What is it really like to use a screen reader?
What are screen readers?
I talk about screen readers a fair bit. They allow blind people to use websites. Blind people cannot use a mouse because they cannot see what to click on. They use a keyboard instead, in conjunction with software such as JAWS or NVDA. This software “reads out” what is on the website and the person will use the keyboard to navigate and interact with it.
It all sounds interesting and isn’t it great that a blind person can use a website like anyone else?
Web designers try to follow the guidelines on website accessibility and may even run them through some automated checkers but there is only way to truly get an insight into what is like.
Have a blind person share their screen with you and watch them test out a website.
Your eyes will then truly be opened.
You have to see it to truly experience it
This is what I did yesterday, I ran a live test on a website we are auditing. The person testing for us is current at University, studying her MA in Marketing. She also uses a screen reader.
I have been talking about website accessibility for 15 years now, I believe I know my subject well but I do not have to use a screen reader and actually have to rely on it, day in and day out. Every time I work with someone who does, it is like a bucket of cold water being thrown in my face and it brings it back to me why I am so passionate about it. Every time.
I do my live testing through Zoom, it allows me to record it and all my testers are familiar with using it. We got the screen sharing set up and it was quite simple really: all she had to do was log into a website with a test account and perform some basic tasks like submit a question to a help desk or create an appointment. It was a simple visual design and should be quite straightforward.
What actually happened
What actually happened was pretty shocking. There was a drop-down list, asking for the subject area the query was about. It was a very long list with subcategories. Then there was a text area within which they could type their question. The dropdown list was almost impossible to use with a screen reader. She kept selecting the wrong subject and was taken past it and not able to go back. She then had to reload the page, tab through all the navigation links (along the top and down the side) and try again. This went on for over 10 minutes.
When I confirmed with her that she had got it selected correctly, she was able to type her question and then navigated to the button to finally submit her question.
Then a nice message appeared on the screen, confirming that she had submitted her question correctly, at last! Except that her screen reader did not pick this up, so she had no idea whether it had been submitted or not!
10 minutes to submit a question and then not know whether it had been successfully sent. Would you find that acceptable?
We do not make it difficult for people to use a website because of their sex, race or identity but we seem quite happy to not worry so much about disabled people. It is just about a level-playing field.
If you know someone who uses a screen reader, ask them to share their screen with you and find out what it is really like.
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