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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

W4A2017 after-dinner address now online

On 2 April 2017 I was given the great honour and privilege to deliver the William Loughborough After-Dinner address at the International Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference. If you weren’t able to attend and would like to watch it, the video is now on YouTube and I’ve put a link to it below.

Many thanks to the W4A Conference Committee for a great event. For more information on the conference  you can read my W4A2017 highlights post.

Windows 10 creators update – benefits & issues for blind & low vision users

The Windows 10 Creators update is now rolling out to computers and tablets.  While many blind and vision impaired users have welcomed the updates as discussed in my March post titled Microsoft’s improvements for blind and low vision users in the Windows 10 insider preview, there is also an issue relating to a change in the keyboard shortcut that starts the Narrator screen reader.

While the Creators update has lots of great features, its important to first deal with the elephant in the room – the inability to start Narrator after the Creators update has been installed. If you are used to using the ‘Windows key + Enter’ to toggle Narrator on and off, you’ll be surprised to discover that after the Creators update is installed, this keyboard combination no longer works.  Instead, you will now need to use the ‘Windows key + CTRL + Enter’. This change is not obvious and it’s surprisingly difficult to find out about it, even in Narrator’s help options, so it’s worth making a note of this new default keyboard command.

While some of the changes in the Creators update can be tricky, one of the best new features is the addition of Cortana and improved Narrator support when setting Windows 10 up for the first time. If you purchase a new computer with the Creators update installed, or reset your current computer after updating, you’ll be greeted with a series of setup screens whereby Cortana talks you through your options and also prompts you to turn on Narrator if you wish. I tried this myself and found the process to be very helpful as a person who is vision impaired, and I suspect it’ll be helpful for everyone. The ability to verbally reply to some of Cortana’s questions and have clear instructions when information is to be typed in made the whole process much easier.

As mentioned previously, other aspects of Windows 10 have been improved for accessibility with Braille support now added and a number of tweaks to Narrator.  I’ve also noticed significant improvements in how screen readers interact with Microsoft Edge. While launching Edge when using Narrator for the first time still asks if you want to switch the default on Internet Explorer, it’s encouraging to see the support for assistive technologies improving for the default web browser. While not strictly accessibility-related, the addition of 3D Paint is fun too.

Overall the update adds some useful accessibility features, particularly for people who are blind or vision impaired but just watch out for that change to the Narrator keyboard shortcut. Additional information on the Windows 10 Creators Update can be found at the Microsoft website.

Outrunning the Night can now be ordered by a library near you

I’m very excited to report that my recently published memoir ‘Outrunning the Night – a life journey of disability, determination and joy’ can now be ordered directly by Australian libraries.

ALS Library Services, who have around 50 team members working each day to bring the latest Australian and international publications to public libraries throughout the states and territories, have now added my book to their catalogue. As a result, Australian libraries can now order the paperback as part of their regular ordering processes. In addition, ALS Library Services will be featuring ‘Outrunning the Night’ in the near future as a local author from Western Australia.  

Many thanks to ALS Library Services for their support and to Sue Murray at VisAbility for organising this fantastic distribution opportunity.

W4A2017 & WWW2017 accessibility conference highlights

After three years of being involved with the logistics to bring WWW2017 and W4A2017 to my home city of Perth, Australia, the Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference arrived in April with a host of great papers. Here’s a few of my personal highlights from W4A2017 and the W3C accessibility track at WWW2017.  W4A2017 conferenceWith this year’s conference focusing on accessibility and work, the first day kicked off with an excellent keynote by Alastair McEwin, disability commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission.   The presentation titled ‘Working together: technology as the foundation for better employment outcomes for people with disability’ noted that with 4.2 million Australians having some form of permanent disability, more needs to be done to improve employment opportunities.  In particular, Alastair explained that employers are often not prepared for people with disabilities which can lead to misconceptions about staff needs, and explained that the benefits go far beyond work itself as engagement in the workforce also means inclusion in society. Key recommendations discussed that could improve employment consisted of addressing inaccessible information in the workplace, and the potential benefit of the NDIS. Alastair highlighted that currently Australia has quite a low employment rate of people with disabilities when compared to comparable countries which is particularly concerning, so action is needed quickly.  

Jeffrey Bigham presented a paper titled ‘Scopist: Building a Skill Ladder into Crowd Transcription’.  The focus was on Stenography and the production of captions. It was explained that Stenographers use a special keyboard to reach 300 words per minute. While the equipment can be expensive, tools such as OpenSteno can map the commands onto a traditional QWERTY keyboard.  The challenge is to be able to swap between the two in real-time. The paper focused on how the required keyboard could be predicted meaning that there was no need to actually swap as the software would be intuitive enough to pick it up, and hence speeding up the process.

Another presentation I found really interesting was William Grussenmeyer who focused on the topic ‘Evaluating the Accessibility of the Job Search and Interview Process for People who are Blind and Visually Impaired’. This looked at a study of people who are blind or vision impaired and the main issues they had around the start-to-finish processes of finding employment. Interestingly two of the key issues raised were inaccessible PDFs for applying for jobs, and inaccessible on-boarding content that made it difficult to get set up in a new job.  I’ve had similar experiences personally whereby I have been able to do the job itself but completing the initial setup of a job such as completing the government form relating to personal details and tax information has only been available on paper and needing help with that.  This was picked up in the key note on Day 2 by David Masters from Microsoft who discussed ‘Microsoft’s Journey towards Inclusion’. David made the point that Microsoft has largely addressed its on-boarding issues and ensures that the recruitment and employment processes are accessible from start to finish which is encouraging. Rosemary Spark at W4A2017Rosemary Spark continued the discussion in the topic ‘Accessibility to Work from Home for the Disabled: The Need for a Shift in Management Style’ which made the point that a flexible workforce is beneficial to people with disabilities and despite the general perception that people don’t work as hard at home, the reality is that it actually improves productivity and performance.

 Outside of the topic of work, Keith Fitzpatrick from the City of Cockburn provided a great insight into the processes of local government in creating an accessible website. There was also a great paper on the Internet of Things authored by a number of people from W3C WAI.

 A role I shared with A/Prof Justin Brown for W4A this year was as co-chair of the Google Doctoral Consortium, and it was great to see the winner Tahani Alahmadi from Griffith University present her paper titled ‘A multi-method evaluation of university website accessibility: Foregrounding user-centred design, mining source code and using a quantitative metric’.

 There was also an excellent presentation by Kevin Carey who offered some interesting food for thought on the pursuit of access and much excitement in the Paciello Group challenge. This year the Challenge provided an opportunity to test out some products that had been created around research including a method to navigate website using only eye tracking and a clever use of simplifying words in e-mail to make it easier for people with cognitive disabilities to read.

In addition to my role as co-chair for the Google Doctoral Consortium paper, I was also given the great honour to deliver the William Loughborough After-Dinner address, focusing on the topic Technology, education and access: a ‘fair go’. With 100 people enjoying the beautiful warm autumn night overlooking the Indian Ocean, it was a great way to share a meal and a lot of fun was had by all. I’ll post a separate update with links to the video once it becomes available. With W4A wrapping up after three days, the accessibility-related conference was complete but some accessibity presentations remained.  On Wednesday 5 April the main WWW2017 conference had a W3C track which included three disability-related presentations.  The first topic was ‘Digital Service Standard for the Australia Government’ by Andrew Arch from the Digital Transformation Agency, followed by ‘A conversation without barriers’ by Marie Johnson from the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I rounded out the session discussing the future W3C standards of WCAG 2.1 and Silver that are currently in development.  With approximately 50 attendees in the room it was great to see accessibility issues get some mainstream traction.

 With W4A and WWW moving to France in 2018 it will be exciting to see what new and innovative research projects are presented as the great work being done in this space continues.

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.