may not be aware that there’ is a little-known screen reader tucked away for users of Google Chrome called ChromeVox, and this screen reader is also found in Chromebooks. While its not commonly used by people with vision disabilities, it can be a useful pairing for testing purposes  Just be mindful that while it can help pick up issues, the overall experience is not going to be reflective of most screen reader users hence its further down this list. That said, Chrome is an excellent browser and both Chrome and ChromeVox are free. Furthermore, given the popularity of Chrome as a desktop web browser there’s a good chance it’s already on your computer.

6.    Windows 10 Narrator and Edge – in the near future

 At this point, screen reader purists are likely to start questioning my sanity by including Windows Narrator on the list paired with anything. I certainly won’t argue that Narrator in Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7 was a terrible screen reader.  However, updates in Windows 8 and significant improvements in Windows 10 including the Braille support coming soon highlight its significant improvements.  I’ve used Narrator for testing and while it should certainly be no higher than six on this list, it has the advantage of being built-in so people are likely to have it, and Edge is a reasonably standards-compliant browser – well, significantly more so than Internet Explorer anyway!  At the moment Microsoft still recommends Narrator users in Windows 10 use Internet Explorer, but with updates to both Narrator and Edge in the insider preview of Windows 10 likely to be released later in the year.  This will become an option for testing.  Not the best option, but good enough to be an option if your machine at work is locked down like a fortress and you have no other choice.  

7.    VoiceOver (Mac) and Safari (Mac)

I’ll be the first to admit that VoiceOver and Safari on iOS are fantastic, but VoiceOver on Mac OS and Safari on the desktop is in a desperate need for a massive overhaul.  It’s unfortunate that VoiceOver on a Mac is good enough that you don’t really need another screen reader, but not good enough when its functionality is compared to other screen readers on other platforms. If you specifically have a blind user in your organisation that only uses VoiceOver on a Mac, then your best option is to test the content in Safari. I should stress that my opinion here is not because I particularly dislike VoiceOver – indeed it was the introduction of VoiceOver in Mac OS 10.4 Tiger that is credited for having the first fully-fledged screen reader in a desktop OS and that deserves respect, but its way overdue for an update.

So that’s a bit of an overview of my favoured pairings of screen readers with web browsers from a testing perspective.  Hope it helps.   

TellMe TV audio description service: hands-on

In December 2016 the TellMe TV online subscription service was established to provide audio described video content.  The service has been designed to meet the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired and offers Netflix-style online streaming of content.  As an Australian with very few audio described content options I decided to give it a go.  

The service has been established by Canadian accessibility advocate Kevin Shaw, which stated in the press release that “TellMe TV is an exciting new destination where 100 per cent of the on-demand programming, including a diverse portfolio of movies, television shows and documentaries, [are provided] in fully described video.”

As a vision impaired person located outside North America, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to access it at all: it’s not unusual for such services to be geoblocked or content hidden from international viewers. After signing up I navigated my way through the content and found a documentary. On the plus side, it worked without getting any geoblocking message.  The downside however is the notable lack of modern content.

As promised, the service does indeed provide 100% audio described titles, meaning that for people with vision-related disabilities the more visual aspects of the videos are described by a narrator.  While the interface was a little cumbersome to use in my high contrast color scheme, the screen reader picked things up well and it was able to play the selected video. I was pleasantly surprised to see the video start playing given I’m based in Australia, and both video and audio played with no problem.

However, the biggest issue with this service at the moment is the content.  It was hard to determine if the lack of modern content was due to the good stuff being hidden from me or if there was just a very limited amount of titles at this time, but most of the movies, documentaries and services I could play were quite old and presumably available as public domain titles.  That said, if the service is able to secure the rights to the big movies and TV shows then the interface works quite well, and if the service continues to be available internationally then it has the potential to revolutionise the way in which people who are blind or vision impaired watch TV. As such, it’s my hope the big media companies will step up to support this initiative especially as audio description is hard to come by through traditional media sources.  For now though the best option here in Australia remains with Netflix and its small but growing audio described titles.

More information on the service can be found at the TellMe TV website.  The service offers a seven day free trial.

Dr Scott Hollier to give W4A2017 William Loughborough address

It is with much excitement that I’m able to share with you some fantastic news; I’ve been given the great honour and privilege to deliver the William Loughborough After-Dinner address at the Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference.

My topic, ‘Technology, education and access: a ‘fair go’ for people with disabilities’ will focus on my personal journey and on the broader benefits that education and technology can provide..  In particular, the address will focus on how key accessibility developments help to  provide a ‘fair go’ in relation to the inclusion of assistive technologies now built-in to mainstream devices, the future implications of accessibility and the wonderful dedication and hard work of accessibity professionals in their support of people with disabilities.   

Details regarding the after-dinner address and additional conference information can be found at the W4A2017 website.

Microsoft adds Braille and mono audio to Windows 10 insider preview

Microsoft has announced accessibility improvements to its latest Windows 10 build including the addition of Braille support to the Narrator screen reader and the inclusion of a mono audio option.

In a blog post by Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar, developers who are a part of the Insider Preview network can update their version of Windows 10 to version 15025 which contains the new accessibility features.  

The blog post stated that “We love getting feedback from our visually-impaired Insiders and implementing features to support your needs. It’s so important that we keep our diverse customers in mind as we co-create with you.  Today, we are excited to announce braille support for Narrator. This experience is currently in beta.”To enable the feature, Microsoft has provided the following instructions:

  • Ensure Narrator is running. Then go to Settings > Ease of Access (WIN + U) and under the Narrator settings, activate the “Download Braille” button. You will be prompted to install braille support.
  • Under Settings > Ease of Access, activate the “Enable braille” button and add a braille display. Note that USB and serial connections for the display are supported.
  • Under Settings > Ease of Access, choose the language and braille table you want to use. NOTE: There are coexistence issues with braille support and third party screen readers. Until the documentation is available, we recommend that braille be enabled for Narrator only on PCs that do not also have a third-party screen reader configured to use a braille display.

The new mono audio feature is another great accessibity feature and assists both hearing and vision impaired users.  People with a hearing impairment in one ear can benefit by ensuring that information pushed only to one audio channel is available in both channels, while vision impaired users that use a screen reader with one earpiece can also receive audio sent to both channels.   This feature can be found in the Ease of Access section once users have updated to the developer build.

Microsoft has not confirmed when the features will be available in the standard Windows 10 builds but based on development cycles its likely to arrive on most consumer devices before the end of the year.

Mobile World Congress 2017 highlights: VR, printing and translation

The 2017 Mobile World Congress (MWC) has recently wrapped up in Barcelona and is generally considered the world’s largest mobile technology event.   While there was lots of great mobile tech on display, there were a few things that really jumped out in terms of access potential so here’s a round-up of some of the key products and announcements.  

Virtual Reality display at 2017 Mobile World CongressImage of 2017 MWC ©2017 the Verge

 Virtual Reality and 3D Printing

Some of the most exciting product announcements aren’t so much new products, but rather the way in which familiar products were joined together.  The latest HTC Vibe Virtual Reality (VR) system was used in partnership with a 3D printer to demonstrate how a 3D object can be created in VR, then immediately printed out on a 3D printer.  I’ve recently been involved in discussions with projects associated with accessibility and the Arts, and demonstrations like this clearly show just how technologies such as this can be applicable.  For example if a blind person wanted to experience a sculpture, the model could be worked up in VR then printed as an accessible tactile version. In a related announcement, the ability to create 3D objects virtually and the conversion of 2D into 3D continues to become commonplace with Microsoft providing details that the next update to Windows 10 will add 3D functionality to the built-in Paint feature.  The preview of the new version of Paint with 3D can be downloaded from the Windows Store now for Windows 10 users.

 Universal Translator

The second thing that really struck me on just how significant it could be is the VoxOx Universal Translator.  As with many people who have enjoyed watching Star Trek TV shows over the years the idea that you can easily understand anyone in any language is very appealing, especially if you can’t see print or hand gestures very well as is the case for me.  This device can currently translate between a handful of languages in real-time such as SMS or social media posts.  While we’re not quite a the Star Trek stage yet, the idea that communication between people that use different languages is as simple as posting a message on social media now and have confidence in both what is received and what comes back is very exciting.

 Google Digital Assistant

While VR printing and universal translation may take some time before it arrives in our homes, one update that’s on its way now is the Google Digital Assistant to more Android smartphones.  Previously only available on Google’s own Pixel smartphone, the digital assistant is now rolling out to Android smartphones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or later.  Google stated that:

 “The Google Assistant will begin rolling out this week to English users in the U.S., followed by English in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as German speakers in Germany. We’ll continue to add more languages over the coming year.”

 Smartphones that receive the update will be able to long-press the home button or enable an ‘OK Google’ command to interact directly with the assistant.  

 This is fantastic news for people with disabilities.  In recent times digital assistants such as Siri and Cortana in our computers and smartphones have become more useful in performing basic commands and web searches.  While Android-based smartphones have some limited functionality similar to the Assistant already, the addition of Google’s digital assistant for users of a large range of smartphones provides more functionality, choice and affordability to people with disabilities, such as people with vision or mobility impairments.

 This is just a few of the highlights from MWC for people with disabilities this year. Full details on all the announcements can be found at the Mobile World Congress website.