There has been discussion recently if websites should have the ability to detect whether a visitor is using a screen reader. This was sparked by the most recent WebAIM survey that highlights a clear majority of users would indeed be comfortable divulging that information to sites.
This is not a new topic, there is a spec in the works that attempts to balance privacy, functionality and user experience. This is also a dilemma we have as implementers and have discussed this extensively in bug reports. Even my esteemed colleague Marco put down his thoughts on the topic.
I have mostly felt confusion about this question. Not about the privacy or usability concerns, but really about the semantics. I think the question “do you feel comfortable disclosing your assistive technology to the web” could be phrased in a dozen ways, each time exposing bias and assumptions about the web and computing.
The prevailing assumption is that the World Wide Web is a geo-spatial reality loosely based on the physical world. Just like a geographical site, a site on the Web resides in a specific locality. The user is a “visitor” to the site. The “site” metaphor runs very deep. When I was first shown the Web, in 1994 I remember visiting the Louvre, seeing the Mona Lisa and signing a guest book. In this world, the browser is a vehicle that takes you to distant and exotic locations. Their names suggested it: Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Safari, Galeon, and the imperialistic Konquerer.
This paradigm runs deep, even though we use the Web in a very different way today, and a new mental model of the Web is prevailing.
When you check your mail on Gmail, or catch up on Twitter, you are using an application. Your browser is just a shell. In your mind, you are not virtually traveling to Silicon Valley to visit a site. You feel ownership over those applications. It is “my” twitter feed, that is “my” inbox. You will not sign a guest book. Just look at the outcry every time Facebook redesigns its timeline, or after Google does some visual refresh to its apps. Users get irate because they see this as an encroachment on their space. They were happy, and then some ambitious redesign is forcing them to get reacquainted with something they thought was theirs. That is why market-speak invented the “cloud”, which ambiguates the geography of websites and reinforces the perception that the user should stop worrying and love the data centers behind their daily life.
Depending how you see the web at any given moment may change how you view the question of assistive technology detection.
If you are applying for a loan online, you are virtually traveling to a loan office or bank. Whether you have a disability or not is none of their business, and if they take note of it while considering your application for a loan that would be a big problem (and probably illegal). In other words, you are traveling to a site. Just like you would put on a pair of pants or skirt before leaving the house, you expect your browser to be a trusty vehicle that will protect you from the dangers and exposure in the Wide World of the Web.
On the other hand, you may use Microsoft’s Office 365 every day for your job or studies. It really is just an office suite not unlike the one you used to install on your computer. In your mind, you are not traveling to Redmond to use it. It is just there, and they don’t want you to think about it any further. The local software you run has the capability to optimize itself for its environment and provide a better experience for screen reader users, and there is no reason why you would not expect that from your new “cloud office”.
But What About User Privacy?
The question of AT detection is really more about perceived privacy than actual privacy. If you had a smartphone in the last 5 years, you probably got frustrated with the mobile version of some website and downloaded the native version from the app store. Guess what? You just waived your privacy and disclosed any kind of AT usage to the app and, in turn, to the website you frequent. This whole “the Web is the platform” thing? It is a two way street. There is no such thing as an exclusively local app anymore, they are all web-enabled. When you install and run a “native” app, you can go back to that original mental model of the web and consider your actions as visiting a site. You may as well sign their guest book while you’re at it.
In fact, “local” apps today on iOS or Android may politely ask you to use your camera or access your address book, but profile your physical impairments? They don’t need special permission for that. If you installed it, they alreadyknow.
In that sense, the proposed IndieUI spec offers more privacy than is currently afforded on “native” platforms by explicitly asking the user whether to disclose that information.
I have no simple answers. Besides being an implementer, I don’t have enough of a stake in this. But I would like to emphasize a cliche that I hear over and over, and have finally embraced: “the Web is the platform”. The web is no longer an excursion and the browser is not a vehicle. If we truly aspire to make the web a first class platform, we need to provide the tools and capabilities that have been taken for granted on legacy platforms. But this time, we can do it better.
Having a current mozilla-central mirror on git has contributed to my mental health, and has generally allowed me to be a better human being and not drown in self pity and misery. So thank you Ehsan.
Luckily, the RelEng team has picked up the baton, and have a git mirror of their own running. So go clone it. Unfortunately the commits do not share the same SHA1 as Ehsan’s repo. So you can’t just switch the remote URI. Also, after you clone, you will need to migrate your branches over. There might be ways to do this in a bulk-ish way, but I only have one branch that I really care about, and I will keep the old clone around for a while if I need to pick something up from an obscure branch. So I did this off the top of my head:
[eitan@mozbox Mozilla]$ cd mozilla-central-old/
[eitan@mozbox mozilla-central-old]$ git checkout a11y
[eitan@mozbox mozilla-central-old]$ git format-patch master..a11
[eitan@mozbox mozilla-central-old]$ cd ../gecko-dev
[eitan@mozbox gecko-dev]$ git checkout -b a11y
[eitan@mozbox gecko-dev]$ git am ../mozilla-central-old/000*.patch
Applying: Bug 942991 - Updated virtual cursor navigation sounds.
Applying: Bug 942994 - Introduce clicked sound
Applying: supress error when trying to activate invalid accessibles.
Applying: hide visual cursor when vc is null
Applying: some cursor control tweaks
Applying: start of new dialog focus
Applying: Only blur focus if new pivot position is not focused.
After my previous post, about labels, @ted_drakecommented “Is there a reason why you didn’t simply add text to the button?” which is a good question! The short answer is, we don’t want to render the text in the button. Instead we want to keep it a graphical icon.
But this question demands an emphasis:
WAI-ARIA is a last resort, it is designed to be a stopgap that augments conventional HTML markup. As HTML evolved, many of the problems ARIA solves have been eliminated. Often, if you are using ARIA you are making a mistake. As Ted continues to say: “…the first rule of ARIA is to not use it when there is a standard alternative.”
So back to the issue of labeling controls and elements; aria-label is a last resort. The best option is rendered text, so the visual display is consistent with the accessible naming, for example <button>Press me</button>. After that there are two attributes that can be used, title and alt.
An image may have an alternative textual description, that is what the alt attribute is for. Almost any element may have a title attribute, which will provide a human readable name for the given object.
In fact, I was wrong in the earlier post. Instead of using aria-label, title would have sufficed. The only times aria-label should be used is when you don’t want a tooltip with the text to be visible on desktop, and for naming more complex composite widgets.
This is the first post in a multi-part series where I will walk you through all the steps I took to make the Gaia Clock app accessible. Now, as of this posting, these changes have not been merged into Gaia, not even reviewed. You could follow the entire effort to make the app accessible in bug 921201
In this post, we will cover the most cliché web accessibility topic, and that is properly labeling controls and elements.
When I started testing the clock app with a screen reader, I quickly stumbled upon a control that the screen reader describes as “button”. Sighted users have a good clue as to what this button does. It has an image of a bell, and a plus sign. The active tab below says “Alarm”, so a sighted user would likely assume this button will allow them to add an alarm setting. And they would be right. A blind user will hear “button”, and won’t have the vaguest idea as to what this button does.
The solution is straightforward. We need to add a label. The aria spec gives us the aria-label attribute just for that purpose:
Of course, when you add human readable strings, you need to make it localizable, the l10n.js script should do the trick along with the data-l10n-id attribute above. We will add the string to the locale properties files:
editAlarm = Edit alarm
+newAlarmButton.ariaLabel = New alarm
It’s that simple. We just took the first step to screen reader friendliness.
Next post we will dig deeper into other accessibility challenges and solutions, stay tuned!