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"Close your eyes" isn't the answer I'm looking for, but +1 to you if it was your first thought.

I'm putting together an awareness campaign called Browse Blind. The goals are to:

  • Help sighted people experience the Web as a visually impaired user for one day or more.
  • Show video footage of visually impaired users browsing popular sites such as Facebook.
  • Encourage webmasters to take a more active interest in making their sites accessible.
  • Demonstrate the features that make a site accessible, and those that impede accessibility.
  • Make the Web a better place.

The project came about after a health scare that resulted in three trips to a local eye hospital. My sight is OK now, but it struck me that, as much as web designers and developers wax lyrical about accessibility, very few seem to have used a screen reader for any length of time (myself included) or considered what their online experience would be like if they suddenly lost their sight. And not a single one of the 100 or so webmasters I've spoken to about accessibility have watched partially sighted users browse the Web. (It's one of the topics I always bring up at Web conferences.)

My questions are:

  1. What is the most common method of Web access (and the name of any related software) for partially sighted users?
  2. How can I simulate this method so that a non-technical sighted user on any desktop platform can browse the Web in the same way as a partially sighted person with minimal setup steps?

For question 2, I'd like to avoid recommending that people download and install a screen reader for their OS if I can, because I think doing so will drastically reduce the number of participants. So I'm looking for Web based simulators (and browser plugins if they exist).

If you know of a cross-platform screen reader that's easy to set up, then that might be an option too, as would step-by-step guides that turn a Mac or Windows OS and browser into 'accessible mode' without further software, as long as you're sure that this is a method that partially sighted computer users employ.

The closest in-browser screen reader emulator I've found so far is WebAnywhere. (Warning: audio plays as soon as you click that link.) It's technically very impressive, but it's a beta, and it doesn't yet appear to work reliably as a functional web browser. If there's nothing out there like this, that's fine as an answer too. (I'm prepared to build something that emulates the most common access methods, but I need to understand what those are first.)

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Your link to Browse Blind seems to be broken. –  Michael Hampton Apr 15 '13 at 18:01
    
@MichaelHampton Thanks, Michael. The project's not live yet; I've removed the link for now. –  Nick Apr 16 '13 at 12:38
    
Text-only browsers like Lynx are good approximations. Screen readers require a lot of familiarity and training, and a sighted person using one for one day won't really understand what it's like for a blind person to use one every day. –  Blazemonger Apr 16 '13 at 13:13

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Jaws is still the most popular screen reader. According to wikipedia other popular screen readers include Window-Eyes from GW Micro, Dolphin Supernova by Dolphin, System Access from Serotek, and ZoomText Magnifier/Reader from Ai Squared are prominent examples in the English-speaking market. Wikipedia does offer a list of screen readers if none of the above suit your needs.

If you want to simulate what a screen reader does, take a webpage and remove the JavaScript, CSS, and images. Display the ALT attributes of any images on the page. That's what a screen reader sees. Is the page easy to use? Does it make sense? Creating a tool that grabs pages off of the Web (you can either have pre-chosen ones that you know do poorly or very well or let the user grab any page they want) and show it without the JavaScript, CSS, and images. I bet webmasters testing out their sites will be quite surprised when they see that their site makes no sense when displayed this way.

A good thing you may want to point out is how ALT attributes are abused and stuffed with keywords. The side affect of this is screen readers see a bunch of unnecessary text that only confuses blind users. (And if it looks stupid to blind users then it looks stupid to search engines).

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Except that search engines aren't as smart? –  Kzqai Jun 6 '11 at 15:41
    
I don't know if that's entirely true. They can do some impressive things and keep on improving themselves over time. If they can spot poor content (panda update) then they probably can spot poor alt attribute contents. –  John Conde Jun 6 '11 at 15:43
    
Thanks for this answer, John. I'm now working my way through the screen readers you mentioned with a view to building an in-browser emulator. Good point about keyword stuffing too; have added to my 'bad practises' list. –  Nick Jun 7 '11 at 8:43

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