By Greg Jotham, Chief Quality Auditor at AQuA
Over the last year I've been learning a great deal about the challenges in making applications meet accessibility requirements, while I worked on creating AQuA's first Accessibility Testing Criteria, greatly aided by the contributions of specialist organisations with decades of experience in this field. I've come to realise how vital for people with limited vision is the contribution made by screen readers, and some of the things I've observed when looking at the range of screen readers available for desktop systems, particularly Windows systems, suggest that it's in the users' interest for there to be a range of competing third-party screen readers in addition to any default screen readers provided by the OS.
Why? Because screen readers are essential, complex and personal.
Essential, because so much user interface information is presented and accepted graphically in modern software. Without textual information being used for input, output and control, a software user with sight limitation can be completely dependent on a screen reader’s presentation of visual cues.
OS screen readers are regarded as being “good, as far as they go”. For a user of professional software needed to perform a specific job, that may not be far enough. Generally, they work well for browsing the web, checking email and writing documents. Other tasks, like performing financial analysis in spreadsheets, or operating recording studio software, may be far beyond the capabilities of built-in screen readers to parse and render the particular user interface.
Each profession – architect, engineer, financier, lawyer, copy-editor and so on - will have its own roll-call of specialist software with unique interfaces, required to perform a particular job. It’s in circumstances like these that third-party screen readers can offer a productive level of accessibility in professional software that’s not available through OS screen readers.
Complex, because differing accessibility APIs offer different data extracted from the user interface, and because there are many applications a user may need to use to perform their work, with tremendous variation between how data is presented and received that can go far beyond the capabilities of accessibility APIs and OS screen readers.
Third-party screen readers can vary in cost from free to thousands of pounds, so you might ask why would anyone pay if free is available? The answer in many cases is extensibility and customisation, giving the option to provide support for less common languages and software packages out of the box, together with scripting capabilities that allow other third parties to offer unique customisations that support rarer or highly specialised examples of professional software with smaller user bases. If it’s the only thing that allows a user to perform their job, perhaps for decades of working life, then the cost of specialist screen readers simply becomes another normal business expense.
There are also multiple accessibility APIs that can be used by screen readers to extract information about the displayed user interface. Windows, for example, has MSAA, UIA and iA2, each of which has particular strengths and limitations, and therefore different screen readers will use the API that best delivers the results their designers and developers want. Although the choices are generally thought to lie between a handful of popular readers, www.disabled-world.com listed almost sixty current screen readers as of mid-2015.
Personal, because a reader interface that enables one user to do their work efficiently with a particular program, can be obstructive for another user of the same program. Every user will have a different mental map of how the functions in programs are offered and input is accepted, and no one screen reader will be perfect for everyone.
With regard to the personal element, it’s here that one of the key catchphrases of the disability rights movement is highly relevant: “Nothing About Us Without Us”.
No external standards, testing programmes or well-intended recommendations can ever supplant the individual user’s experience, the degree to which a screen reader enables accessibility for them with a particular piece of software. It’s therefore in everybody’s interests for there to be a number of third-party screen readers, each with differing approaches to accessibility in particular items of software, so that a user can choose the one best suited to their personal needs and preferred way of working. Or perhaps choose more than one screen reader, where no single one provides the best interface to all the software required.
The wide range of screen readers available means that there is a greater likelihood of any one reader being better or less well suited to a particular user’s needs. Each reader will also support a different range of applications, with varying degrees of success from an individual user’s point of view. The possibility of using multiple screen readers, each of which may offer the best accessibility for part of a user’s daily tasks, also increases flexibility (but also complexity).
In the end each individual making use of screen readers may have to construct their own personal solution from all of the options available – there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, and to pursue such a solution alone would end up excluding people for whom the chosen function and interface mapping would be less than ideal. The best solution will always be the one that most closely fits a users individual needs, and for that choice and customisability are highly desirable.
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