Accessibility: March 2011 Archives

NFB Targets Google Apps and Northwestern: Time for a Plan B

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In addition to Penn State, the NFB (National Federation of the Blind) is requesting an investigation of Northwestern and NYU (New York University), because they have adopted Google Apps (incl e-mail and Google Docs) and Google Docs is not accessible to screen readers.

The good news for Penn State is that we have NOT adopted Google Apps as an official tool. However it is still worth considering the implications of recommending any technology. For the record, I think Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets are great collaborative tools and I don't want to deny access to those who it can help, but I can't ignore the face that there are accessibility issues.

On the other hand...Google Docs is not the only option out there. Spokespeople for the NFB have recommended Windows Live, but even if you're not a Windows Live fan, there are plenty of other options including:

  • Sharing actual Word files
  • Accessible blogs and discussion boards

To me, the point isn't to ban tools, but to utilize a wide set of tools for a given function and not lock users into one platform. This takes some planning and a little bit of research, but as I'm learning from my students, they often have great tricks for using technology, so why not pick their brains?

(Although I would add that your alternates should be good alternates. A recent note from the Office of Civil Rights regarding the use of electronic book readers)

A college or university may provide an individual with a disability, or a class of individuals with disabilities, with a different or separate aid, benefit, or service only if doing so is necessary to ensure that the aid, benefit, or service is as effective as that provided to others.

Final Notes

Here at ETS, when we investigate new technologies, we have a special responsibility to review tools for accessibility early in the process. To quote again the Office of Civil Rights

It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.

WEB AIM Survery of Screen Reader Users

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The latest survey of screen reader preferences came out from Web AIM recently. It appears that most of the respondents were very tech savvy, which is not the case for all users of screen readers, but it does provide some glimpses for best practices.

Some trends that jumped out at me were:

  • 98.4% of users had JavaScript enabled. The changes the problem from avoiding scripting to using it correctly.
  • JAWS still has a significant market share, but other screen readers are catching up. I am hoping that this will help developers code for standards and not just standards + JAWS.
  • The majority of the screen reader population (65.2%) is on some version of Internet Explorer ranging from version 9 to (ugh) version 6. If a product isn't quite working on IE, then this community will notice. The good news for the Mac crowd is that IE dominance is dropping in this community also, but more gradually.
  • Many users do use the longdesc feature when it's available, but there's mixed results on how effective is.
  • Most users (57.2%) also use headings to find information as opposed to a Search function or skip links.

One good trend I did notice is that the use of "screenreader-only" features such as the skip links, access keys and others is dropping and being replaced by mechanisms based on the code for the visual page. The reason I think this is good trend is that adding code which can only accessed by a screen reader is trickier to debug and benefits a much smaller audience.

Something like good use of headings has added benefits for search engine optimization and usability in addition to the benefits for those on a screen reader. The support already exists and only needs minor tweaks to adjust (and Web developers are also more likely to "get" something they can see - just human nature).

Pie Chart Accessibility

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Like pie charts but worry about screen reader accessibility? There is a simple workaround - provide both the chart and the numeric in text form. The latest survey results of screen reader usage from Web AIM provides a great example of chart and graph accessibility.

While a pie chart (embedded in an image) is provided for each result, the table with the data is shown immediately below. The ALT tag used simply indicates the chart being shown (e.g. alt="Chart showing mobile screen readers used"), but the actual numbers can be seen in the table beneath the image. Not only does this method avoid adding a lengthy image description, but provides numeric data to low-vision users and simplifies the presentation of the pie chart (no tiny numbers needed in the image).

Another good lesson from these pie charts is that they are usable for users with color deficient vision because they rely on values of lightness and darkness. They are still colorful, but each slice color is differentiated by lightness/darkness not color (i.e. hue).