Making Internet Explorer and Outlook Express Accessible
By Veli-Pekka Tätilä
Alasdair - broken links and unavailable files have been removed from this page and are lost forever.
As with any software, improving accessibility with screen readers usually means simplifying the layout and visual side of the program by changing the programs preferences. In Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Outlook Express there are many unnecessary visual elements (e.g. toolbars and the preview pain) which usually just confuse older screen reading software and draw the focus away from important elements like actual HTML-content or message text. In addition, Internet Explorer has very useful accessibility features such as font and color formatting, tabs and zoom for magnification users.
If you are using a screen reader to read this page, you should set it up so that it'll read sslash and parenthesis characters and also bold and italic text. This will make the representation of locations and notes more clear. I'm not into this kind of style any more, but this is an old page updated over time, so some formatting remains.
Simplifying the Layout
Most accessibility guides suggest turning off the toolbars of Internet Explorer to make it more accessible with old screen readerse e.g. Supernova 4.x., and this one is no exception. Another benefit realized this way is a simpler GUI for mostly keybord oriented magnification users, whose viewport on the screen can be very small. Turning off all toolbars except perhaps the adress bar has no negative side effects as IE can be used from the menus well. However, I recommend leaving the IE6 adress bar on as it allows you to quickly type new locations and you can also check or copy the adress of the page you are on. Here's how you hide the toolbars:
In IE 6
In Internet Explorer's view menu turn off the following options, if they are selected:
- View/Toolbars/Standard Buttons
- However, leave the address bar on unless it causes problems with your screne reader.
- In the View menu, turn off the status bar as well ( View/Statusbar ).
- In the View/Explorer Bar sub-menu uncheck all menu entries, in other words all of the following: SearchFavorites, History, Folders And Tip of the Day
You can also use IE in full screen mode. The full screen mode enlarges the IE window so that it will fill the whole screen. Not only that but some toolbars are either hidden or reduced in size so switching to full screen is a quick way of improving accessibility if you are working on someone else's machine and don't want to turn off the toolbars. To switch to full screen mode and back again, press function key 11.
In case you are relying fully on speech you might want to increase your screen resolution in Windows and decrease the font size in Internet Explorer in order to fit more text on the screen. The advantage is that you don't have to scroll that often to have the screen reader read more text when viewing Web-content.
- To change the resolution, go to Display Properties/Settings and use the screen area slider to specify a resolution (try 1024x768 for a start).
- To change the font size in IE, open the View menu, then choose the Text Size sub menu and select an option (e.g. smallest).
These changes in IE's appearance should make it a lot more accessible especially with older screen reader software. However, there's still a lot to do.
IE7 has a new Vista:ish layout which might confuse some magnification and keybord users. The menu bar is hidden by default so you should go into View/Toolbars/Menu Bar to reactivate it. The menu bar is still weirdly placed under some toolbars. To get it back on top of the IE window again you can use this registry hack. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER, Software, Microsoft, Internet Explorer, Toolbar, WebBrowser and add a new dword value ITBar7Position. Specify 00000001 as the value. To remove the search bar as well, go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER, Software, Policies, Microsoft, Internet Explorer, InfoDelivery, Restrictions and again add a new dword NoSearchBox valued 00000001
You still cannot get rid of the new commandd toolbar and address bar even if you'd like. It will add half a dozen items in front of the tab order so you need several tab presses just to access the first link on a page. To make things easier, though, there are a couple of tricks you can try. You can put the focus on the command bar using the tab key and then right click it choosing Customize Command Bar/Add or Remove Commands. In the dialog that opens you can trim the number of buttons showing in the toolbar, though the bar itself cannot entirely be disabled. The other trick is to press F6 in stead of the tab key to navigate around the IE window much like you can change panes in Windows Explorer. F6 let's you move in large chunks so only two f6 presses are needed to move from the address bar to the Web-page rendering area.
Tabbed Browsing Benefits and Other IE7 Nifties
At the moment this sub-chapter is about the rationale and usage of tabbed browsing plus some instructions about zooming pages.
IE6 is a single document interface. You have to open up a separate browser window for each document that you'd like to keep open. To switch between the documents you must use the alt+tab box. Each doc in the browser produces one extra item in the alt+tab order. As you can have loads of apps open in Windows at any one time, the alt+tab sequence can be horribly long. You can only tab through it sequentially, there's currently no direct way to switch to a particular task. There are alt+tab replacements with better keyboard interfaces, such as Task Switch XP ,that are accessible after some visuals tweaking, however.
In contrast, IE7 is a tabbed browser. If you use just the new interface, there's ever only one IE window in the alt+tab box no matter how many documents you've got open. Each document in IE7 maps to a tab or property sheet inside IE itself. You switch between these docs sequentially with ctrl+tab like you switch between property sheets in a dialog box. Conceptually, each property sheet is an open Web page in IE. Once you close the last tab, the whole browser is closed.
To speed up navigation, there are some hotkeys. As in dialogs, with the shift key down you can cycle through the tabs in reverse order. To access one of the 8 left-most tabs directly, you can press ctrl and then a number between 1 and 8 inclusive. You create new tabs to blank pages with ctrl+t and close any new windows with ctrl+w respectively. Ctrl+enter opens a link in a new tab, and alt+enter in the address bar makes sure the address you navigate to gets its own tab. Those are the hotkeys you'll need most often.
For even quicker tab management, you can get a visual overview of all tabs by hitting ctrl+q or by choosing View/Quick Tabs . As that view is fairly visual, the equivalent menu can be opened using ctrl+shift+q, in stead. It shows you the titles of open tabs in a pop-up menu you can use the same as you normally would. Menus are, generally speaking, easier to keyboard navigate than tabs.
The last cool feature for low vision users I'll mention is the zoom. You can zoom in and out by holding down the ctrl key and then using the mouse wheel. By default new windows are reset to medium text and the 100 percent zoom but you can change the behavior under advanced within Internet Options. By zooming in, it is easier to see the layout on a page and the scroll bars willl get bigger, too. Not only the text is zoomed, it also applies to form controls and bitmapped graphics, for instance. Zooming out can be handy, as well, as it allows you, among other things, scroll in very large chunks with the mouse wheel. For CCTV like quick auto-scrolling, one can zoom in very close with ctrl+wheel up and then middle click the mouse button, gently nudging the mouse in a particular direction. Windows activates a kind of auto-scrolling mode which is terminated by another middle click and controlled by the amount of relative mouse movement within a given direction. Try it to see how it works.
Advanced Internet Options
Most of the essential settings are shared by both IE6 and IE7. Here they are. First, go to Tools/Internet Options and select the Advanced tab. There's a tree control with check boxes and radio buttons. If you want more information on a specific option just select it and press either f1 or right-click and select What's this from the pop-up menu. Anyway, here are the options you should choose:
- Always expand ALT text for images on (requires that the alt text fits in if images aren't shown).
- Move system caret with focus/selection changes on ((makes IE work better with screen readers)
- Enable folder view for FTP sites on(makes using FTP easier)
- Enable page transitions off (a redundant feature)
- Notify when downloads complete on(pops up the download box when a file has been downloaded which steels the focus but is handy if there are only few downloads going on.)
- Use inline Autocomplete for Web adresses on
- Use inline autocomplete in Windows Explorer on
- Use smooth scrolling off (Makes scrolling easier to see, less CPU intensive and possibly more exact)
You might want to clear the following checkboxes under advancedMultimedia if you don't need these features.
- Always show Internet Explorer (5 or later Radio toolbar (IE6 only)
- Play animations
- Play sounds (loud background music can be irritating when using a speech synthesizer, but you can stop it by pressing esc. Sadly Flash doesn't respect this.)
- Play videos
- Show image download placeholders
- Show pictures
- Smart image dithering (this will have no effect if pictures are disabled)
For even more control, you might wish to disable some of the activeX controls and browser plug-ins you don't need. I would recommend getting rid of both Flash and QuickTime if you don't need them. All the more so as there are mostly inaccessible, slow Flash applets that play audio as well as quicktime content that's fairly visual. You can do this in Tools/Manage Add-ons in IE7. By changing the status of a control to disabled .
Use the Same Colors, Font Styles and Font Sizes for All Pages
In Internet Explorer 4 or later you can override the formatting specified on a web page and always use the same colors and fonts. By overriding the default formatting of Web pages they are easier to read and you can set your screen reader to announce the colors of a web page so you know when a text is for instance a hyper link. Nowadays screen readers get the link and other semantics from the browser but overriding of colors can still be useful to magnification folks. You can set the fonts and colors that are to be used to format Web pages in tools/internet options/general/colors and tools/internet options/general/fonts .
You must also specify whether or not to actually use the formatting settings you specified in the fonts and colors dialogs. Go to tools/internet options/general/accessibility and check the following checkboxes to override colors and fonts.
- Ignore colors specified on Web pages
- Ignore font styles specified on web pages
- Ignore font sizes specified on web pages.
The latest hurdle regarding overriding of fonts and colors in IE6 is that it stops working after you have applied the latest IE patches. IT doesn't work properly on sites relying on CSS. However, the feature works as expected in Mozilla products and IE7. Also, you can specify your own formatting in high detail by using a custom style sheet. For more info, visit my IE style sheet page .
Side-Effects of Formatting
Note that the formatting settings you specify for web pages are also used when viewing other HTML-based content such as HTML E-mails in Outlook Express or compressed HTML help files (which have the .chm extension). In Windows ME, the HTML formatting will affect the appearance of the system information utility and in Windows 2K, the add/remove program applet will look different when HTML formatting is on. HTML formatting is also global and not user-specific as far as I know.
Changing the formatting and color settings havve some other nasty side effects, too. Some pages have clearly not been tested with IE's page formatting. So it's sometimes a good idea not to chekc the box overiding font sizes just to be on the safe side. Overlapping text might be one problem with custom font sizes.
The last of these sideeffects is pretty insidious and it took me over a year to figure it out. it's honestely very simple but I claimed faulty display drivers for it which were not the cause at this time. The color settings you specify for formatting Web pages are also used when the Web page author has not specified any colors even if the check box for using custom colors for formatting is unchecked (the same applies to fonts by the way). This leads to some odd-looking Web pages. If you set the text color to be white and the Web author has specified the background color to be white but no foreground color assuming it is black, you get white text on a white background even if color formatting was off, and this is depressingly common, even in the days of CSS. If a sighted user is using the computer for Web browsing you should uncheck all the boxes in Tools/Internet Options/General/Accessibility as well as checking the Use Windows Colors check box in the dialog which you use to set the color options. The laddder of course applies only if you have not tampered with the general colors in Windows. If you have, you should probably temporarily switch back to the Windows Standard color scheme or better yet create a separate user account for the sightee.
Some pages use bold or italic fonts to emphasize certain words but when automatic font formatting is on, bold and italic formatting doesn't always seem to be coming through. To summarize a bit, normally you should auto-format pretty much everything on a web page if it helps in accessing the page. However, in some relatively rare situations turning off all font formatting can actually improve accessibility.
Viewing Web Pages as Plain Text
You can view any web page as plain text by copying it to the Windows clip board and pasting it to a text editor such as NoteTab Pro. This is handy as you can read the text line by line with a real cursor without any performance hits caused by screen readers, either. Internet Explorer also formats pages copied to the clipboard so that links are on the top of the page and then under the links is the actual text. Regular expressions, if you know them, are a great help in navigating semi structured bits of plain text such as Web pages. To find out more. Pay a visit to the regular expression tutorial here.
Form and FTP Hotkeys
Here are some hotkeys I tend to use in IE daily but which are not obvious to most users in my experience. Sometimes list boxes in forms can auto-submit the form as soon as you have made a selection in the list. This can be handy for the sighted user but the trouble is that traversing a list view with the arrow keys generates item selected style events. The outcome is that you don't have time to listen to the text and determine whether you should select an item, before it is already selected and submitted. To work-around that use alt plus down arrow to first open the box so you can freely browse it. To select an item ande close the box just hit enter.
This latter one is actually a Windows Explorer tip but as the app is partially IE based and you use the same interface in FTP, here goes. There is a difference between using the backspace key or alt plus left arrow for going back in your folder navigation history. Using back space resets the focus to the first liste view item while alt plus left arrow does not and is thus mostly preferrable. Say you went from the c drive to temp. hitting back space brings you in the c drive but has no selection and your focus starts out at the first list item system volume information in my case. On the other hand, using the alt and left arrow sequence for the same thing leaves the temp folder selected and your focus stays in there. This is nice if you are going through a set of foldres and wish to continue cursoring from the place you visited last.
Also for apps that can process multiple files, Windows has a bug concerning multiple selection. If you start out a contiguous range selection with shift+down, the files are feed to the associated program from the temporally last shift+selected file to the first one. Knowing this, do your selection in the reverse order to work-around. To add files a to z to a Winamp playlist, on an ftp site, select z first and then move to a with shifft down.
As far as combined mail and news readeres go, one can use the mail and news portions of Netscape Communicator 4.8 for readers not supporting Mozilla Thunder Bird. I'm using Communicator until Dolphin adds Thunderbird support and have found Communicator to be roughly equally accessible to Outlook Express with no need for OE Quote Fixing and better message coloring support. Back to OE, though:
Simplifying the Layout
The only additional view you really need in Outlook Express is the folder list, which allows you to easily move between different folders, servers and newsgroups. So, here's how you get ridd of all those other views. Go to the View/Layout dialog (logical, eh?) and make the following choices:
- Contacts Off
- Folder Bar Off (this is like an extra big title bar and not needed)
- Folder List On (some guides suggest disabling this as well)
- Outlook Bar Off (like the places bar in Win ME,XP,2k but with OE specific places)
- Status Bar Off
- Toolbar Off
- Viewsbar Off
- Show preview pane Off
The Columns You Need
In Outlook Express the window where all the messages of the currently selected folder are shown, I call it the message list, can be thought of as a kind of table implemented with a multi-column list view. In that table, each message corresponds to a row and each message atribute (subject,date,sender etc...) to a column. OE allows you to set the widths and the order of the columns as well as what columns are shown. Note that removing a specific message atribute or column (they are the same thing) not only hides that column but OE doesn't allow you to sort messages by a hidden column. Here's an example: if you disable the attachment column, you can no longer sort messages by attachment.
To minimize the data you want your screen reader to read per message, you should decide what columns are vital and discard the others.
In my opinion, the columns you need most often are subject and from in this order. So you should activate at least these two and maybe the attachment and date columns in sent items or news groups, too.
- Go to View/Columns
- Select the columns: labelled from and subject
- Use the Move Up and Move Down buttons to sort the columns to the order: Subject, From (from top to bottom).
- The column order, in the columns dialog corresponds to the column order in the message view (from left to right).
Finetuning Columns, Sorting Messages and other convenient Features
First some notes. Some e-mail folders have there own column settings so you might want to change the settings for other folders than the Inbox . Note also that newsgroup servers or at least the newsgroup message view in general, have there own layout and column settings as well. To summarize a bit, it takes quite a bit of patience to set the columns you want in the right order for e-mail folders. And there are still some things you can do to make the columns easier to use with screen readers.
One such thing is to set the widths of the columns right. You might need a sighted person for dragging the columns with the mouse to make there widths suitable. Alternatively you can set the column width parameter for each column in the column dialog by specifying a value in the The selected column should be (the value) pixels wide field. As for column widths, you should have a lot of room for long subject lines and for person's names as well but the date column doesn't need that much space.
Specifying the column widths in pixels has it's draw backs. The columns are not scalable when you select another resolution or change the size of the Outlook Express window so some column tweaking later on might be necessary. Speaking of the Outlook Express main window, I think you should maximize the main window to have as much space for the columns as possible. And you can further increase the space available by dragging the divider between the folder list and the message view (be careful not to drag the border too much on the left as your newsgroup names might be clipped, then). Again this operation requires the sighted or magnification.
It is also a good idea to sort the messages so that it's easy to find what you are looking for. Generally you should check the option View/Current View/Group Messages by Conversation . This way all the replies to a specific message will be grouped under that message and you can expand the message to view it's replies just like you would expand a branch in a standard Windows tree control.
You can sort messages by any column you have selected. When viewing newsgroup messages I like to choose:
- View/Sort By/Sent
- View/Zort By/Sort Descending
The latter option should be generally selected. It sorts the messages so that the newest messages are on the top or if you have sorted messages by subject, messages starting with the letter a will be at the top (actually parentheses will be before the letter a). It's easy to find the new messages in a news group just by accessing that group in the folder list and quicly pressing tab to move to the top most or newest message. OE will check the group for new messages after a while and these will appear above the message you just selected when OE has updated the list.
When viewing e-mail messages it is a good idea to sort them by subject rather than by date as some mailing lists add prefixes to the subject lines e.g. (AH) (stands for Analog Heaven). By sorting the messages by subject, you'll be more easily able to view the messages posted to a specific mailing list.I've found seting up e-mail rules helps to keep the mails neatly and logically organized. You can create rules in Tools/Message Rules/Mail . I won't go into the details here as the process is pretty much self-explanatory. Just select the criteria in the first list, the action in the second one and activate any of the hyperlinks in the rule description to specify the details. I like to auto-archive messages from certain people, sort the e-mail list messages by topic based on posting address and subject line as well as sort all the messages having attachments into a common attachments folder. I've also found a manual archive folder can be very handy, I've got one for temporary and another one for permanent archival.
You can also search for e-mail messages in any folder (e.g. Inbox, Sent Items, Deleted Items or any newsgroup). Usualy you should search by subject or with a keyword. The latter option is pretty slow if you have lots of messages and an old machine with little memory. That's mostly due to OE having no indexing service running similar to say Spotlight or Google Desktop search.
Note that you don't have to always search the message text. You could, for example, have OE not to search the message text, in stead, type the name of the person who posted the message you are looking for in the find field. Generally speaking, if you don't tell OE to search the message body, it will search the visible message headers.
At least in Windows XP Service Pack 2, Outlook Express includes a real physical cursor for browsing an e-mail without having to use screen reader specific navigation features. This means that you'll be able to move around a plain text message as if it was an edit field, as far as keyboard use goes. Making selections and copying text is also possible. To access this physical cursor in OE, open up a message and press tab. You should land on the message and have a real, visible cursor that you can use to navigate around. Alternatively, if you use the preview pane, tabbing to that pane should activate the cursor automatically.
if you want to copy the message text real fast, the quickest way is to highlight the desired message in the mesage list and press ctrl+c. The message text as well as the most important headers will be copied on the clipboard and can then be pasted to any Windows application supporting plain text.
The Tools/Options dialog contains various settings that affect the behavior of Outlook Express. In this chapter, I've listed the most relevant settings to accessibility:
- In the Read tab you can set the fonts Outlook Express uses when displaying messages. To access the font settings, press the Fonts button. You can specify both a proportional font and a fixed width font. Generally you should pick fonts that are easy to read, I am using Arial Black as the proportional font and Courier New as the fixed-width font. You can also specify the font size. If you are using magnification set it so that the text is easy to read. But if you are not, you should set it to the smallest value available as by doing so you'll have more text without scrolling.
- I've also found the setting titled Read all messages in plain text almost invaluable. It shows all e-mail in plain text thereby protecting you from some viruses and making the content generally more accessible and easier to read. This option has the drawback that if you receive an HTML message with no plain-text copy included, the message is totally empty.
- On the Send tab you can specify the format of your messages. I really recommend choosing Plain Text for both newsgroup and mail messages as plain text messages are accessible with any e-mail client (also Unix based Pine, to give an example of a client not supporting HTML). Further more, HTML has unnecessary formatting,, most people posting in HTMl don't use the formatting anyway, and gif animations in HTML-messages tend to cause problems with screen readers.
- In the Compose tab there are two font settings buttons (the first one for mail and the one below it for news). These buttons set the font that is used when you write your messages. Pick the fonts that are easy to read. Note that if you send your messages as plain text, the font settings you use to compose the message are not saved with the unformatting message being sent, they only determine which fonts your editor uses for display purposes. In other words, when a recipient opens your message, it is shown with the font settings specified in his or her e-mail client not with the settings you specified in the Compose tab.
Tweaking Message Window Settings
Here's how to optimize the appearance of the message window to improve accessibility. In this context the message windo is the window in which the actual message text is shown.
One of the most important things in improving accessibility in the message window is to turn off all it's toolbars. So in a message window clear all of the following:
- View/Tool Bars/Standard Buttons
- View/Status Bar
- And if you are replying to an HTML-message, also the option View/Tool Bars/Formatting bar
Most screen reader and sighted users want to have as large a message window as possible. The ad hoc solution here would be to use the Windows' maximize command to do that but it won't work as the state of the message window (either maximized or restored) is not saved in Outlook Express. Fortunately, there's a workaround to this: the size of the windo is saved when restored. Just don't maximize the window and drag it manually to fill the whole screen. That's it.
The built-in message viewer is not too good. First the response of the message editor is somewhat sluggish with screen readers and an older machine. There's also no way of quoting inserted text or jumping to a specific line. Besides, Outlook Express stil has bugs in quoting messages when word wrap is turned on. In addition, the signature is inserted at the top of the message encouraging you to top post rather than bottom post, the latter being preferred in most newsgroups apart from those for the VI folks. OE also uses a 3 line header before the actual quoted post begins which can be irritating when reading e-mail with speech.
So two programs come in very handy a good text editor and an application for fixing Outlook's e-mail quoting. As for text editing, I truely recommend NoteTab Pro. It's a multi-tab text editor with unlimited undo, HTML and e-mail quoting features, thesaurus, spell-checker, text statistics, macro language, support for Perl scripts and dozens of other things like Perl compliant regular expressions. The basic version of NoteTab is free and it does most of the things you'd want. I'm by the way a registered owner of NoteTab Pro, I'm doing all my e-mails as well as these web-pages with it. The registration costs about twenty euros and it can be made electronically as well. You can learn more about NoteTab at http://www.notetab.com .
When it comes to fixing quoting mistakes, moving the signature to the bottom and simplifying quoting in general. OE-QuoteFix is to app to have. I use this app daily. It starts when OE does and remains hiddne in the system tray. Normally you don't have to interact with the application at all. It closes it self when you finnish using Outlook Express and it formats the messages to which you are replying on the fly. You can get OE-QuoteFix here. Be sure to configure it properly, too. In particular, make certain the message wrapping widths are the same for OE's mail and news settings and OE Quote Fix. These widths, sadly, differ by default.
Here are some tricks you can do in NoteTab Light or any other text editor supporting regular expressions. Most of these tricks should be done after having copied the message body to a text editor (NoteTab even supports capturing clipboard copy events).
One of the options I use loads is finding the next unquoted line in an e-mail message. This method works best if you get a copy of someone else's unquoted message which you do by hitting ctrl and c in the message list. Use the find command and the regular expression ^[^>] to find the next unquoted line. Note that you may have to substitute the greater than sign with some other quote character, in some instances.
Alternatively, to remove all quoted lines from a message before
replying to it in NoteTab: Copy and paste the message to which you
wish to reply to NoteTab. Open the replace dialog box, set the
scope to all and tick the regular expression box, then type the
Replace with: [leave this field empty]
After executing this command, the quoted parts should be gone
but the problem is the large amount of empty lines. Do the
following find and replace to remedy this (uncheck the regular
expression box first, though):
Replace with: [again leave this field empty]
Finally, use the e-mail quote command in NoteTab to quote the
message, reply to it and copy and paste to Outlook Express when
done. Alternatively, you can quote with a regular expression like
Replace With: >\1
In most regular expression compliant editors you should substitute the braces with parentheses. However, the NoteTab 4.x syntax uses curly braces to denote capturing groups. The 5.x releases of NoteTab do use parentheses in stead of braces, for capturing, however.