My life with a Screen Reader

So for quite some time now, much longer than is even remotely justifiable in fact, I’ve been having my share of difficulty both with using and understanding how to use Screen Reader Technology. Or more to the point, I just don’t get how this particular technology is usable to Blind and Low-Vision users.

Just to be crystal clear, I’m not knocking the technology or anyone who uses it, I’m only speaking towards my experience with it. And since my experience is limited, take this for what it’s worth, which isn’t a hellva lot.

Using said technology is an almost maddening endeavour each and every time I try to use it. I cannot wrap my head around making personal, productive use of it — and when I refer to “it,” in the interests of full disclosure, since I design and develop on a Mac, I mean VoiceOver.

First some context

For the record I don’t go anywhere out of my way to make regular use of a screen reader. But I do use them for testing. That is to test all I design and develop for the web.

Don’t get me wrong, I could often use the break a screen reader would provide my eyes. I’d so love to tilt back and have a particularly long article “read” to me — if it’s not too technical of course. I’m a visual learner. I need to see certain details to accurately understand certain things. And I’ve always assumed my inability to use screen readers was me. Mostly for this reason. And by no means am I convinced it’s not. But I’m starting to understand, it’s not all me.

An introduction?

At the beginning of last week, news hit the web that Google had announced plans to host a free online Introduction to Web Accessibility course. The resulting wave of criticism aside, whether it was warranted or not isn’t for me to say, but it was being “sold” as an “Introduction” to Web Accessibility.

One would assume, if you take the “backlash” at face value, it would include a rounded approach to all, or realistically some — as in more than a semi-specific aspect of — Web Accessibility, right? I’m not saying a characterization where anyone finding fault with what was “previewed” before yesterday, the official “start” of the course, is unfair. But shit-talking any effort before seeing all of it is a tad misguided. That said, it would seem to deal (I’ve barely begun it, I got hung up, see further on) primarily with a certain subset of web user’s accessibility. Blind and Low-Vision users.

Now, in no way am I saying any course geared towards Blind and Low-Vision users, exclusively or not, isn’t needed. Or welcomed. Because they so are. That’s the sole reason I signed up! That, and “you will also learn how to inspect the accessibility of your websites within minutes using Google Chrome extensions.” I need to expand my development toolbox. I digress.

Enter Chromevox

Now concerning my exploits with VoiceOver. I can’t get it to read to me without interruption every few words. Meaning without constant interaction, I’m completely unable to get VoiceOver to read my screen in an “automatic” fashion. Or the bits I want it to, more accurately. And yes I’m aware the way in which I expect VoiceOver to work likely isn’t realistically the way it should work.

But my point? A few weeks back, I saw Chromevox mentioned on Twitter. And I immediately downloaded it. “ChromeVox is a screen reader for Chrome [an extension] which brings the speed, versatility, and security of Chrome to visually impaired users” written entirely in HTML5, CSS and Javascript. The difference between Chromevox and VoiceOver is Chromevox operates exclusively within the browser — Chrome only. Whereas VoiceOver is system wide.

Their differences aside, it’s what Chromevox had in common with VoiceOver that I was most interested in. How it reads a webpage. And how I could get it to “work” for me. Unfortunately, it behaved in much the same way as VoiceOver did. Queue my frustration.

The problem

Keep in mind, their is still a lot of testing yet to do. But seeing how the problems are so significant for me, and any further effort will be quite the time and effort consuming exercise, I need to pace myself. But if anything changes, as a result of my tests, I’ll be sure to update this post.

Turns out while both VoiceOver’s and Chromevox’s behaviour was the result of different, but related, reasons.

Let’s do this backwards. Starting with Chromevox. As I’ve written previously I use my computer with one hand and “Sticky Keys” enabled. Chromevox doesn’t much care for sticky keys, at all. It’s literally unusable for me with them on. But once I turn them off (update: it seems my “unusable” declaration was a tad premature, it’s not true, it’s tricky but not impossible), not only is Chromevox very usable, it’s actually quite the pleasant experience. I was surprised.

And while sticky keys works with VoiceOver on, it’s largely unusable using one hand. At least on the desktop. But that’s even more infuriating. While I admit it could be rare to have both a vision impairment and a mobility impairment, having both cannot be ruled out in the realm of possibilities.

The solution

My testing will resume first with Chromevox. I’ll likely get somewhere with it. So I guess a couple take aways from my writing today is it seems Google is doing something right. And it could always be worse. Much worse. Chromevox ain’t half bad.


Regarding what I wrote above a lot has changed since originally posting it. But before I get into it, how’s that saying go? “The more things change, the more they stay the same?”

Or in other words, Screen Readers are still frustrating for me to use. But of course, that’s the rather significant problem from where I sit, at least presently speaking. These sorts of technologies aren’t about me. As a sighted user, bringing all my sighted baggage to a situation where things were not designed to work relying on that sense, and complaining about it is counter productive in the very least and ableist at its worst. Screen Readers were designed with the expectation the visual sense will be entirely absent from the equation.

And while my attitudes toward Chromevox have changed — “soured” is how I mistakenly referred to them on Twitter — the fact remains being exposed to Chromevox and the idea of using a Screen Reader during my design and development process is precisely where it all took root. Chromevox isn’t without its issues but I’m not about to dismiss it’s role in making me a better designer/ developer. It’s been huge. And it has forever changed the way in which I approach my interests on the web.

Enough said…

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