An understated feature in desktop Firefox is the option to suppress the text and background colors that content authors choose for us, and instead go with the plain old black on white with a smattering of blue and purple links. In other words, 1994.

Why is this feature great? Because it hands control back to the user and allows people with visual impairments to tweak things just enough to make the web readable.

Somebody once asked on the #accessibility IRC channel why they can’t turn off content colors in Firefox for Android. So it seemed like a good idea to re-introduce that option in the form of an extension. There are a few color related addons in AMO, but I just submitted another one, and you could get it here. This is what the toggle option looks like:

Remove colors option in tools menu
Remove colors option in tools menu

Since the color attribute was introduced, the web has evolved a lot. We really can’t go back to the, naive, monochrome days of the 90s. Many sites use background images and colors in novel ways, and use backgrounds to portray important information. Sometimes disabling page colors will really break things. So once you remove colors from AMO, you get:

AMO with colors removed
Okayish, eh?

As you can see, it isn’t perfect, but it does make the text more readable to some. Having a menu item that doesn’t take too much digging to find will hopfully help folks go back and forth between the two modes and gt the best out of both worlds.

Am I Vision Impaired? Who Wants to Know?

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.

White House Home Page, circa 1994
You mean I could visit the White House from my home?? Do I need to wear a tie???

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 already know.

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.

Am I Vision Impaired? Who Wants to Know?

Firefox OS App Accessibility Workshop Part 2: Analog Clock

This is a second post in a series about making Firefox OS apps accessible to blind users. You could read the intro here, and a post about labels here.

The Gaia Clock App has a pretty analog view, with ticking hands. You can stare at it and wonder how generations past were able to divine the time of day from a few muted lines. The analog clock should serve the same purpose for blind users as it does to sighted users: It should tell time. In this post I’ll give an overview of the steps I needed to take to make the analog clock view useful.

Analog View in Clock App

If you are a blind user,the screen reader won’t even bother telling you about the analog view. The view is composed from a collection of empty div elements. Since they don’t contain anything besides some special styling, the screen reader skips them and does not bother the user with some arbitrary nested divs. For a good reason, the entire Internet is a collection of redundant nested divs!

To make the screen reader display the view to the user, we need to give the view an appropriate role. This will tell the screen reader’s heuristics that the view is an item of interest. I chose to use the img role, since this is a graphic that describes time. There are other roles that would also be appropriate, such as marquee. But I chose img.

I applied this role on the clock’s container:

         <div role="tabpanel" id="alarm-panel" class="active panel">
           <div id="clock-view">
             <div id="analog-clock">
-              <div id="analog-clock-container">
+              <div id="analog-clock-container" role="img">
                 <div id="analog-clock-face">
                   <div id="analog-clock-hands">
                     <div class="analog-clock-hand" id="secondhand"></div>

When I tried the screen reader with this change, I found that I was able to land on the analog view. The screen reader would say “graphic”, which is not very useful, but it is something. Now the user knows what is taking up all that space on the screen.

The next step is to label the graphic with the current time. This was done in Javascript. Every time the clock hands are updated, we update the ARIA label as well:

   updateAnalogClock: function cv_updateAnalogClock(opts) {
     opts = opts || {};

     if (opts.needsResize) {
     var now = new Date();
     var sec, min, hour;
     sec = now.getSeconds();
     min = now.getMinutes();
     // hours progress gradually
     hour = (now.getHours() % 12) + min / 60;
     this.setTransform('second', sec);
     this.setTransform('minute', min);
     this.setTransform('hour', hour);
+    // Update aria label for analog view.
+    var time = Utils.getLocaleTime(now);
+    this.container.setAttribute('aria-label',
+                                time.t + (time.p ? ' ' : '') + time.p);
     // update again in one second
     this.timeouts.analog = setTimeout(
       this.updateAnalogClock.bind(this), 1000 - now.getMilliseconds()

Another round with the screen reader, it now says “11:20 AM, graphic”. That is a lot better!

Screenshot of Screen Reader Emulator showing the analog view correctly.

Firefox OS App Accessibility Workshop Part 2: Analog Clock

Followup On Unlabeled Widgets

After my previous post, about labels, @ted_drake commentedIs 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.

I just learned something new, I hope you did too!

Followup On Unlabeled Widgets