Optimizing Library Resources for Screen Readers

LITA National Forum 2008
Presenter: Nina McHale, Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver.

The speaker started her presentation by sharing her experience navigating a website with a user with visual disability. She pointed out that even though the information structure on a website makes sense for us (the visual users), it does not necessarily make sense for users with screen readers. Making your website accessible is very important because the goal of a library is providing access and not providing barriers.

Accessibility matters because:

  • 10 million people in the US are blind or visually impaired; 1.3 million people are legally blind due to age or other health issues.
  • screen readers are used by blind users as well as people with learning and physical disabilities.
  • writing good code is good practice and makes the web pages more accessible to all.

Nina pointed out why accessibility is an issue:

  • proliferation use of graphics makes it more difficult for people with visual disabilities to use the website.
  • typical web browsers tend to be too forgiving for bad code.
  • a lot of library web pages tend to be home grown or don’t have a dedicated group to create and maintain the web pages.

Two governing standards for web accessibility:

Section 508 is mostly based on the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) from the W3C, with the addition of 8 more standards. Federal agencies are required to comply with the Section 508 standards.

Putting web standards to work:
– check that the code behind the web pages is standards compliant and accessible
– use free web-based validation tools available to check different kinds of web content. For example:

  • from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
  • css validator: http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/
  • html validator: http://validator.w3.org/
  • Cynthia Says (http://www.cynthiasays.com) to validate for accessibility
  • Fangs FireFox extension (http://sourceforge.net/projects/fangs) that produces a print transcript similar to the voice output of screen readers. This browser extenstion also allows to check the document structure (headings) and text used for links makes sense when it’s read without the context.
  • The reports from these validation tools can be difficult to interpret at first, but they usually include the link numbers to help pin-point the exact location of the problematic codes. Most of the errors tend to be simple and easy to fix.

    Typical problems in web design, their corresponding standards, and solutions to those problems:

    1. No alternative for visual elements (photos, images, etc.)
    2. Poor document structure (internal html structure)
    3. Repetitive navigation

    1. Visual elements
    A lot of library websites use images and photos to increase the visual appeal of their web pages or to support document structure. However, users of screen reader might not have access to the information conveyed by those images. Solutions to this is by using the alt or the longdesc tag

    2. Poor document structure:
    Use appropriate header (h1 – h6), meaningful hyperlink text, and correct label forms (including search boxes) would really help users with screen reader to “scan” the web page and get the appropriate information.

    3. Repetitive navigation:
    Good web site requires a consistent design, but we end up having a repetitive navigation. Although, experienced screen reader users could just “hop along” and ignore the repetitive navigation. However, it’s better if we also provide a “skip navigation” link or, by the magic of CSS, have the navigation links be read as the last part of the document on the screen reader.

    One of the proposed agenda is a demo of JAWS screen reader. Unfortunately, there was a technical issue and the demo has to be canceled. A discussion followed about what other libraries are doing to make their website accessible, the accessibility of AJAX (see http://www.w3.org/TR/wai-aria/ ), and keystroke behavior (combining ‘onmouse’ with ‘onclick’).

    Other resource mentioned: World Usability Day (http://www.worldusabilityday.org/).

    Nina’s presentation can be found at http://library.auraria.edu/~nmchale/presentations/lita2008/optimizing.pptx