Access Technologies for Web Pages
What Is On This Page
This page is not a comprehensive list of assistive technologies for computer access. Additionally, you will not find a survey of refreshable braille systems or alternate input devices. For full information on services and technologies for students with disability at OSU, please see the Office for Disability Services' listing of accommodations and services, which contains a link to a page providing an overview of available assistive technologies. For faculty and staff, the resources page of the OSU ADA Coordinator's Office is a good place to start.
Our concern on this page is to survey common technologies directly enabling web access for users with disabilities. Below you will find information about the major screen readers, magnifiers, and speech-to-text programs. Though users of these technologies may find something of interest here, primarily this page is targeted to web page developers. A goal is to to familiarize developers with technologies used on campus to access web pages so that they can foresee potential problems in design and authoring. Some of the information here might also be useful for technology specialists in charge of recommending software and platform. Currently, we only survey technologies for Windows and Mac. In the future, we will add information on Linux.
Need help navigating web pages with JAWS or IBM Home Page Reader? See our screen reader accessibility testing keystroke guides.
If you have never seen what it is like to use a screen reader, Neal Ewers of the Trace Research Center at the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrates using a screen reader with the web (requires QuickTime plugin). Ewers also gives advice for how web pages can be made more screen reader friendly.
The Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a vision simulation presentation that describes and attempts to depict in pictures the symptoms of a wide range of common visual impairments.
- JAWS (Freedom Scientific, 7.1 is latest version (released July 2005), retail price as of September 2006 $1095, Windows only)
JAWS is the most popular screen reading software for Windows. Like its main competitor, Window-Eyes, JAWS reads aloud most controls within Microsoft Windows, allowing full access to the desktop and most software programs. Because it is complex and full-featured, users will need to gain some experience to be comfortable enough with the program to do web site testing. The program can be downloaded from Freedom Scientific. It will run in "40-minute mode" without a license key. This mode requires you to reboot your computer after 40 minutes to reactivate the program—impractical for use by people with visual disability but may benefit developers doing usability testing.
Freedom Scientific has put together an excellent overview of surfing the web using JAWS which contains a number of solid examples of coding best practices. Note that JAWS reads web pages primarily via Internet Explorer. Version 7 of JAWS has support for Firefox version 1.5 and above. Freedom Scientific's documentation indicates that that certain features useful for navigation may not be available yet in JAWS with Firefox, including the JAWS quick navigation keys and the ability to pull up lists of bullet lists and headings. In our testing, on Firefox 1.5, however, we were able to pull up lists of links and lists of headings and were able to move around on the page using the P key, which conveniently skips from element to element on a page. So, as of January 2006, it appears Firefox is fully usable with JAWS. Note that Freedom Scientific is currently not providing technical support for users using Firefox. We can expect this to change in the future.
It should also be noted that the Flash player for Mozilla-based browsers does not have full access to MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility), the layer in Windows which allows objects and controls to be voiced by adaptive technologies. (See comments in this article by Aaron Leventhal, accessibility architect with Mozilla, and see the Firefox 1.5 VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) It is clear that improvements are being made on this score, but Flash is still only truly accessible within IE. For example, you can't tab into a Flash movie in Firefox and, if the focus gets put into the movie via a mouseclick, you are then stuck in the movie, unable to tab out. The same occurs in Opera. Additionally, text within Flash movies in Firefox is not voiced. These problems bear out even in version 8 of the Flash player.
The real news here, however, is that Freedom Scientific is working with IBM and the Mozilla Foundation to support Firefox. Window-Eyes was the first screen reader to be targeted to support DHTML in web pages. It seems likely Freedom Scientific and JAWS will follow suit.
JAWS and MAGic, Freedom Scientific's screen magnifier, are also available in "thumb drive" versions, which make it possible to run these programs on any computer that has a couple of special components pre-installed. Ultimately, this may facilitate cost-effective deployment across campus. Best of all, thumb-drive users can set up profiles and customizations within the programs and then have these available on any machine they choose to use.
- Window-Eyes (GW Micro, 5.5 is latest version (released November 2005), retail price as of Sepember 2006 $795, Windows only)
Window-Eyes is the primary competition for JAWS in Windows screen readers. Like JAWS, Window-Eyes gives blind and low-vision users access to most of the Windows interface and applications. Our experience with Window-Eyes is limited and so we don't have much to say about how it compares, head-to-head, with JAWS. More on this account in the future.
The Mozilla Foundation has information on accessible DHTML in Firefox. The page mentions Window-Eyes 5.5, specifically. Earlier versions of Window-Eyes do not have this support.
Window-Eyes can operate in demonstration mode so that potential users can test it. Like JAWS, the mode is time-limited. GW Micro allows you to download a full version of Window-Eyes, which will run in 30 minute intervals. To reload the program, you will need to reboot the computer.
- IBM Home Page Reader (IBM, 3.04 is latest version (released January 2005), retail price as of Sepember 2006 $142, Window only)
Unlike JAWS and Window-Eyes, HPR is primarily a talking web browser. Essentially, it is a version of Internet Explorer with text-to-speech capabilities. Relative to JAWS, HPR is easy to use. In our estimation, in some ways it is superior to JAWS. For example, HPR uses voice-cues that help the user determine where she is on the page—links are read in a female voice, headers produce an audible cue, et cetera. It also highlights text as it reads, replicating the text from the web page in a lower frame in the browser window. This functionality could potentially assist people with learning or reading disabilities or cognitive impairment.
The latest version (3.04) of HPR comes with a desktop reader that emulates some of JAWS functionality, though it cannot access Microsoft Office programs. Version 3.04 of HPR can read Flash and tagged (that is, accessible) PDF documents. From our initial testing, support for accessible Flash in HPR is on par with that in JAWS. IBM itself recommends HPR as a testing tool for web page developers. And the WAC also strongly recommends Home Page Reader as a tool to ensure screen-reader compliance and for demonstrating web accessibility problems (and triumphs!) to superiors and colleagues.
- VoiceOver (Apple, 1.0 is latest version (released April 2005), included as part of Mac OS X.4 Tiger which has a retail price of $129 as of January 2006, Mac only)
VoiceOver is available through the Universal Access panel in the System Preferences application. Some of the available VoiceOver voices are very listenable and the pronunciation of words is highly accurate. Voice inflections for some of the voices, especially Vicki and Bruce sound almost human. VoiceOver navigates the entire Macintosh user interface and many programs, including Viewer for PDF documents, TextEdit for editing and creation of Microsoft Word-readable documents (as RTF files), Mail, and even the Terminal shell! A high contrast, voiced, navigation menu can be easily called up and assists the user in getting to applications, navigates the VoiceOver help, and provides lists of key commands and various VoiceOver and system settings, et cetera. The desktop and Dock are fully navigable, with all items in them being read aloud as they are moved through using arrow or tab keys.
Web page navigation is not quite as sophisticated as in Windows screen readers. For example, you cannot have VoiceOver read an entire page at one go. Instead you have to use a key combination and the down or right arrow to move through items and chunks of text in the page. VoiceOver will move through the browser chrome, reading off navigation tabs and other controls, before it gets to what it announces as "HTML content." At that point, you can hit Ctrl-Option-A and it will move through the web page reading an item or paragraph at a time. Hitting Ctrl-Option-I in a web page will generate a high-contrast list of all of the links on the page, assisting low-vision users.
Certain things are needed for better web navigation. All of the Windows screen-readers covered above can navigate by heading and read off contextual information within data tables. These fundamental usability features are not yet in VoiceOver. On the other hand, its voice synthesis surpasses JAWS and, like the Windows readers, one can increase the reading speed with key combinations. VoiceOver's other verbosity settings, such as its ability to voice words rather than characters when composing text, are well-thought through.
The simplicity of the Apple user interface makes it a natural fit for users with cognitive disabilities. With its inherent elegance and simplicity and the addition of VoiceOver, Zoom (a screen magnifier, discussed below), and the available contrast and mouse settings, along with being able to launch programs and perform other activities via voice commands through "Speakable Items", the Mac has leaped fully into contention with Windows for market share among disabled users. We can hope that Apple continues to refine—and promote—these welcome Apple accessibility technologies.
The two screen magnifiers most used at OSU are MAGic and ZoomText. ZoomText is the more popular, though this may change if knowledge of the ability of MAGic to run from a "thumb drive" gains traction. Both come in text-to-speech and non-speaking versions. Below we list only the more expensive, speaking versions. Developers who want to get a feel for how their page works with magnification do not have to purchase copies of MAGic or ZoomText. The Opera web browser has the ability to scale up the browser window to lower resolutions. And all browsers have the ability to enlarge font sizes. Mac OS X.4 also includes Zoom, a screen magnifier. The WAC recommends testing with the browser window set at 800 by 600 pixels resolution and increasing font-sizes to three times default size. Web pages should still be usable in such a configuration. Also, experiment with screen magnification in Opera. (Note: the Web Developer toolbar extension for the Firefox browser also can zoom the window, increasing the size of graphics in proportion with text, but it is not nearly as smooth or sophisticated as the zoom feature in Opera.)
- MAGic Professional with Speech (Freedom Scientific, 9.50 is latest version (released August 2005), retail price as of January 2006 $595, Windows only)
MAGic magnifies the screen to any resolution with minimal distortion—bitmap images will distort but all text and vector images scale. The program also allows a user to set the text and background display colors to maximize contrast. The latest versions of MAGic have text-to-speech capability and the keystrokes to invoke reading of text are identical to those used within JAWS.
MAGic can be installed on a thumb drive, like the latest version of JAWS. This and the advent of JAWS-like speech show that Freedom Scientific is highly motivated to become the default choice in computer AT for low-vision and blind users.
- ZoomText Magnifier/Reader (Ai Squared, 9.0 is latest version (released November 2005), retail price as of January 2006 $595, Windows only)
The speaking version of ZoomText will highlight words as it reads them, a feature similar to MAGic's ability to have the cursor track words as they are spoken. It also has sophisticated text and control highlighting and finding capabilities.
- Zoom (Apple, 1.0 is latest version (released April 2005), included as part of Mac OS X.4 Tiger which has a retail price of $129 as of January 2006, Mac only)
Zoom allows a user to magnify the entire screen up to 40 times normal resolution. On the same Universal Access Preferences panel, users can also enlarge the mouse pointer. There is also the ability to use the mouse to preview a section of the screen magnified before enlarging the entire screen. Users can set keystroke commands to toggle magnification. Together, these abilities replicate the basic features of ZoomText and MAGic, but, again, as with VoiceOver, there is not the level of refinement and depth of features that one gets with the Windows applications. On the other hand, you get the features "for free", as part of the OS. The simplicity of them, the unique high-contrast VoiceOver menu, combined with the overall clean elegance of the Mac interface may make the feature trade off worthwhile for many disabled users.
Dragon Naturally Speaking is the industry dominating speech-to-text software. Its only real competition in the Windows world is IBM Via Voice, which has been bought by Nuance, makers of Dragon, and is no longer under development as a stand-alone program (IBM Via Voice technology can be embedded into other applications). Thus, in effect, Dragon is the only game in town on Windows. This may change dramatically with the introduction of Windows Vista, in January 2007. Vista, the next Windows operating system, will have built-in, highly sophisticated speech recognition and synthesis. The speech-to-text and voice navigation functions in Windows Vista mirror those in Dragon.
On Mac, the leading (only?) speech-to-text software is iListen. But the Mac, through the Speech Preferences panel, has the ability to invoke Speakable Items, allowing users to switch between applications and invoke limited features within Apple programs. Speakable Items differs from other approaches in full-blown speech-to-text systems, in that its voice recognition is accomplished via VoiceXML, a W3C recommendation used in automated phone queuing systems (and available in the Opera browser). VoiceXML technologies do not require the user to train the system before recognizing commands.
- Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred (Nuance, 9 is latest version (released July 2006), retail price as of October 2006 $199, Windows only)
Outside of fuller support for user-created macros and support for Outlook, PowerPoint, Lotus Notes and a couple of other applications, Dragon Preferred edition is as capable as its big brother Dragon Professional and is less than one-third the cost. The speech-to-text engines are the same and both products have the ability to control the mouse cursor. Dragon Professional is advertised as being fully compliant with US 508 law, which means it is the default choice for government agencies. Its ability to compose complex macros means also that it is the most logical choice for users with motor disabilities. For web page testing and proficient text input, though, Dragon Preferred is a bargain.
We have met a number of users who rely on text-to-speech software to navigate computer interfaces. We recommend developers use Dragon to test complex user interfaces for accessibility. For an accurate sense of this, it is necessary to train your own copy of Dragon to respond to your voice. Only the Professional edition allows users to save voice profiles for use on other computers.
- IBM ViaVoice (Nuance, latest version is release 10 version 1 for Windows and release 3 for Mac OS X (all appear to have been released in 2002), retail price for "flagship" Pro USB version as of January 2006 $189, Windows and Mac)
Nuance (formerly Scansoft) owns both ViaVoice and Dragon Naturally Speaking. Only Dragon Professional is fully 508 compliant. We have not tested ViaVoice, but it appears to be geared for dictation. Dragon, by contrast, allows for voice control of the mouse cursor and has much broader support within Microsoft applications. Unlike Dragon, however, ViaVoice has a version for the Macintosh.
It appears ViaVoice is no longer being developed as a stand-alone product. Instead, IBM is marketing the ViaVoice technology for embedding in applications and devices.
- iListen (MacSpeech, 1.7 is latest version (released August 2006), retail price without headset as of October 2006 $99, Mac only)
We have not done testing with iListen. From MacSpeech's promotional information, it appears iListen has much of the functionality of Dragon, including the ability to move the mouse, navigate and activate interface items, and launch and move between applications.