ChromeVox browser extension

ChromeVox is a self-voicing browser extension (add-in) for Google’s Chrome browser. It’s designed by T.V. Ramen, the guy behind emacspeak.

It’s optimised for Chrome OS, at present (Google’s operating system that basically just gives you the Chrome browser as your desktop), probably because it is the only plausible accessibility story on Chrome OS for blind people, but it works fine on other systems.

You get a bunch of hotkeys that let you navigate around the page and a synthesized speech voice. The functionality is pretty geeky: if you’re comfortable with the idea that a web page is a hierarchical arrangement of nodes of different types, then you’ll fit right in. However, if you’ve already learned your many hotkeys for your screenreader to use Firefox or Internet Explorer, then you’re probably not going to find anything more useful in ChromeVox.

It’s maybe most interesting for Thunder Screenreader users, who can use ChromeVox with Chrome to give them the advanced geeky webpage navigation features previously enjoyed by JAWS or NVDA users, but can still fall back on the simpler Thunder features in Microsoft Office or WebbIE – and all for zero cost, since both Thunder and ChromeVox are free.

Alt Tag HTML Tip: If you swap out your image, does the text still work?

If you’re a good web designer (or just one who cares about his Google ranking) then you’re populating your IMG elements with the alt attribute (tag). Sometimes this is easy, like when you’re describing a picture in a new story. Sometimes, however, you’re using an IMG element because you’re overcoming some stylistic problem with using plain text – in other words, you’re using an IMG for text content. A good example is on the BBC News website. Here’s the (edited) code:

<a href=""><span>British Broadcasting Corporation</span>
<img src="light.png" alt="BBC" /><span>Home</span></a>

If you’re sighted you’ll observe on the actual page that you see none of the words “British Broadcast Corporation” or “Home”, just the BBC logo as an image in the top left, and as normal you can click on it to go to the BBC home page, so it looks neat and simple. What’s the extra text for? We can surmise that if you’re using a screenreader or other AT device you might, depending on the AT, hear “British Broadcasting Corporation BBC Home”, which may be more helpful than just “BBC”. Let’s assume that’s the idea.

The problem is that in the absence of any visual positioning, and without any CSS instructions to add  spaces into the code, what you’ve actually coded when the IMG element is directly replaced by its alt attribute is this:

<a href="">
British Broadcasting CorporationBBCHome</a>

If you run that into a speech synthesizer you’ll probably hear something like “Broadcasting Corporation-buh-buh-chome”, which isn’t what you wanted!

The problem is that there aren’t any spaces in the text that results from swapping out your IMG element with its alt attribute content. Sure, the AT could guess that you wanted to have spaces, but then it’s changing your content – and you’ll quickly run into a situation where adding spaces in breaks up other words when it shouldn’t, like sites that use IMG elements to produce fancy initial letters on the first words in paragraphs. What you should do is something like this:

<a href=""><span>British Broadcasting Corporation </span>
<img src="light.png" alt="BBC" />
<span> Home</span></a>

or this:

<a href=""><span>British Broadcasting Corporation</span>
<img src="light.png" alt=" BBC " />

In other words, structure your alt attributes so that your content still makes sense when the IMG element is replaced by the alt attribute content. Simple, but easy to overlook.

Windows 7 UI structure and shortcut keys for screenreader and switch users

Many people using assistive technology have to learn ways of doing things quite different from the “see, move mouse, click” paradigm most users can employ. For (blind) screenreader users it’s vital to know shortcut keys, and for both screenreader and (physically-impaired) switch users a good knowledge of the structure of common Windows user interface artifacts, like Explorer or the Start menu, is enormously important for getting the most out of their system.

Microsoft has provided “A Guide to Transitioning to Windows 7”, a Word document that provides a detailed examination of the Windows operating system user interface for people not using a screen and/or mouse. For example, it describes how to interact with the Ribbon interface used in Office 2007 and 2010 and now in applications like Paint.

It will be of use to high-level screenreader and switch users and user interface and AT developers who want to know how things (are supposed to) work for AT users.

Sight Village 2010 in Birmingham this week

Sight Village is the big UK “blindness” exhibition, hosted by Queen Alexandra College. This year it runs from Tuesday 13 to Thursday 15 July 2010. The major screenreader vendors, magnifier manufacturers, charities and other agencies and companies are all represented. There are talks and training sessions and lots of opportunity to check out the latest technology. Accessible Guide to Sight Village 2010.

Alasdair King (your Chair!) will be there this Wednesday afternoon if you’d like to meet up: give him a bell on 07983 244 131 or find him at the Claro Software stand, Zone 2, Block 2 Right. Sight Village is at New Bingley Hall, Hockley Circus, Birmingham B18 5BE. See you there!

Demonstration of a screenreader end user browsing the web

If you’ve never observed an end user using assistive technology, or you’re familiar only with your own AT, it can be a real surprise how people operate when browsing, mailing, word processing and so on. While nothing can beat a session with an end user in action talking you through what they’re doing and responding to all your “but WHY do you do it THAT way?” questions, here’s the next best thing: a video of a screenreader user, Bruce Maguire, employing a refreshable Braille display (rather than synthesized speech) to browse the web:

There is also a full transcript of Bruce’s presentation. (Courtesy Roger Hudson at Web Usability)

GNU/Linux Live CDs for screenreader users

If you’re a real geek you’ve probably at least booted up Linux and played with Emacspeaks or Orca or Speakup. You’ve probably got at least one Live CD – that is, a CD you can boot that runs a working GNU/Linux operating system so you can fix your Windows installation – or you know, even try out Linux itself. Knoppix is probably the most famous.

Well, there are not one but two distros that let you boot, provide speech synthesis or even drive a Braille display, and use the machine straight away without installing any extra AT. Use the machine, install GNU/Linux, access the file system – all without a sighted friend coming in and pressing the buttons for you. Well, pretty much – see below.

Vinux is built by Tony Sales of the British Computer Association of the Blind. Based on Debian. Uses Orca for the screenreader, runs off CD or USB stick. Probably the one to try out first.
Also Debian-based, but uses the Speakup screenreader. You have to type something when it boots to start the screenreader, but it comes to me recommended by a blind screenreader user, so it gets a mention. Maybe for the more geeky types.

So next time you break your machine by “accidentally” deleting a driver file “to save space” and you haven’t got round to backing up your machine even though you really really meant to this time – you can boot a Live CD and rescue your files without a sighted accomplice. Good luck!