by Amy Mason
From the Editor: This is the second article in a series intended to help users of assistive technology learn to use and get the most out of the World Wide Web. Navigating the web is possible, productive, and enjoyable, but there are many parts to the puzzle, and this series of articles is intended to let readers examine each piece and decide how they will put together the system that gives them the access they desire to the vast resources of the internet. With her analytic mind, her vast knowledge of resources, and her command of language, here is what Amy Mason has to say:
Welcome back! It’s great to see you all again. In our last class we touched on the history of using the web, the terminology of web browsing today, and defined “accessibility” at least for the purposes of this series. If you missed our first session, it can be reviewed in the January 2018 Braille Monitor.
When people talk about using the internet, they are usually referring to accessing websites or web applications (programs that mimic software usually found on a local computer, but built to run remotely using the programming languages used on the internet). Each computer is built to understand several different programming languages, but each type of computer system (Mac, Windows, Android, iOS) is pretty exclusive about what they understand. Because the internet is built to allow all sorts of devices to share all the same information, it has been built with several languages of its own that are made to allow lots of machines to communicate freely. Our computers don’t understand these languages by default, so we need programs that can translate the shared languages of the web into information our computers can natively understand. That is the purpose of the browser.
In its role as a translator, the browser will read the information coded onto web pages and other internet resources and rephrase that information so our computers can understand and present it to us as readable text, images, videos, and controls. The W3C (the folks who built the technical accessibility standards we discussed last month) and other governing bodies have created guidelines for the language of the web. They have created rules for how things should be written and what the browser should do to appropriately translate that information. However, browsers do not all follow the guidelines perfectly, and even when they do, they tend to do so in their own way with their own unique voice, (think of it as an accent, or a regional dialect). They make sure that we can all basically understand the language of the web, but each browser does so in its own way. Returning this to our driving analogy, each browser is like a vehicle. They can all be used on the road, but each one will take curves differently, handle differently, and provide a slightly different driving experience. Once you’ve learned one, they all work similarly, but each has its own quirks you must understand to get the most out of them and even to “drive safely.”
As blind computer users it’s important to think through our browser options and be open to using more than one. There are three major reasons for this. First, we are adding an extra layer of “translation” in the form of screen readers, to access information that the computer is representing. We will discuss this layer in more detail later, but suffice to say that each layer plays its part in our ability to understand and access information. The web page is the road, the browser is the car, and the screen reader is the blind driver interface. For the best driving experience, the road must be smooth and well maintained, the car needs to be in good working order, and our blind driving interface needs to be receiving and passing on all the information provided by both the road and our vehicle. Therefore, we want to find the car that will handle best for the type of road we are driving on and will speak most clearly with our information gathering tools. Sometimes the ways these vehicles/browsers handle will affect our ability to access different sites so greatly that they can make the difference between a usable and functionally accessible page or even determine whether we can access some pages at all.
Furthermore, as we also discussed earlier, there are dangers to be found on the road. Not all roadside attractions are what they seem. Some are fun and diverting, others a little seedy, but if you are careful you’ll be ok, while still others… ideally your car is fast, and has good automatic locks. Otherwise, you may find that it, and your luggage (personal information, computer files, etc.…) could be hijacked. For these reasons it is important to use an up-to-date and modern browser. They contain fixes for known security flaws and provide you with an additional layer of safety over older models.
Finally, Henry Ford once said of his Model T, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” Despite this early pronouncement, today we can customize our vehicles in nearly endless ways. Browsers are the same. Early browsers didn’t offer much in the way of personalization, but today most offer the user a great scope for customization, which we can use to make our lives easier on the net. As a more advanced topic we will cover customizations later, but it’s useful to know that some options are tailored to the tinkerer, and that even modest customization can improve your experience immensely.
As we discussed above, browsers all do approximately the same job but offer different advantages and disadvantages for the intrepid internet traveler. Therefore, the rest of this article will focus on comparing the different options available and providing some context on which of the browsers are likely to provide you with the best experience.
Operating Systems Supported: Windows Only
Screen Readers Supported: JAWS/NVDA/Narrator
Obtained from: Included with Windows Installation. Default browser on all versions prior to Windows 10
In the song, “Classified,” C.W. McCall tells an (amusing) story of his purchase of an unforgettable vehicle. Here’s how he describes it:
And settin' right there in a pool of grease was a half-ton Chevy pickup truck with a 1960 license plate, a bumper sticker says, “Vote for Dick” and Brillo box full of rusty parts, … Well, I kicked the tires and I got in the seat and set on a petrified apple core and found a bunch of field mice livin' in the glove compartment. He says, ‘Her shaft is bent and her rear end leaks, you can fix her quick with an oily rag. Use a nail as a starter; I lost the key. Don't pay no mind to that whirrin' sound. She use a little oil, but outside a' that, she's cherry.’
As the song concludes we see our intrepid hero taking life and limb into his own hands to get this relic out of the farmyard and down the road. Sadly, our reliable old friend, Internet Explorer, has come to resemble this pickup truck. Once upon a time it did most of our heavy lifting on the net. It was never fast, but by brute force and persistence we were able to use it to get an awful lot of work done. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of other accessible options, so we put a lot of miles in on IE.
For this reason, many blind people continue to use Internet Explorer as their primary, or even only browser. It’s comfortable and familiar. We know all the quirks and lots of little secrets to keep it rolling another couple of miles, but it’s just not fit for the road any longer, and we really need to be looking to retire it.
Microsoft has stopped active development of Internet Explorer. So new features of websites aren’t well supported (when they are supported at all). This includes accessibility features. New websites increasingly rely on behavior that we can’t get out of IE, so our screen readers aren’t provided with the information we need to review them. Beyond this, it’s just not very stable on Windows 10 and tends to hang with alarming frequency.
Long story short, the only features of IE that Microsoft is putting any energy into at all are security patches, and even that will come to an end in the next five years or so. You don’t want to still be reliant on it when that day comes.
As such, it is my strong recommendation that you consider one or more of the other browsers on this list as your primary, and only use IE as a last resort.
Operating Systems Supported: Windows/Android/iOS
Mac OSX support is available, but very poor for VoiceOver users. Best to find a different option on the Mac.
Screen Readers Supported: JAWS/NVDA/Narrator/TalkBack/VoiceOver (iOS)
At the time of this writing, recent updates to the underlying engine in Firefox have temporarily degraded support for Windows screen reader users. If Firefox is your preferred browser, you may wish to use the extended support version of the software for best results. This version will not be updated with new features as regularly as the primary version of Firefox, but it will receive security updates. The download page notes that it is intended for large organizations; however, individuals are also able to download and use the software for their own purposes.
Obtained from: Current https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/new/ Extended Support: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/organizations/all/
Honestly, I don’t know that much about cars, so I can’t say what exactly we should be comparing Firefox to, but it exists. There are some cars that are known for not what they are, but what they can be. Firefox is the browser equivalent.
A fresh install is… fine. It will competently get you where you are going. It is engineered to be reliable, if not overly fast, secure, and very good at following web standards. As it has offered real, robust accessibility support for quite some time, many blind folks have chosen to make it their primary or secondary browser.
Firefox is an open source project from the Mozilla Foundation. Its goals are largely to play nice with standards bodies and other open source projects. As such, it works especially well when paired with NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access), and Mozilla has even provided direct support to NV Access to continue active development.
Furthermore, it is widely supported across different operating systems, and it is possible to sync bookmarks, autofill, and tabs across Firefox installs on multiple devices. If you use several machines, these features may be of interest.
If this is where your interest ends, Firefox will serve you perfectly well, but you can take it quite a bit further. Many users choose to install extensions and custom elements which will extend the Firefox experience far beyond that which is available in a fresh download. We will come back to these customizations in a later article, but for now, know that it is possible to make some extreme changes to the way this browser works. In fact, more than a thousand of the supported extensions mention “accessibility.” I can’t promise the quality of any of those extensions, but at least a few are bound to be helpful. As such, if you like to play, it may be the right choice for you.
Even if you don’t like to play, Firefox may be a solid choice since it is overall well supported across multiple screen readers, websites and devices. Unless you are running a Mac, Firefox would be one of my top picks for a safe and reliable primary browser.
Operating Systems Supported: Windows/Android/iOS/Mac
Screen Readers Supported: JAWS/NVDA/Narrator/TalkBack/VoiceOver (both iOS and OSX)
Obtained from: Included as default browser on Android. Otherwise can be downloaded from https://www.google.com/chrome/browser/desktop/index.html
Chrome is that browser that everybody seems to have and use. It’s reliable, easy to come by, and can provide a very nice experience. It’s relatively fast, secure, and available on just about every computing device out there. The Toyota Prius is that car that tons of people have for pretty much all the same reasons… except for its cross-platform compatibility. (Strangely enough, most people don’t care if their Prius works with Windows.)
Tons of people have it just because it’s better than the default browser their system came with, and that’s good enough for them. Many others have it because it is created by Google, and that’s a name they have come to know and trust.
Its support for screen readers (particularly on Windows) is a more recent development than with Firefox, so there may be occasional hiccups you will notice if using this browser that you won’t find in others. But on the flip side, there are times things work better here as well.
Like the Prius and Firefox, there are lots of ways to take your browsing experience with Chrome a bit further, though the out-of-the-box experience is perfectly adequate for many users, so you can decide just how much customization is right for you. Extensions are available to add all sorts of features to the browser, including some which promise accessibility enhancements. Furthermore, as a truly cross-platform option, with very tight integration into Google’s ecosystem, it can make traveling from one computer to another very easy. Like Firefox, Chrome allows for syncing of bookmarks and autofill information. In addition, many extensions will carry across when you are signed into the browser, so when you get things just the way you like them, you can carry the experience across to all your other machines. Chrome even allows you to set up your own custom keyboard commands, so if you want to take the time, you can get it feeling just right. Even if you don’t, you should find it will adequately meet many of your needs.
I want to point out a couple of technical notes which may be helpful as you consider your browsing strategy. First, Chrome can be a bit of a resource hog because of how it keeps track of the different tabs you keep open. Each one is given its own separate chunk of memory to run in. Sadly, this means some resources end up being wasted because each tab needs things that on other browsers might be shared. But on the up side, it also means that if things go sideways in one tab, you can just close it and not affect the others you have open in the browser. Second, Chrome is the only viable third-party browser for the Mac. As we’ve discussed, it’s always good practice as a blind user to have a couple of options available, so you will probably want this if you use OSX.
Overall, like Firefox, I would argue that Chrome is a keeper. Most people will find that one or the other suits them a bit better, and either can be a solid choice, so give them both a test drive and see what you think.
Operating Systems Supported: iOS/Mac
Screen Readers Supported: VoiceOver (both iOS and OSX)
Obtained from: Default browser on Apple products. Installed by default on both iOS and OSX (Mac) devices.
Safari, like Internet Explorer, is an exclusive. Unlike Internet Explorer, it is still being actively maintained and improved. If you are a heavy Mac or iOS user, you are probably already familiar with this browser. It’s what your device comes with out of the box, and for the most part, so long as you play by Apple’s rules, it works fairly well.
That’s really the main point when it comes to Safari. Apple devices, like BMWs, are something of a “lifestyle” product. An iOS device, or a Mac, are meant to be as much a fashion statement as a computing device, and as such, there is a certain expected way that things will behave.
The consistency born of this tight design control is part of why so many blind people love their iPhones, and more than a few would fight anyone who tried to pry their Macs out of their hands. The predictability born of this high level of control has made for an environment where accessible software can be tightly integrated with a screen reader (VoiceOver) to very powerful effect. The BMW Mini feels very similar. It has some unique advantages and is pretty iconic, but the moment you want to start doing things in a way the creator didn’t intend, things get much trickier. For example, the Mini Cooper is known for its handling; in part, this is because the company requires special nitrogen filled tires. Mac and iOS are known for extremely tight integration, but you must use their browser and follow lots of other rules to get the best effect.
There are a few extensions available for Safari, though the list is much shorter than for Chrome or Firefox. Like those browsers, it is possible to sync autofill data and bookmarks between Apple devices, but Apple takes this one step further. When using Safari on an iOS or Mac system, you can send the page you are reviewing to another device. Therefore, you can start an article on your Mac, realize that you need to leave, and send that page to your phone to continue reading on the bus. The other unique Safari feature is the inclusion of a native “reader” mode. In this mode, the page is simplified and restructured so that only the article is present on a page, while all the noisy “clutter” of ads, comment sections, and navigation are removed.
One technical note to keep in mind for Safari is that, for best results as a VoiceOver user on the Mac, you might find it beneficial to enable full keyboard accessibility. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, some items that should normally receive keyboard focus when tabbing do not in a default installation; as heavy keyboard users, we probably are going to want to rectify that issue.
Otherwise, if you are already invested in Apple’s ecosystem on Mac or iOS, Safari will do most of what you need on the web and can even provide some useful additional features so long as you like the way that Apple does things.
Operating Systems Supported: Windows 10 only
Screen Readers Supported: Best support with Narrator. Partial support with very recent versions of JAWS and NVDA
Obtained from: Default browser on Windows 10
This brings us to the final browser in our lineup today. Microsoft is not simply retiring Internet Explorer. Instead, they are working to replace it with a new browser: Edge.
Edge is… interesting. It’s built to be fast, light, and clean, but nobody really cares. Very few people use it, and for our purposes, there are still some real disadvantages when compared to other browsers. In many ways, it is like the Tesla. It is intended to be the “future,” and there has been quite a lot of work put into its appearance and performance. But something is still not quite right for mass appeal. Tesla and other electric cars just haven’t been perfected yet. They take a long time to recharge, so unlike fueling up, a pit stop on the highway is going to require an actual time investment. This will affect what you are able to do with the car. Much in the same way, Edge is on an experimental platform. This means that things don’t work the same, and we face real tradeoffs in the way that features behave. There are even problems in speed and responsiveness given the current interaction with screen-reading software.
It’s only available for Windows 10, which further shrinks market share. With Firefox and Chrome readily available on the same platform, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever claim the dominance once held by Internet Explorer over the browsing experience on Windows.
Edge is likely to improve. Microsoft is dedicated to improving the compatibility between it and screen readers. They want it to be adopted, but even they know there is still more to do. We don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the future of browsing with this application, so it’s out there and available to try if you are feeling adventurous, though I wouldn’t expect to count on it for now. NVDA and JAWS support are both improving, but neither are as robust as they are on other browsers, (including IE) which makes it an awfully hard sell right now.
In short, play with it if you like; the experimental nature of the browser may provide you with access to things you couldn’t use in the past, but I’d keep something more reliable in the garage just in case.
I mentioned at the beginning of this series that we were going to driving school, didn’t I? Well, you know how school is… you can almost never escape a bit of homework. In that spirit, I invite you to pick a different browser than you’ve been using from the list, and give it a spin for a couple of days. If you already are using these browsers… what are you doing throwing spitballs in the back of the classroom? Get up here and help me teach this stuff! We blind users who are comfortable with technology are in the best position to educate developers and other blind people on what good access looks like for blind people and how to make the most of these tools.
If you want to learn more about which browser may best suit you or you have other general access technology questions, feel free to contact the Access Technology Answer Line at (410) 659-9314, option 5, or email us at [email protected]. We want to help empower you to live the life you want by helping you understand the accessible technology available now.