The advent of the screen reader and its ability to navigate the World Wide Web has helped transform the lives of persons who are visually impaired or blind and given them a fighting chance at accessing all of the content sighted Internet users take for granted. However, the challenges for the screen reader user of browsing the Internet in as seamless a manner as a sighted person are numerous. While there is some predictability in webpage layout and locating general information, this is not always the case. According to the WebAIM Million Report, 98.1% of web home pages contained at least one Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0 failure with an average of 60.9 errors per home page.

Given everyone from large corporations to individuals can post their web sites to the Internet (over 1.74 billion web sites in 2020 Internet Statistics 2020) it’s hard to enforce consistency in design and adherence to established standards.  Design is much more than the visual appearance of a website, design in this context refers to the underlying structure and code of a website. In order for a screen reader to relay speech output to the Assistive Technology user, screen readers detect the underlying structure of the web page and pass this information to the user in the form of speech output. Therefore, if a web page has not been coded to standards key information may not be passed to the screen reader.  In addition, the screen reader user may not be able to navigate the page as efficiently.  Our testers often see web pages with multiple sections and no headings on them.  When headings such as those one might find on a newspaper web site are programmed into the site’s code and passed to the screen reader, the blind user can take advantage of those using a feature of their screen reader that permits them to jump by heading.  If no headings are coded then the screen reader user is left to manually navigate through the site line by line which is tedious and inefficient.  A similar problem occurred when building the TCSAccess website. Our social media links would take the user to our social media accounts when clicked on with a mouse. However, when tested with a screen reader the links were not reading the specific names of the social media accounts, but long, cryptic link names which were confusing to the screen reader user. 

Fortunately, there have been huge strides in accessible web design and in legislation around accessibility.  Legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (508) and WCAG developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) all provide the legal foundation and many detailed guidelines for ensuring persons with disabilities have equal access to web content in browsers and smart devices. 

Google, Apple and Mozilla are now collaborating on a set of standards called the Accessibility Object Model (AOM) project (Accessibility Object Model Purpose ) which “…aims to improve certain aspects of the user and developer experiences concerning the interaction between web pages and assistive technology.”  AOM’s aim is to help all web developers ensure the content they create is maximally accessible to a screen reader.  In other words, when you are using your screen reader cursor to navigate a web site, the web site can directly relay all information about all objects on the site to the screen reader, in real time. 

Despite a plethora of guidelines on designing accessible web sites, web developers continue to employ customized objects and content on their sites which are not accessible.  Similar to our experience with our social media links, a web developer of a popular video conferencing software designed a custom button on a web conferencing site with a label “Enter Meeting” meant to allow a participant to enter an ongoing meeting.  However, the developer bypassed accessibility guidelines and the button is invisible to a screen reader. When a screen reader user presses the down arrow and expects to hear the Enter Meeting button, information about the button is not passed to JAWS and instead they hear nothing and cannot enter the meeting without sighted assistance.  This is an example of unequal access which is what the authors of the AOM are attempting to improve.

In a world in which almost all work is now done either directly on or connected to the Internet it is imperative websites are designed through a lens of accessibility; especially as website content is becoming more dynamic; having the ability change and shift without user engagement (e.g. carousels of pictures that move from picture to picture after a set time, embedded videos or sound, etc.) Rest assured; we are with you – in it together. We have first-hand experience working with developers on best practices for developing accessible websites for the Desktop and mobile platforms. We have in depth, hands-on workshops we can teach in person or remotely.  Let us know how we can support you.