Ropes Course Objectives

The goal of the ropes course is to give you practice navigating this simple web page with your screen reader of choice. We anticipate that the course will get its most use from people who are beginners with screen readers, and that by tackling the following tasks a number of times, you will achieve a level of proficiency and comfort at screen reader use, even if you don't achieve mastery here. Still, it should increase your skills to go through these various tasks forward, backward, with and without the help text, and even potentially with your screen turned off.

Course Setup

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The tasks

blind lady with dark glasses using a laptop and smiling

What is a screen reader?

Blind people can't see computer screens where most web pages are intended to display. Luckily, since HTML (the language all web pages are based on) is text-based, this can be refactored into something that can be understood by blind users. This is done with a screen reader program in connection with a web browser.

The screen reader and browser work together to read a webpage out loud to its user. Since it would be very tedious for the user to hear every element of the webpage read to him or her just as it appears on screen, screen readers give their users methods of skipping around the page in various ways. Although in most cases these don't make it so that screen reader users can digest the page as shallowly and quickly as a sighted user, it does help to close the gap somewhat.

The major screen readers

There are dozens of different screen readers that each work in a slightly different manner, but there are basically three dominant screen readers.

VoiceOver

VoiceOver home

VoiceOver is the least used of the big three screen readers, but we mention it first for a couple reasons. First, it's the most easily available to the certain demographic that it serves: the Apple Computer users. VoiceOver comes preinstalled with every Apple computer and iphone OS, and has done since 2005 for the computers and 2009 for the phones. You don't need to download it, or pay for a license, or set it up, or anything. It's there already, and ready to work.

Second, if you're an Apple user, VoiceOver is the only option. While I mentioned there are dozens of screen readers out there, the only one available for Apple is VoiceOver. We're not sure whether Apple created and maintains VoiceOver because the other screen reader creaters hadn't made one available for Mac, or whether the creators haven't offered a Mac product because VoiceOver is already an option, but for whatever reason, VoiceOver is all there is for Mac.

Top three reasons to use VoiceOver

  1. You use a Mac for your laptop or desktop computer, so VoiceOver is your only option
  2. You regularly use VoiceOver on your phone, and are used to the Rotor, and navigating the page in different ways through it.
  3. You want to support the company that has made accessibility for the blind a built-in and well-supported part of its offering.

Getting Started with VoiceOver

Follow this link to learn how to get started with VoiceOver.

NVDA

NVDA home

In 2006 two blind computer scientists started developing the NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) program which they released for Windows and made it open-source. Initially NVDA was the least-used screen reader because it was the newest, but since its release its popularity has steadily grown until it surpassed the major commercial product in 2019, but then its usage declined and was again surpassed in 2020.

Top three reasons to use NVDA

  1. You are a blind Windows user and can't or don't want to pay an expensive license for a screen reader.
  2. You are a web developer who uses Windows or Linux and wants to test your work without JAWS's opinionated guesses. You want to know what problems there are with the site rather than have a smooth experience based on the screen reader's attempt to present everything in the site to you most intelligently.
  3. You are a blind computer user who lives outside of the United States. JAWS is extremely difficult to obtain a license for outside of the United States, but NVDA is freely available everywhere.

Getting Started with NVDA

Follow this link to learn how to get started with NVDA.

JAWS

JAWS home

Freedom Scientific had created a freely available screen reader for MS DOS machines in the 80s, and called it Job Access With Speech (JAWS). In the mid-nineties when Windows began to be the dominant operating system, JAWS was rewritten for Windows and has served that platform since then. It is the most expensive of the screen reader options, costing about $100 for an annual personal license, or $250 per quarter for a professional license.

JAWS was very briefly surpassed in pupularity by NVDA, but is now back in the most-popular spot, particularly among blind users. JAWS is reportedly the most customizable screen reader, and it also does some guessing to try to provide to its users such things as missing labels for form fields. These features make for a better experience for users who depend on the software for their experience online, though this makes it a less useful tool for web developers trying to provide an accessible experience to their users, as JAWS's guesses may hide or obfuscate some problems in the code that ought to be remediated.

Top three reasons to use JAWS

  1. You have a Windows computer and use JAWS as your daily driver because of how smoothly it works.
  2. You like the extensive customization that is allowed by JAWS.
  3. Your JAWS license is provided by your school or work.

Getting Started with JAWS

Follow this link to learn how to get started with JAWS.

Screen Reader Comparison

Screen Readers in the US
Screen Reader Year Released Operating System Optimal Browser Cost Estmated US Users
VoiceOver 2005 Mac Safari Free 286,000
NVDA 2006 Windows Firefox Free 1,350,800
JAWS 1995 Windows Firefox $95/year 2,362,800

Why you should test your site with a screen reader

Many aspects of your site can be tested without a screen reader. There are lots of visual aspects of your site that can present problems to users with colorblindness or contrast sensitivity problems, as well as parts of it that can present cognitive challenges to users with ADHD or other cognitive disabilities. But the single largest group of internet users from the disabled community likely to visit your site are the blind.

The word 'Evaluation' arranged in a circle with another word, 'Evaluation' overlaid on it

While you can theoretically code things in such a way as it should be correctly read by all screen readers, the sad fact of the matter is that screen readers often interpret code slightly differently from what you'd expect. Because of this, you should really test your site on a screen reader, and ideally on several different ones. Just like you check your site out to make sure it works well at a variety of different screen sizes, you should really make sure that it works for screen readers as well.

Acknowledgements: This ropes course was designed and implemented by Deneb Pulsipher, Captain Accessible here at Seamonster Studios, with the help and guidance of Kosi Asabere, accessibility UX specialist.