Braille Monitor                                     May 2017

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How Do You Work This Thing?

by David Andrews

From the Editor: One of the tools most helpful to me in editing the Braille Monitor is the World Wide Web. My searches usually begin with Google and end by navigating some webpage to which it directs me. I am surprised by how often I am asked for some tidbit of information by people who don’t think I will know it off the top of my head but who believe that I have the capacity to find it for them. In their mind the key is that I know how to use the computer, and although many of them own one, they do not know how to benefit from a search engine or to navigate the webpage to which it will take them.

As a person who has worked with a lot of blind people in his career, David Andrews has a good grasp of what lots of blind folks understand and knows how to make them more independent. Here is what he has to say about the basics of navigating the World Wide Web and gaining the freedom that so many sighted people take for granted:

When we look back at this era, it will probably be remembered as the time of “the Cloud.” What is the Cloud, you ask? Well, basically, the Cloud is a place and way of doing things on the internet. Applications and data are stored on servers which are reached using the internet and a browser. This makes it easy for a company to update an application because they just have to do it in one place, not on individual computers or servers scattered around the world.

Consequently, we are using browsers like Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple Safari to do more and more things. I order my groceries online, get taxis, use Facebook, read Gmail, etc. At work I use a browser to enter my time sheet, to approve time and expenses for employees I supervise, to recruit and hire people, and to do my taxes and banking online as well.

Consequently, it is necessary to use and learn new websites on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many blind and visually impaired computer users are not taught how to explore new websites; they are only taught how to do very specific tasks on the web. A number of years ago at a technology conference I saw a presentation from Fidelity, the mutual fund folks. They observed blind computer users and categorized their techniques for using unfamiliar sites. One of the things they said that stuck with me was that most people just know one or two commands in their browser, and they keep using them whether or not they work.

I am going to give you several techniques or strategies for exploring, learning, and navigating a new website. They will not be screen-reader-specific, that is, I am not going to list commands for JAWS or VoiceOver, but most screen readers have the same basic set of functions, and you can look up the specific commands for your particular screen-reading program.

Screen readers put a web page into a virtual buffer which allows you to freely explore it like a word processing document. If you have the time, it is generally beneficial to fully explore a new website’s home page, use your arrow keys or read all commands to explore the complete page. In this way you know what is there and have an idea where things are located.

There are a number of strategies that can be used to explore a page in addition to reading the whole thing. You can tab through the page, going from link to link. This can be a relatively quick way to see what is there, but it doesn’t give you a lot of context. A related strategy is to use a “links list.” For some reason, for a period of time many JAWS users were taught to do this, no matter what. Personally I think this strategy is only good for sites with which you are familiar. A Links List, with first letter navigation, can be quick, but is of little help unless you know the site.

Depending on your screen reader, there may also be commands to get lists of forms, tables, frames, or headings. Here again, these commands can be useful or of no help depending on your knowledge of the site and what you are trying to accomplish. Your screen reader may have commands to get other kinds of element lists as well.

Probably the most popular means of navigation and exploration besides the arrow keys is the use of headings. A heading can be made to visually emphasize something, like the beginning of a section. Headings can also be thought of as parts of an outline. There can be headings from level one through level six. A given site will only use the levels it needs, depending on its structure and organization. Headings are ideally hierarchical, that is like an outline. You have a level one heading, then one or more level two headings below that. Below each level two heading there may be additional levels. Think of it as an outline, a way to organize content. If you read DAISY books, like those from NLS, you are familiar with the concept of headings.

Good web practice says that there should be only one level one heading per page. Most sites follow this, although there is nothing preventing the use of multiple-heading level ones. The use of just one is most common, and it is generally at the top or the beginning of the content of a site. Below it will be other headings as needed. Most screen readers have commands to go to specific levels of headings and to skip from heading to heading. If a site has headings and uses them well, this is a quick way to get an idea of what is there, as well as to navigate around the site. However, not all sites use headings or use them correctly.

An increasingly popular way of orientation and navigation is the use of landmarks or regions. A landmark denotes a part of the page and is used for things like banners, navigation, main content, and footers. Most screen readers have a command to jump from landmark to landmark if they are present. This is a quick way to make big jumps to different parts of a site.

Many sites also have a “skip to content” link near the top. This may or may not be hidden from visual users and only available to screen-reader users. It is a quick way to get to the guts of a site. They can be useful but don’t always work correctly. Some screen readers also may have a command to jump to the beginning of a site’s content, but here again, they don’t always work as intended.

The Find command can also be very useful. You can search for a keyword on the site. It may be something you know is there or something you suspect is there and want to locate. Find will quickly get you to the right place.

Safari and Firefox have a “reader button” or “reader mode” on some sites. This is a button or icon that appears near the top and that skips all the header information at the top of the page and jumps to the content. The feature in Safari is available on both the Mac and on i-devices. It isn’t available for all sites but can be useful when present.

Screen readers also have commands to move to different kinds of elements on a web page such as edit boxes, forms, checkboxes, buttons, etc. Knowing these commands and using them to explore and/or navigate through a page can be very useful.

One peculiarity that crops up from time to time is links that the screen reader doesn’t identify as links. This situation depends on the screen reader/browser combination and the tools used to author the website. Sometimes you will be reviewing a page, and you will hear phrases that sound like they might be links or buttons and from their context seem like they should be, but your screen reader isn’t saying “link” or “button.” They may in fact be links or buttons; it won’t hurt anything to move to one and hit enter to see if it does something.

If things don’t work as you would like, you may want to try a different screen-reading program. Some people use NVDA, Nonvisual Desktop Access for this purpose. Also, with Window-Eyes now being free to Microsoft Office for Windows users, a second or third screen reader is available to nearly everybody. It can sometimes work to try a different browser as well.

You might not use all of these strategies on a new website, but it is useful to have as many tools as possible in your toolbox. That way you will have a wide variety of strategies which you can use to master a new website.

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